The Curse of the Grammar Checker–and How to Avoid It

I was just re-reading one of my favorite books on grammar, punctuation, and style: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If you ever want to learn about great writing–clear, concise, interesting, and accurate–then this slim book (less than 100 pages) is the one to read.

Why should you care? Because clear, concise, and interesting writing engages customers, prevents confusion, and reinforces your professionalism.

And guess what: online grammar checkers (including Word and Grammerly) will foul up your sentences every time. Here are the major problems to look out for:

  1. Online grammar checkers overuse capital letters. In fact, Word believes that any phrase with “company” in it must be capitalized. So if you write, “Our insurance company is known for its integrity,” Word will advise you to write, “Our Insurance Company is know for its integrity.” Overused capital letters become annoying and lose their impact: think “Dick and Jane ran after the Cat. See the Cat run!” Save capitals for proper names (Alpha Beta Chi Company) and acronyms (ABC Company).
  2. Online grammar checkers mistakenly believe that any sentence with a “how,” “who,” or “what” in it is a question. But this sentence, for example, is not a question: “What you know is more important than who you know.”
  3. Online grammar checkers regularly violate agreement between subject and verb because they struggle with complex sentences. The rule is that a plural subject takes a plural verb; a singular subject takes a singular verb.
  4. Online grammar checkers fail to realize that people are not things. They will tell you to change “who” to “that” or will accept “that” in sentences like the following: “Do you know someone that is interested in marketing?” The word “that” is wrong: “that” refers to things; “who” refers to people.

If your grammar checker is leading you astray, please contact me. I’ll be glad to help.