Wednesday, February 27, 2013

more links

One cool site. (Dec. 12, 2011). Five free grammar checkers. Available 2-13.

Blum, B. (2013, Feb. 5). Spellchecker on speed. Israel21c. Available 2-13.

Rose, J. (2006, Sept. 18). Ten common writing mistakes your spell checker won't find. Writing English.’t-find/. Available 3-13.

Pullum, G. (2007, Oct. 26). Monkeys will check your grammar. Language Log. Accessed 3-13.

Pullum, G. (2012, Apr. 13). Passive voice wrongly accused yet again. Language Log. Accessed 3-13.

Pullum, G. (2012). Confusion over avoiding the passive. Accessed 3-13.

other links:
WhiteSmoke free download
free-grammar-check's list of four free grammar-checkers

corpora of misspellings for download
100 most misspelled words in English
Word starts contextual spell-check in Word 2007 (techrepublic)

typical errors to run through the system

I don't like there hamburgers.
The dog chased it's tail.
I am form Cleveland.
I involved in this project.
I opreciate red lines.
I opreshiate red lines.
I downloaded Gramarly lite and now my emails have redd lines.
I am definately interested in what this is does.
I was went to Chicago.
I wanted to be the same with her.
What should I do if I don't have ant ability.
Although I'm confusing.
Some events make you happy; otherwise, some make you sad.

Spell Check Plus

Spell check plus- they try to get your business right away, but basically give you their best in free spell-check services, one or two sentences at a time, which are presumably better than MWord Spell-check and available on Firefox. You open the site and use the box.

It catches "the dog chased it's tail" but doesn't say it's wrong; it just warns me to check and explains why. It tells me possessives should be "its" which is helpful. On "I don't have ant friends" it suggests "and" which is a little off base; it was meant to be "any," I believe, and y is in fact nearer to t than d on the keyboard. It misses "I don't like they're hamburgers" as well as "I don't like there hamburgers." It catches "I am form Cleveland" and suggests "I am from Cleveland" which to me is a definite advantage. It turns non-words (such as "morden" into bright red stoplights and suggests "modern" second but soon nevertheless.

It missed "I am confusing" and "I involved in this project" but got "I was went to Chicago"; however it told me to change it to "I arrived" or "I have arrived" which is not quite the same.

On "opreshiate" it was able to correctly suggest "appreciate" (my downloaded Grammarly lite was left speechless). Advantage SCP.

$15/yr. buys you no ads, no limit on text length, grammar ex.'s. Free trial available.

Grammarly Lite

So I went ahead and downloaded Grammarly Lite onto my Firefox. I'm not sure if I can even ever get it off; maybe I'm stuck with it. It's a free trial put out by Grammarly meant to entice me. But it's entirely free and I'm at least interested in its advantages over, say, MWord Spell-check or maybe Ginger.

It catches definately and doesn't even give me a chance to choose defiantly; this is perhaps its main advantage over MWord. It doesn't catch "I am form Cleveland" or "I involved in this project" has no sense of grammar. It's purely spell-check with the best of spell-check attributes: a good awareness (statistically) of what users usually want. Grammarly advertises this but I'm not sure they can always deliver. I'm not sure, for example, that they're better than Google.

Interestingly, I type in this sentence:
What should I do if I don't have ant ability.
This is a simple misspelling of any, but the computer doesn't see it. It sees a countable noun (ant) without an article, and tells me to add the or an. Hmmm! It doesn't see that it's a question without a question mark. It doesn't see that even if it's ant, it would be used as an adjective! Hmmm.

It doesn't catch "I am confusing" errors. It doesn't catch misuse of "otherwise". It doesn't catch Although + SN errors. It has some grammar but it isn't very sophisticated. It doesn't catch "I was went to Chicago" or even "I went Chicago".


Empson, R. (2013, Feb. 25). Ginger Software Brings Its Proofreading Keyboard To Android To Let You Fix Typos & Grammar In Any App. TechCrunch. Accessed 2-13.

There are several interesting things about Ginger. First, I am a guy who likes to test out different kinds of sentences on every free proofreader, just to see which ones will catch certain forms, and Ginger will let me go on indefinitely, one sentence at a time, though I have to keep batting away its intrusive attempts to get me to sign up. Others like Grammarly will insist that I sign up before I even get my first answer, so I consider Ginger to be a better route and probably a more common route for a lot of us pikers.

