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THE WORD

Finding the grammar checker's frailities

READER JOHN S. ALLEN e-mailed last week about an argument he was having with his Microsoft Word grammar checker. He wanted the clause he was translating to read, "the majority of bicycle crashes on streets with sidepaths occurs at intersections," with majority as the (singular) subject: the majority occurs.

The grammar checker -- let's call it G.C. -- disagreed. It wanted "the majority of crashes occur." And Allen wondered whether G.C. was misreading one of the nearer nouns -- streets or sidepaths -- as the (plural) subject of the sentence.

In fact, there was a simpler answer: G.C. was right. Majority can be singular, but when it's followed by a plural noun -- The majority of dog owners support the rule, meaning each supports it individually -- the verb is normally plural.

This was my first close encounter with my grammar checker -- I've never used one, nor heard anyone recommend it -- but its performance made me wonder: Maybe they've gotten smarter over the years? As long as I had let the genie (in the guise of the recently retired Clippy, the hideous animated paper clip) out of its bottle, I thought I would ask it some questions.

It didn't take long to find its frailties.

Yes, it correctly specified the plural verb in The majority of crashes occur at intersections. But vary the sentence ever so slightly, by starting with A majority, and G.C. no longer knows what it thinks. A majority of crashes occurs? Fine, it said. A majority occur? Sure, whatever.

But maybe that was a fluke. Surely G.C. could handle the most common pet peeves in the usage book; I asked it for guidelines on less vs. fewer.

G.C., it turns out, is not as strict as the purest purists on limiting less to non-countables. It was perfectly indifferent to the supermarket-signage question, allowing both 10 items or less and 10 items or fewer. It was sharper at the single-noun level, rejecting I ate less oranges than she did. But its menu is limited: Try I ate less broccoli, and it suggests you change it to fewer broccolis. (Thanks, but no thanks.)

OK, how about which vs. that? Some teachers and editors, perhaps including yours, think that only that should be used in a restrictive clause: The rules that (never which) he follows are rigid. William Strunk, by the way, neither obeyed nor endorsed this rule -- it was imposed on him, posthumously, by E.B. White -- and the Brits ignore it. But if you should need it, will G.C. help you out?

Again, only sometimes, and in mysterious ways. It won't let you say, for instance, I have a dog which won't hunt. But try it on a longer sentence, like this example from the American Heritage usage guide (which is relaxed about restrictive which): I need a book which will tell me all about city gardening.

Now G.C. is confused. It thinks the sentence is fine. But if you remove the word city, suddenly G.C. sees an "error" and suggests changing which to that. If you delete the word all, however, G.C. doesn't notice anything. Curiouser and curiouser.

How about hopefully as a sentence adverb? G.C. won't let you start a sentence with it -- it flags the capitalized word -- but if you bury it inside, it's invisible to G.C.'s radar: It's raining, but hopefully it will clear up raises no alarms. (Your results may vary: Changing the surrounding sentences can alert G.C. to a problem it hadn't noticed before.)

It's not that I expected much from G.C. Writers have been dissing grammar checkers for a couple of decades; The Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows once told a reporter he had never accepted a tip from his Word G.C.

And linguist Geoff Nunberg, in a 1998 article, noted that grammar checkers were not only blind to many real errors, but too alert to bogus ones. Software designers didn't much care which rules were valid, he said, and into their products went "the split infinitive, along with all the other schoolroom fetishes that have been giving grammar a bad name for centuries."

In my G.C., those fetishes include an aversion to angry at (it wants angry with), a phobia about sentence fragments, and a distaste for awfully. It doesn't want me to say so, since pretty is a "vague" adverb, but its judgments can be pretty wacky.

It's true that you can "customize" G.C. by turning off categories you don't need (or don't agree with). But when you can brush up your English by reading a good book, why would you spend any time tweaking a half-witted grammar coach?

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

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