Like most writers – and indeed humans – these days, I am a customer of the Microsoft empire. I run Windows on my laptop and use the Office “suite” of programmes on several devices. Out of laziness, and because I am a speedy and therefore sometimes inaccurate typist, I have always turned on features to auto-correct spelling and to underline uncertain spelling. And along with this feature is the “grammar check” which underlines anything dodgy with a double blue line. In the past those blue lines appeared very infrequently, and usually thanks to a typo, but recently they are peppering my writing – and I don’t think it’s me.
I’m going to confess something now, so promise me you’ll keep it to yourself. I have never studied grammar. Yes, I passed all of my English language exams with grade A, and yes, I read English at university, and yes, I taught English at secondary school. But I somehow missed those lessons on parsing sentences and naming parts and identifying verb tenses and moods. I have taught myself a little of it but don’t obsess about the theory, preferring instead to model my writing on the thousands and thousands of books I have read containing elegant and clear sentences.
But Microsoft does not agree and is constantly rebuking me. In a recent email I wrote this (complaining about fog): “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that when the sun rises in a while we’ll be able to see it”. And the word “while” was double-underlined. And then this (talking about the Remembrance Day service I attended): “When the vicar asked us to think of a family member lost to war I had plenty to choose from.” This time, it didn’t like the word “war” (although it was perfectly happy to see a preposition at the end of the sentence). Both are baffling to me. It also picks out the words “however” and “indeed” whenever I use them at the start of sentences, and tells me off if I put a comma before the word “and”. (I did it deliberately then just to annoy it, but that is an instance when I would choose to use it anyway – if I want more of a pause between the two halves of the sentence than would be conferred by the simple use of “and”.)
Usually I ignore it, but my fear is that it will gradually beat me into submission and I will alter my writing style to please a faceless algorithm instead of real human readers. And if we all adopt the same Microsoft-approved writing style, how boring that will be. Rise up against the machine, I say!