Avoid the straitjacket of grammar checkers

Feb. 14, 2017 | by Ken Walker

Three years ago, after joining a professional editors’ group and surveying exchanges in daily online postings, I realized I needed to enhance my knowledge of grammar and style rules and the infinitesimal number of wrinkles that govern the proper preparation of manuscripts.

That meant acquiring three new style guides and taking an online subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style, the “Bible” of book editing. Even with all these things in place, it seems every project I tackle prompts new questions. An example is the author whose book I edited recently; she used capital letters for the first letter of her first and last name in her self-named website address.

While I left those alone as a matter of author preference, in an appendix I lower-cased them and all the other long list of website references she had listed. She had put capital letters on some self-named websites in the appendix, but not on others. To be consistent, and to use the form that characterizes online listings, I decided lower-case was the way to go.

Nuanced situation

The reason I mention this is because it illustrates the extremely nuanced situations that govern writing—nuances that computer programs often miss or bungle. For example, Word’s grammar checker places a comma after “so” whenever that word starts a sentence. That isn’t necessarily the way to go. The only way to know is to read the sentence out loud and gauge whether you want the pause in that particular place.

The same is true of other usage. I once started a sentence: “At the same time I was writing articles...” In running spell (and grammar) check, Word popped up with a “comma after time” dictate, but I didn’t want a comma there. It would have interrupted the flow of the thought I meant to convey. Thus, I ignored it.

In various Linked In forums, I see questions posted regularly about such wrinkles and whether a writer should make a particular change because a spelling or grammar checker said to do “thus and so” (and “thus and so” is not correct).

Highly personal endeavor

Increasing the level of book editing and ghosting projects I have handled has heightened my sensitivity to the highly personal nature of writing. Should personal pronouns for deity be capitalized? Some publishers say yes, some say no, and others defer to the author’s preference.

Personally, I think capitalizing them is wise, because then a reader knows when you say, “The moment He spoke to her,” it’s clear that the He is God, not a friend sitting beside her. But my preference isn’t the issue; it’s what the publisher (or author) wants that makes the difference.

Last year, I heard a news story on NPR that mentioned a computer program scientists had developed that could cover a ball game and spit out a story about it faster than a reporter who had covered the game in person. It hinted that such artificial intelligence represented the wave of the future.

The infinite Creator

I’m not concerned by such possibilities. One reason is the infinite variety, thought patterns, emotions and unique wrinkles God created in each of us.

One reason children can be so frustrating is they never act like you think they will—or should. Yet they also have the potential to stir love and emotions within your heart that you never knew were possible.

So can the books and articles we think of as our kids. Since I never know how a piece of writing will culminate when I start it, I don’t think a computer can predict that either.

Topics: Commentary, Leadership, Ministry, Teaching Resources, Vision

Ken Walker

An experienced freelance writer, co-author and book editor, Ken Walker edits blogs for several contributors to Church Central and has coached various bloggers for the site. A member of the Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network), he has co-authored, edited or contributed to more than 50 books. You can see samples of his work or ask about his services as a writing coach by going to http://www.KenWalkerWriter.com or by e-mailing kenwalker33@gmail.com.


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