The ethics of grammar checkers?

Sandeep Krishnamurthy, associate professor of marketing and e-commerce at the University of Washington, has written a withering critique of the Word grammar checker as a student proofing aid:

I knew Microsoft Word’s “Spelling and Grammar Check” feature was bad.  However, I never realized how bad this feature really was until a student turned in a poorly written report that was “spellchecked” and “grammarchecked”.  I have since tested this feature out hundreds of times.  My conclusion is that the “Spelling and Grammar Check” feature on Microsoft Word is extraordinarily bad (especially the Grammar check part).  It is so bad that I am surprised that it is even being offered and I question the ethics of including a feature that is this bad on a product that is so widely used.

Apparently MS has retorted in a subscription-only publication that the checker is designed “to catch the kinds of errors that ordinary users make in normal writing situations.” Seems to me that any ethically coherent training of students to use writing tools should include a discussion of what a grammar checker can and cannot do. There’s plenty of material on which to show where and when a checker is handy aid rather than an accomplished sub-editor. But a bored student in a hurry will always use anything that seems to offer a necessary minimum of quality. Methinks Sandeep doth protest too much. 

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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