Dash it all Jeeves, you've failed the test Could P G Wodehouse have written better with a grammar checker? David Bowen doe sn't think so

The late Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was a master of the English language. Luckily he did not have Grammatik 5, or he could have been a very confused master.

I typed a passage from Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves into my computer and set Grammatik to work on it. It is a grammar-checking program that operates like a spell check, highlighting what it believes are problems in a window on the screen. It soon had cause tocomplain about the passage where Bertie Wooster has just bumped into the ferocious Roderick Spode: "He was eyeing me piercingly, little knowing what an ass he was going to feel before yonder sun had set."

Apart from objecting to ass ("Avoid this offensive term"), Grammatik declared that "the verb `going' does not normally take an object". It thought "ass" was the object of "going", having failed to spot the significance of "to feel".

Grammatik - which came with my WordPerfect for Windows word-processing package - is full of such nonsense. Checking the first two pages of the novel Nice Work by David Lodge, Honorary Professor of Modern English Literature at Birmingham University, it queried "worries streak towards him" because "streak is usually preceded by an article". In other words, it thought streak was only a noun. It wanted to put a comma after "supposing" in "supposing it is only six o'clock".

Grammatik, which is produced by Reference Software International of San Francisco but is available in a British version, is a sophisticated piece of software. It does its best to cope with the rules of English, and tries hard to be flexible. It has 10 predefined writing styles, which allow varying degrees of informality ranging from the strict "business letter" to the supposedly liberal "fiction". You can also tailor your own style if, for example, you cannot tolerate sentences of more than 10 words. As a computer program, it is admirable: easy to use, clear and powerful.

However, it is beaten hands down by the English language. As any foreigner will tell you, English is riddled with exceptions and inconsistencies, and can be generated correctly only by that most subtle computer, the human brain. Grammatik might do a goodjob in logical languages such as French or German - but English? No.

Perhaps, I thought, I was being unfair in putting Grammatik up against masters of the language, so I ran 1,000 words past it from an article I wrote recently. Some of its suggestions were reasonable. It highlighted sentences it thought were too long. It scolded me for starting three sentences in a row with the same word. And it pointed out that two of the previous 10 sentences were passives. All points worth contemplating, even if Grammatik's allergy to passives is stronger than mine.

But it also grabbed the wrong end of the stick with depressing regularity. It would not accept my use of "mighty" as an adjective; it tried to make me play cricket by changing "first half of the century" into "first half century"; and it did not want me to talk about a "16-foot model bridge"; it should have 16 feet, apparently.

It is difficult to see a real use for grammar-checking programs. People who have a good grasp of grammar will scoff at their foolishness and ignore them; those who are not so strong are likely to find they have introduced more errors than they have banished.

Grammatik does, however, make users think of the structure of language. The British version, largely based on classics such as Gower's Complete Plain Words and Fowler's Modern English Usage, is an excellent tutorial that could warrant installation of theprogram on its own. It is comfortingly conservative, abhorring the use of "hopefully" in the place of "I hope", for example. And it's easy to get lost in "help", wandering happily from fused sentences to formalisms.

The educational role is enhanced by a number of extras. At school I remember having to underline nouns in red, verbs in green and adjectives in yellow. Grammatik will do this for you, displaying the part of speech of every word underlined.

It also has a diverting "fog meter" program to tell you how readable your prose is. Using three different equations, it will produce the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the Flesch Reading Ease score and Gunning's Fog Index. All three are based on the same factors: the number of words per sentence combined with the number of syllables per word - so it seems unnecessarily gimmicky to include them all.

But they are harmless enough, made even more amusing by the ability Grammatik gives you to compare your writing with that of the greats (and the not-so greats). Your work can be examined for easy reading; the number of sentences per paragraph; average words per sentence; and average letters per word with Churchill's speeches (all of them), an unspecified Graham Greene novel, and a life-insurance policy.

The Flesch ease of reading scoreboard looks like this: P G Wodehouse 80, Graham Greene 80, David Lodge 70, Winston Churchill 69, myself 59, life insurance company 45.

Before editing, this article had an average paragraph length of 3.7 sentences, an average sentence length of 16.6 words and an average word length of 1.54 syllables. It had a Flesch ease-of-reading score of 60. Could do better.

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

    Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'