Microsoft's editing tools still fall behind old fashion copy editors

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This spring, Microsoft released its list of the top 10 grammar mistakes in the English language. The flubs, culled from the editing tools in the company’s software, were reported in an article at Business Insider.

I’ve been saying for a while that it’s just a matter of time until copy editors are replaced by software that catches mistakes better than we can and them tell you about them in Scarlett Johansson’s voice. But if Microsoft’s latest insights are any indication, that won’t happen anytime soon.

Microsoft’s No. 1 most common grammar mistake is putting an extra space between words. Not between sentences (which is a no-no in professional publishing), but between words: “To the left.”

Well, that’s not a grammar mistake. But it is a common mistake and it is easier for a computer to catch it. So I suppose Editor Bot of Tomorrow has me beat there.

The second-most-common grammar error Microsoft reports is a missing comma. That’s really a punctuation error. But sure, we can call it a grammar mistake if we want. Here’s the example cited from Microsoft: “If the weather remains the same we’ll leave early.” I agree that sentence would be better with a comma after “same.” The rule is that a subordinate clause should be separated from the main clause with a comma when doing so makes the meaning clearer. But “clearer” is left to interpretation. Plus, the rules say that when an “if” clause is short you can skip the comma: “If you want me I’ll be in my room.” So for two reasons, doesn’t qualify as a grammar error.

Microsoft’s grammar error No. 3: missing comma after an introductory phrase. Sounds a lot like error No. 2, I know. But that was an introductory clause. Apparently, Microsoft believes missing commas before introductory matter are so serious that they deserve two slots on the top 10 list. Here’s their example. “First of all we must make sure the power is off.” Yes, a comma would work nicely after “all.” But it’s not required. The same flexible rule applies: Use the comma when it helps. The shorter the introductory phrase, the less necessary the comma may be. Delete “of all” from that example sentence and you’ll see what I mean.

On to the fourth mistake: missing hyphen, which is another punctuation error. Their example: “my 3 year old son.” Yes, you should hyphenate 3-year-old because it’s all one big adjective modifying the noun “son.” But that’s a bad example of why hyphens are important. In many cases, hyphens can affect reader comprehension, as we see when we compare “a woman eating lobster” to “a woman-eating lobster.”

Error 5: Incorrect subject-verb agreement as in “the cats eats.” At last we have a real grammar problem. Verbs should match subjects in number, so that should be “the cats eat.” But subject-verb agreement errors aren’t usually that obvious. They often occur in long, convoluted sentences where it’s easy to lose track of which word is the subject. And guess who’s not so great at catching real-world subject-verb agreement errors. Microsoft Word. Nearly every day I fix agreement errors that Word missed. To see Word’s inadequacy in action, type: “The entire menu of cheeses, fruits, meats and breads are very tempting.” Microsoft doesn’t flag the error. It should be “is very tempting,” not “are.”

The other errors rounding out the top 10 list include incorrect capitalization, “It’s cold, But we are going out”; possessives errors like “My sisters car is old”; commonly confused words as in “After all this running, I am out of breathe”; and wrong past participles like “I had ate” as opposed to “I had eaten.”

Obviously, I’m biased. I don’t want to be replaced by a sultry machine. And I’ll confess that Microsoft Word sometimes helps me spot errors I would have missed. But the software misses plenty of mistakes, too. For example, there should be no comma in “a bright, red hat.” Microsoft doesn’t know that.

For now, we copy editors are still better at catching grammar mistakes.

-- June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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