Second, it catches an unusual number of problems. It can change "I am form Cleveland" to I am from Cleveland". It does not catch "I born in 1954" or "These mistakes involve in my sentence". But it catches a number of other problems.

It is seeking to incorporate more contextual information that a computer can cull from a sentence. For example, it should be obvious in "I am form Cleveland" that "form" should be "from". It's obvious to a human, but definitely not to a computer. Ginger hopes to correct this, and to some degree it has.

It has further promised to adapt to each individual user, to his slang and proper name words. The article says that some say that Grammarly does a better job. I'm sure Grammarly says that. To me, they seem to be head-to-head. I don't pay for either service, but rather try to get a window into what they do, from outside, and from their free service. Grammarly offers "Grammarly lite" but you have to load it onto your computer. Ginger offers this free on computers, and an app to download onto your Android (this apparently is the newest innovation, and ensures huge popularity abroad).

Ginger seems to be the creation of some Israeli computer and natural-language-processing folks with an increasing supply of capital; it gets this from "Li Ka-Shing's Horizon Ventures and Harbor Pacific Capital". The market for effective English proofreading skills is huge. They've made no inroads into the Facebook meme free-advertising (grammar consciousness) movement, but maybe they don't have to! This is from the CrunchBase page: " Founded in 2008, Ginger has offices in the US and Israel and is backed by Mr. Zohar Gilon, Horizons Ventures, the venture capital fund owned by Mr. Li Ka-shing, and Harbor Pacific Capital, a Silicon Valley-based venture firm."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

what happened to ESL Assistant?

Two years ago, at a presentation in New Orleans, Microsoft's ESL Assistant was up and running, I believe. This would have been 2011. Today Microsoft maintains a site where they explain that it's no longer online, but all other evidence of it is gone. They no longer mention it on their blogs, or their discussion of their research. They don't explain why they took it offline, took all discussion of it offline, or what.

It was never really clear to me what was in it for them; they seemed to be doing research just to see if they could correct any errant English for anybody, perhaps with the intention of working this knowledge into Word's grammar-checker or Word's spell-check. It also was not clear to me if the research team that worked on ESL Assistant was even connected to the one that, presumably, continuously updates Word grammar-check.

What I've found is general tight-lippedness about the whole topic. It's as if people were coming in the back door, stealing their secrets, and then going off and selling them as "grammar correction." I remember that the new generation of grammar correction was supposed to take concordance technology and fold it right into the analysis of errors. Looking back at the sites that do still discuss ESL Assistant, I can see that this process had mixed success. I remember thinking, ok, this is interesting, this will put a twist in the business. Now, I have no idea what happened. Did Grammarly pick up on this use of concordance technology? Did other people successfully notice how they funneled input into the concordance database and then turned it into advice? Was this a secret worth jealously guarding?

I'm not sure what Microsoft is up to, because I'm not sure if they ever intended to make money on this service or not. Would it be possible they just did it for their own research? They aren't saying. Or, maybe I'm not looking in the right place.

2013 Presentation Links

Copy-paste editors

Ginger Software
Grammarly lite free software for Firefox
JSpell free online spell-check
Google (one of the best, believe it or not)

Student work

Time is important, Maron
My dreams, Laura
do not stay alone, Mazen
typical errors to run through the system

Commercial software

Ginger Software (Spectronics)
Grammarly Lite, Firefox add-on (free) 
Serenity-Software Editor (PC only)(free trial)

Overview, list of others directory

Translator engines

Microsoft translator
Babelfish (Yahoo)
Google translate
Langenberg's directory- different translators

Word processors with built-in grammar-check

 Making fun of autocorrect

Take the survey! It's not too late!
(one for teachers, one for learners)

Grammar technology/Teacher's survey

Grammar technology/Learners survey


Leverett T. (2011). Negotiate with the elephant. Google docs; work in progress. Available

Leverett, T. (2010, Mar.). Green line to the commons: Grammar technology takes esl/efl for a ride, Tom's esl closet.

Presentation bibliography (includes texting articles)

2011 Presentation links

As falls spelling, so falls grammar

I've been doing intensive research on both calculators and spell-check, and the changes brought on by their thorough integration into American society and its learners.

There is no question, I think, that pure spelling ability has declined since young people started relying on spell-check to do it for them. That is, if you took 1000 people over 50, and asked them to spell a variety of words from separate to definitely, more of those people would get them right than the same random group of 1000 20-year-olds. The 20-year-olds would protest that why, for example, should they be forced to know something the computer can look up for them; in other words, they may not value the skill of "knowing" the correct spelling, or may just feel that as a practical matter there's little point learning something that can be taken care of so easily 99% of the time they write anything.

