Grammar checking software, language change, and precursors to the future

Almost 20 years ago I wrote my master’s thesis on ‘Grammar Checking Software as a Tool of Language Change’ or some such title. I’ve since lost track of the paper, it was, in that day, on paper.

I was studing at Georgetown University, and my work focused on language and power, from a sociolinguistic and cultural perspective. I had been using assorted early 90s log files I had collected, from IRC and a forum used at UCSC when I was an undergrad, and assessing markers of power in language in the online environment, watching the evolution of language change, and seeing the ways in which one positioned oneself, via language. One of the areas that particularly interested me, which I delved further into, is how non-native speakers of English marked authority online in an anonymous environment and using a language that was rapidly evolving, often different, in each community.

This work led to me to the early grammar and spelling checkers, and my often curiousity as to why they were so not grammatical. I decided to analyse the grammaticality of the current crop of tools against Fowler’s Modern English Usage. For those non-grammar nerds, Fowler’s is an early 20th century grammar text which is/was the go-to for proper English. As a comparator it had its issues, but those I worked around and wrote about. As I worked through analyzing different software programs, I eventually opted to use on Microsoft Word, due to the enormity of my task.

The outcome of this was that even at its most stringent, the grammar checker was no where near Fowler’s. And at its more casual levels — at the time it had three — the English it was recommending was so odd and so lax that the usage of the tool, in my estimation, would ‘teach’ a user a very different English than one would learn at school.

There was no way this was not purposeful, which led me to many questions, most of which remained unanswered, as MS did not wish to speak to me about them.  At the most basic, I was curious who wrote the program because I felt that no linguist would have built a grammatically incorrect system.  This led me to the hypothesis that the linguists built the systems and the marketers freaked out at all the wavy green and red lines and insisted it have fewer. I would love to have heard more of the inside of this, and if you happened to work on this, I’d love to hear from you.

This has really interesting ramifications for both Americans and non-native English speakers. In general, and in different ways, each can use a boost in grammar, and if you have an authoritative tool telling you that no, you cannot use ‘which’ refering to a cat, it must be ‘that’ then this is a possible shift.  It refuses the use of the passive voice, and other constructs it deemed overly complex. One cannot use a run on sentence nor a fragment.  It flattened, significantly, the ability to be creative in language.

We could say that one could turn this off, or that it could be ignored, but in the course of doing the research, I did eventually become bothered by all the wavy lines and want to change words to adhere to what I called Microsoft English.  Because it was, in fact, a significantly different and evolved English.  One that was being rapidly disseminated by what was becoming the most widely used word processor.

Whether or not Microsoft was attempting to create a new English, or was aware of the possible cultural ramifications, and power structures, that they were creating and/or re-inforcing, changes were happening.

And this was in one language. Years later I went back and re-ran some of my assessments in French, out of curiousity for the formality/informality and what it would recommend, and even in a language which has an Academie to control the language, there were shifts away from the rulings. So perhaps in most languages we see changes due to the judgments of software, and then these likely flow into society, because we do learn from software.

I doubt most people have considered this, that the language promoted by their grammar checking software is ‘wrong’ or at the very least, not a standard, until they created a standard.  I am not writing this, nor did I at the time, to be a stickler for Fowler’s or old grammar rules, but to surface the awareness that changes in the systems’ use of language flow outward into spoken language, and that they often have significant ramifications in how we can think about things. If your software systematically attempts to remove the use of animate pronouns for animals, plants and objects, it becomes of judgment of the humanity of any thing other than a human.   These are the things invisible to most people, yet significant in the ways in which we exist in our worlds.

In the same vein, I still look at the ways in which software is an output into our language, not just how language changes within power and control structures, but also the adoption of words, and the modification of our grammar, to make it easier to interact with the machines. More on this last bit later.



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