Don't Listen to the Grammar Bot

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It is now a fact of life that Microsoft 365 (Outlook, Word, etc) and Google Workspaces (GMail, Google Docs, etc.) have grammar hints, and autocompletion features, all enabled by default. The basics are useful. I can’t deny that. Check spelling, punctuation rules (yes, the comma before ‘but’ and ‘and’ which we often forget), and noun and verb correspondence verification are useful features.

Everyone who has been in journalism (and technical/scientific writing) is aware of William Strunk’s and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style book. The overall message from this book is “use the most direct and succinct form; avoid embellished language that doesn’t add any value”. For example, rather than saying “In order to go shopping, you should first put a face mask on”, you should must say instead, “Put a face mask on first before shopping”.

Elements of Style

The rules implemented by Microsoft’s (and to a lesser extent Google’s) grammar systems seem are straight out of Strunk’s and White’s book.

Yes, conciseness beats vagueness, and directness beats rambling, and for non-native speakers like the author, it is a bliss not to have to re-read one’s writings a hundred times to spot issues. Yet, I disagree with the suggestions proposed but these grammar nazi bots on three counts:

First, we are humans, not C++ compilers. We don’t use language just to communicate ‘clear ideas’. We use language to entertain, to influence, to dissuade, to express irony, and many times to delight, as in the case of poetry.

Ernie. There’s no place for the above in business!

On the contrary, I need all of the nuances that a language offers precisely in the business context more than in any other. The only time when I am required o produce ‘clear, unambiguous language’ is when I try to explain to the wife why I placed the wrong wheelie bin on Monday—sorry, I thought every other neighbour’s had blue lids too!

Second, our own appreciation of the world is sketchy and we are plagued by doubt. “It appears that I have done well at the interview” is exactly what the human appreciation of the matter probably was. We can’t make up our minds because we simply don’t know. Again, we aren’t C++. We are humans. Our appreciation of the world requires “seemingly”, “apparently”, “perhaps”, “maybe”, “most likely”, and so on. We are fuzzy sentient beings.

Third, and last, we humans get tired when the language is too repetitive and machine gun-like, we need pauses (created by long, non value-added expressions), platitudes, clichés, just to allow the reader to grasp author’s mood and feelings rather than whatever “instructions” he or she may want to convey. I know that “I am between a rock and a hard place” may be substituted by “I’m in a difficulty” but they are not the same. What kind of difficulty? Can you escape from it? Do you have options? The cliched version answer these questions; the concise version doesn’t. I could also be in a pickle rather than merely in a difficulty.

In conclusion, when you see those annoying grammar hints, remember that you are in control. Don’t let the computer turn you into a brainless automata. Just click Ignore.