Now, a fair number of people have taken that general reasoning, and are now incapable of knowing the difference between their and there, definitely and defiantly, etc. We see this a lot more because of the explosion of informal writing; I am now reading what my young nieces write (on Facebook) almost every day, whereas I would not have had this opportunity in the past. Nevertheless, my suspicion is that of these 1000 randomly chosen 20-year-olds, the scores are much lower; I believe this will be played out in any major statistical project measuring spelling abilities of Americans of all ages. By the way, I encourage a large-scale comprehensive test, because I have not established concrete data support for this yet.

Let's look at the ways learning is actually hampered.

1. When spell-check gives you the right word, you are encouraged not to learn it or memorize the correct spelling of the word you wanted (because it will always be provided for you).
2. You may be taught how to spell as a child, but you are rarely taught how to use spell-check, how to choose the right word, etc. Therefore you have worked out the processes of choosing the right word, entirely by yourself, without guidance.
3. You trust the computer to catch every error, because it has acted capable of doing that, and in fact has caught errors that weren't even errors. This trust may be your fatal error, since in fact you may have made some wrong choices.
4. Microsoft's spell-check is improving gradually but slowly. Some are better (Google, for example, catches definately and changes it to definitely, unlike spell-check, which still turns it into defiantly). Why is this? I assume that it's because Microsoft has less economic motivation to perfect its spell-engine; its revenue comes not from having a perfect spell-check, but from having Word, in the first place. Your average student, and international student, is not going to avail him/herself of Google or of the commercial correctors, I infer, because it's too much trouble. This may change, or I may be wrong. But I am still seeing a lot of defiantly on the computer.Most people are not getting advanced guidance on a regular basis. Bottom line: we're stuck with what's there, at least until they change it.*

Now let's apply these rules to the development of grammar-check software, particularly to Word grammar-check and its influence on non-native writers. We can assume that they've been communicating with Word grammar-check since they first got on Microsoft Word, but that could have been in another language, or with software that was similar but not the same. They develop habits of checking the green line, perhaps reading what the computer says about a structure, but they may not understand it, or they may make wrong choices in trying to correct something. One big difference lies in the choices: with spell-check, you can check each choice, looking it up to see if the meaning matches up, so that when you look up defiantly you know for sure that that wasn't what you intended; people who respond to grammatical advice do not have the luxury of this option, since you can't look up grammatical structures, or at least have to find some ingenious way of checking your choice. Suffice it to say that people don't. When the machine advises them to avoid passive, they do. When it advises them to use commas before "which" and no commas before "that," they follow that advice. Whatever the level of grammatical support exists on that spot is a crucial factor in what is produced.

One of Word grammar-check's most persistent critics is Dr. Krishnamurthy, who has made a hobby of collecting problems caused by Word grammar-check. He says that grammar-check is really pretty good if you already know grammar and can understand the conversation they provide over what you have made and whether it says what you want. The problem really is for people whose grammar is mediocre, or people who are just learning English grammar, or people who have absolutely no self-confidence. These people have little to go on in using the advice to come up with an adequate resolution; we really would have to follow their line of reasoning as they go along, reading and responding to the advice of a machine that not only doesn't know what they intended, but has only what they've written already, as a clue to what they really wanted to say or where they wanted to end up. Many of these conversations (between Word grammar-check and the developmental writer) are exercises in futility. The end product is basic, simple, very bland and possibly miles from what the writer originally intended.

Keep in mind that we are talking about grammatical constructions here, not just the errant definitely/defiantly quandary. One question is whether grammar-check can spot errors like should of or there/their/they're; with increasing grammatical sophistication, they more often can. If they can explain it to the developmental writer well enough, the problem will presumably go away; it won't matter if the developmental writer doesn't know, won't learn, or can't hear, the difference between should of and should have. We will still have to deal with people whose system of choosing, or discerning the right alternative, is fundamentally flawed. As with spell-check, you will have people who go in fundamentally wrong directions with their choices, and it's hard to explain why exactly they would choose one thing, or override the computer in certain cases, etc. I have found people like this, on the outside of what I'd imagined would be standard behavior.

