A Demonstration of the Futility of Using Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check {scroll down for FAQ and other goodies}

Sandeep Krishnamurthy, {sandeep} [at] {u} [dot] {washington} [dot] {edu}, http://faculty.washington.edu/sandeep, http://sandeepworld.blogspot.com

Welcome, Seattle P-I readers.  {see story}  Welcome, Slashdotters. {see thread}  Welcome, MSNBC readers. {see story} Welcome, Chronicle readers.



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.   


A Colleague Observes- I have always found it interesting that the message we receive after the spelling and grammar are checked reads: “The spelling and grammar check is complete”.  To me these are two different types of checking and in my opinion the message should read  "the spelling and grammar checks are complete." [Thanks, Neosha Mackey]


Show me the Demos

Download these files and run “Spelling and Grammar Check” on your word processing software.  If you have your own examples, please e-mail me.  I will add them here.

Demofile.doc [This works for Microsoft Word 2002.] 

Demofile2.doc  [This works for Microsoft Word 2003, Word for Mac.]

Original demo  [This is a shorter version.  It is in text format. Copy and paste to your word processing software and run “Spelling and Grammar Check”.]

ESL examples [Taken from http://writing.colostate.edu/wcenter/wchandbook.htm]

Gag e-mail from friend [My friend, Ron Tilden, sent me this gag e-mail after I sent out the original demo.  It goes through fine.]

Contribution from reader (Jim Whiting)

Happy Birthday Wishes (Thanks, Gael Cooper, Professor of Public Relations, University of Southern Indiana)

NEW- Gag Letter to Students (Thanks, Karen Watson, TAFESA, South Australia)

E-mail from Japan (Thanks, SB)

Sample from Slashdot thread [A colleague ran this on Word 97 and reports that it catches many of these errors.  Thanks, Sonia Jaffe Robbins.]

Who what where [Thanks, Christopher Thomas.]

1 liner- Type in “How was your son’s wedding?” into a Word 2003 document.  The Grammarcheck suggests “How your son was's wedding?” [Thanks, Georges Merceron]
Word does not detect inappropriate use of “ands” (i.e., plural of “and”) [Thanks, Michael Leddy]


How About False Positives?

Some of my colleagues have pointed out that GrammarCheck frequently flags perfectly good grammar as bad (i.e., the “false positive” problem).  I think this is certainly something worth pursuing and if you could send me samples I will add them here.  I have not focused on this since I consider this to be a problem faced by good writers.


The Wrong Initialization Problem[Others have pointed this out- notably, Daniel Kies]

Sometimes, GrammarCheck does not detect any errors with a document.  However, if you copy and paste the text into a new file, it flags several errors.  Daniel tells me that this problem started after Office 97.


Scholarly Work on this Topic


NEW- Customizing Word’s Grammar Check (Thanks- C.Clark Helms and Cecelia Munzenmaier from Hamilton College)


McGee, Tim and Patricia Ericsson (2002), “The Politics Of The Program: MS Word As The Invisible Grammarian”, Computers and Composition, 19, 453–470.


Burston, Jack, “A Comparative Evaluation Of French Grammar Checkers”, Calico Journal, 13(2 &3), 104-111, Available at- http://calico.org/journalarticles/Volume13/vol13-2and3/Burston.pdf. 


Garfinkel, R, Fernandez, and Gopal, R. D.(2003), "Design of an Interactive Spell Checker: Optimizing the List of Offered Words," Decision Support Systems,

pp. 385-397, Vol. 35.


Kies, Daniel, “Evaluating Grammar Checkers”, Available at- http://papyr.com/hypertextbooks/engl_126/gramchek.htm.


Robbins, Sonia Jaffee, “Why Not Use the Spellchecker?”, Available at- http://www.nyu.edu/classes/copyXediting/spellcheck.html [This is based on Word 95.]




NEW- Cartoon summarizing apostrophe-related angst. 

NEW- Hate Mail

I have kept the hate mail that has resulted from this page to myself.  I now feel that I should share one of these messages with the community surrounding this page to see how some people think. 



Who are you?

My name is Sandeep Krishnamurthy.  I teach at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.  My office is about 10 miles away from Redmond, WA.  This is how you say my name- Sandeep Krishnamurthy.  


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But, Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check works reasonably well for me. What’s the problem? 

As a result of my testing, I am convinced that this feature works well for good writers and not for bad ones.  Good writers follow most of the rules and this feature can help them on the margins.  If you are a bad writer with a poor understanding of the rules, this feature will not help you at all.  This is, clearly, a problem.  The feature does not help those who can most benefit from it.


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Are you Microsoft bashing?


No.  I am not.  Competing products do not seem to do much better.  WordPerfect, for instance, catches one sentence in the original demo- but does not offer a better alternative.  My hope is that this exercise will convince Microsoft to invest money in improving this feature.  I believe Microsoft has the ability to improve this feature and I hope it exercises it.  In fact, I hope everybody (including OpenOffice) works on improving Grammar checks.


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Shouldn’t you be sharing this with educators?


I already have shared it with some colleagues.  My hope is that you can help me disseminate this to a wide audience.  I am especially concerned about children in K-12 settings using this feature instead of learning the basics of grammar.  This is what a few of my colleagues had to say-


“This is shocking.”


“I used MS Word 2000.  I thought that the grammar check would surely catch something.  It did not!  Amazing.  You should send this to MS, Gates, and CNN!”


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How did you test this?


I used Microsoft Word 2002 SP3 to run the Spelling and Grammar check on Demofile.doc.  I used Microsoft Word 2003 (11.6113.5703) [Part of Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003] to check Demofile2.doc.  Try running it on other programs in other computing environments.  The files were tested in two ways (opening the file and copying and pasting the text into a new document).  I did this because of a problem with the way this feature works.  I was alerted to this by a wise friend in an e-mail-


“I tried grammar-checking your demofile.doc file in Microsoft Word on my Mac this evening. Something interesting happened.  First, I downloaded the file and opened it in Word for Mac. It didn't detect any grammar problem, just as you would expect.  Then, however, I remembered something: If the user chooses to ignore detected mistakes when first running spellcheck and grammarcheck on a Word file, the spellcheck/grammarcheck doesn't detect those mistakes when the user runs the tool a second time. It assumes the user wanted to ignore them. I wondered if that was happening with your test file. Perhaps the test file was "remembering" that the spellcheck and grammarcheck had already been completed. So, I pasted the text into a new Word file, essentially resetting things, and ran the tool again. In fact, it caught a few of the grammar mistakes -- certainly not most of them, but a few.”



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Are you anti-technology?


No.  I am not saying that word processing technology is bad.  I think all of us should continue to use this feature.  However, I hope we remember to print out what we type and go over it carefully before sending it on.  These technologies can help us write better.  But, there are no substitutes for critical thinking and manual editing.   


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This is cool.  Can I share it with others?


Absolutely.  Forward this link- http://faculty.washington.edu/sandeep/check- to everyone you know.  Fellow educators, feel free to e-mail this to your students, add to your syllabus and use in class. 


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