More often, I think, with grammar, you get a baseline acceptable flood of the simplest sentences, with basic words, fit together in standard ways, with only an occasional clue that the writer really had no idea what he/she was doing. The computer has literally fought this person down to a level where the sentences are so simple that they can't be called wrong, and things that require more complex expression either don't get expressed, or are hidden in simple sentences where we, the reader, can no longer understand the writer's exact meaning. This kind of writing is too bland and unexpressive, but it will be the way things are for many, many writers and this could last for years. Keep in mind that I think grammar-check programs will get steadily better, so that it may only be in this sandwich generation that they get into habits essentially formed by the grammar-check software of the days that they wrote their most papers. It is the habits that they form that influence their writing for years to come. For example, they find ways of avoiding passive constructions, or ways to express what we know as present perfect, recent past, without using or creating verb forms that cause arguments with grammar-check. These habits become engrained and entire generations avoid certain grammatical constructions.

Wait a second, you might say. Isn't the primary way people learn spelling, by reading? Similarly, don't they learn good grammar, and good writing, by seeing how it's done correctly, and applying it to their own situation? The answer here is that the whole reason we're talking about it, is that somehow this system has broken down. Those students who do read, and read a lot, obviously, know how to spell definitely. The vast majority don't. Or at least a large number don't.

*Increased grammatical awareness is being built into spell-check and grammatical programs. I use the typical Chinese misspelling of from (form) as a bellwether. For example, a simple spell-check could not determine that form in the sentence I come form Xian is a misspelling, unless it does grammatical analysis. But if it analyzes the sentence, it should know that what is written as form should in fact be from. And newer, better programs can do this. In fact, they can even build in statistical likelihoods such as the following: if he/she is Chinese, he/she may also make a mistake on modern/morden; be careful to notice and flag that...

I think we should expect steady improvement in these machines, and give credit where credit is due. One thing I'll point out about the development of grammatical awareness in spell-check programs. It will not be entirely gradual. Instead, they will work on programs to determine the grammatical category of words in a sentence, and this will take years, and when they finally are ready to implement it, there will be a sudden jump in the general ability of programs to handle situations. Watch, and see if I'm right. See also, if Microsoft itself is the last to change.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Nichol, M. (n.d.). The problem with grammar check. DailyWritingTips. Accessed 2-13.

Krishnamurthy, S. (n.d.). A Demonstration of the Futility of Using Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check. U. of Washington. Accessed 2-13.

GrammarBase, free grammar corrector.

Chaika, E. O. (2010, Jan. 11). Uncheck Word's Grammar Checker. smarthotoldlady. Accessed 2-13.

Mitton, R. (1996). Spell-checking by computer. Birkbeck College. Originally appeared in Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, Vol 20, No 1, 1996, pp 4-11. Accessed 2-13.

Norvig, P. (n.d.). How to Write a Spelling Corrector. Peter Norvig's papers. http://

McCarthy, D., and Siemaszko, C. (2012, May 12). (New Yorkers can't get it 'write' because they are hooked on spell-check, test shows. New York Daily News.

Foster, W. (2012, Nov. 22). Live Without a Net (or Condom, or Spell-Check). Billy Foster,

Calculator wars and the skill of the general populace

The main thing I can say about the calculator wars (see articles below) is that the parallels to the grammar-checker and spell-check world are interesting. The rhetoric is much stronger. You can see, below, that the Texas Instrument people, who have millions at stake in selling calculators to every school child, are especially big on the word "tedious" to describe the kinds of math problems that turned millions of innocent children away from the field of math. In the same way spell-check and grammar-check have spared us from the tedium of knowing grammar, thus allowing us to do more writing, and give more people access to the wonderful world of Twitter and Facebook.

Here are some parallels between the development of the calculator (which is a bit ahead) and the development of spell-check grammar-check: we can see the love affair of a society with a little hand-held machine that seems to relieve us, as a culture, of so much tedious drudgery that we embrace it immediately without worrying about the costs (though I remember people objecting to the calculator, I remember much less resistance to spell-check/grammar-check). We can see our own failure to watch as children learn, essentially, to turn to the machine as soon as possible, at the expense of thinking about the problem, or using their heads when possible (one anecdote, in the Sheets article, tells of a student calculating the movement of a car that was parked...and using the calculator to get the wrong answer). We can see the inability of students to perform when no calculator (or spell-check/grammar-check) is available to them. We get the general feeling, within the culture, that "Johnny can't add", or, now, "Johnny can't spell." We get the occasional insistence that a possible solution is the withholding of technology in the earlier grades, until the student has developed some independence in solving problems and doing things oneself. We get the tech industry's defense of its tools as "merely tools" that aren't intended to think for people but are designed to relieve the drudgery and make a more level playing field, so that everyone, for example, can multiply 5489 X 6923, quickly. Do we need a level playing field in English education? I'm not sure, since writing is so thoroughly integrated into every field and some of these are pretty completely saturated with talent anyway (try to figure out if I'm being serious) or bring with them other problems, far more serious.

One thing that strikes me is that I'm not sure there's a national consensus one way or the other. So we old codgers think that, in general, ability to multiply and divide has decreased, or grammar is worse. Is that proven in any way? Is there a national consensus that we should withhold calculators for the first few years, as I infer that they do in some countries (I'm not really sure about this), and then, to what degree is this happening with spell-check/grammar-check? I watch kids growing up and they get directly on spell-check/grammar-check with no general oversight; word's programs are loaded on there the minute they type. But with grammar, the biggest change is this: I see a lot more of the informal writing of my young friends these days than I used to; I've become facebook friends with dozens of young people, left and right, who don't know from it's/its. So I see different stuff than people used to. This is a long way from proving that people know grammar less than they used to. Similarly, if young people instinctively grab for a calculator to figure out the tip in the restaurant, that doesn't mean they can't do it in their head, or even that that matters. It appears to me that they can't do it in their head, but that's different. I'd like to know if people are unable to give correct change for a twenty these days, or figure out a 20% tip. But I'm a little leery of just going with my impressions.

Back to the articles: I'm left with several feelings. First, we've been here before. Second: we tech advocates may be made to feel that we are to some degree merely "tools" for people who get clear benefit from the advance of technology (some have a dog in this fight, in other words). Three: society is in trouble; you can only learn so much, and we need to add, and we need to learn how to use little machines, and we may be failing at both. I don't know the right answer. I'm with the vast majority of old codgers who say, nobody knows its/it's your/you're there/their/they're anymore. It's because they think they don't have to learn. I of course am accused of having a bad attitude.

Using a calculator from an early age contributes to the general belief that it's a necessary tool in the getting of the answer. Students always reach for the calculator if they are expected to find the answer.

The belief that "the calculator will solve it" leads to the belief that "I don't need to figure that out" which in turn makes someone look like they can't add, or can't divide, large numbers, as they are fumbling for their calculator and in the time it takes them to set it up (get batteries), punch the problem in, the old codger has figured out the answer.

Older members of society consider younger members inept, unable, shallow, lacking in reasoning skills, etc. The jury is still out on that.

The problem-solving mind is housed in an emotional mind, in which confidence matters, thus their general feeling that they can't do it without a little hand-held machine may be more important than you think. I have always considered hand-held electronic dictionaries, for example, to have intrinsic in their attraction an emotional element, allowing the student to go "home to mama" with just a click. No wonder they can't function when they're removed!

There is some benefit to being able to punch little numbers on a small keyboard quickly, and, for example, learning how these small keyboards work. There is no question, machine-users have an advantage in the modern world. But those who are focused on the little machine are often not focused on the people, or the solution, or the reasoning involved. Machine-users are invariably punished by default in some other area.

It's fairly common to withhold the calculator in the first few years (I know this from asking my students, by the way, not from reading these articles. These articles would lead me to believe that the "users" and the "no-calc advocates" are facing off in an armed battle, and don't even communicate with each other. Each group can show visible tangible benefits of doing it their way. Statistics can be manipulated, but also, there are clear benefits to each side.

The difference with grammar-check and spell-check is that you don't see teachers at this level making conscious choices about it. These things are simply loaded onto their first computer, and, it's assumed that if they load up Microsoft Word they're going to need something. I'm not sure what kind of language-specific grammar-check/spell-checks they are used to before they get to Word, but their history of dealing with machines/solving problems is quite important. Either they have some independent reasoning skills (knowing when to look something up, for example), or they don't. Either they have enough confidence in their own choices (or too much confidence), or not enough. Sheets, C., & Wallace, N. E. (2007). Calculators in the classrooms: Help or hindrance? Retrieved from Google Scholar. Accessed 2-13.

Kakaes, K. (2012, June 25). Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator. Slate. Accessed 2-13.

Pomerantz, H. (1997). The role of caluculators in math education (pdf). Prepared for the USI/CPMSA Superintendents Forum, Dallas TX. Provided by Texas Instruments. Accessed 2-13.

Education World. (2012). Educators Battle Over Calculator Use: Both Sides Claim Casualties.