by Jack Lyon
In my last missive, Lyonizing Word: Editing by Computer, I discussed some of the grammar checkers that seem to be popping up like mushrooms online. But I neglected to discuss Microsoft Word’s built-in grammar checker. Is it any good? And might it be of use to professional editors? Let’s find out.
First, I recommend that you set Word’s grammar checker to mark grammar errors in your document rather than “running” the grammar checker as a separate process. That way, you can spot and fix the errors as you read, making changes as necessary. Here’s how:
- Click File > Options > Proofing.
- Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word,” check the box labeled “Mark grammar errors as you type.”
- Click the “OK” button.
Now you should see grammar errors flagged in various ways:
The double blue underlines indicate possible problems with grammar, spacing, or punctuation.
The dark red dots indicate possible problems with what Microsoft calls “More,” which includes:
- Clarity and conciseness.
- Inclusive language.
- Vocabulary choice.
- Formal language.
- Punctuation conventions.
The wavy red underlines indicate possible spelling errors.
For all of these I say “possible” because Word may get things wrong; you can’t blindly accept its recommendations. But they do give you something to consider, including things you might otherwise overlook.
To see and select Word’s recommendations, right-click the flagged text, which will give you a menu like this:
The grammar checker also flags many things that editors would be better off fixing with Word’s Find and Replace feature or FileCleaner in Editor’s ToolKit Plus 2014. If something can be fixed automatically, there’s no need to have Word check it and flag it; to do so would just mean more work, because you’d have to consider and manually change each flagged item. Examples include checking for punctuation marks preceded by a space, opening parentheses followed by a space, and double spaces between words and sentences. All such corrections can and should be automated.
What, then, should you have Word’s grammar checker check? Anything that you think would be easy to overlook while editing. Here are the options that seem most useful to me:
Targets the use of a semicolon instead of a comma in two related but independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or “but.”
- Example: They don’t have a discussion board, the website isn’t big enough for one yet.
- Correction: They don’t have a discussion board; the website isn’t big enough for one yet.
Targets a missing comma in front of an independent clause if the sentence begins with the conjunction “if.”
- Example: If you’re like me you’ve already seen this movie.
- Correction: If you’re like me, you’ve already seen this movie.
Comma after Introductory Phrases
Targets a missing comma after short introductory phrases such as “however” or “for example” before an independent clause that follows.
- Example: First of all we must make sure the power is off.
- Correction: First of all, we must make sure the power is off .
Clarity and Conciseness
Targets complex and abstract words, and suggests using a simpler word to present a clear message and a more approachable tone.
- Example: The magnitude of the problem is far beyond the scope of humanitarian aid.
- Correction: The size of the problem is far beyond the scope of humanitarian aid.
Targets jargon, technical terminology, or abbreviations that may confuse some readers.
- Example: The company hired a well-known headhunting firm.
- Correction: The company hired a well-known recruiting firm.
Targets phrases relying on nouns that need extra words to introduce them and suggests using a single verb instead of nouns.
- Example: The trade union is holding negotiations with the employers.
- Correction: The trade union is negotiating with the employers.
Targets redundant and needless words.
- Example: Her backpack was large in size.
- Correction: Her backpack was large.
Words Expressing Uncertainty
Targets words that express uncertainty or lessen the impact of a statement.
- Example: They largely decorated the kitchen with old bottles.
- Correction: They decorated the kitchen with old bottles.
Targets gendered language which may be perceived as excluding, dismissive, or stereotyping.
- Example: We need more policemen to maintain public safety.
- Correction: We need more police officers to maintain public safety.
Targets overused and predictable words or phrases and suggests to replace them with an alternative phrase.
- Example: Institutions seem caught between a rock and a hard place.
- Correction: Institutions seem caught in a difficult situation.
Targets contractions (e.g., let’s, we’ve, can’t), which should be avoided in formal writing.
- Example: The animal won’t be authorized to be out of the bag during the flight.
- Correction: The animal will not be authorized to be out of the bag during the flight.
Targets informal words and phrases that are more appropriate for familiar, conversational settings.
- Example: Our lounge includes comfy massage chairs.
- Correction: Our lounge includes comfortable massage chairs.
Targets regional expressions or slang terms that may not be understood by a general audience and should be avoided in formal writing.
- Example: My cat barfed all over my homework last night.
- Correction: My cat vomited all over my homework last night. [Yes, a fine example of formal writing.]
Targets a missing comma after the second-to-last item in a list.
- Example: I enjoy apples, pears and oranges.
- Correction: I enjoy apples, pears, and oranges.
Many more options are available; you can see the whole list at Microsoft’s website.
Many of the options seemed designed to help writers whose primary language is not English; a few appear to have been dreamed up by Microsoft’s marketing department as just one more thing to include. Fortunately, you can choose the items that you think might be most useful to you. Here’s how:
- Click File > Options > Proofing.
- Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word,” click “Settings.”
- On the “Writing style” menu, select “Grammar” or “Grammar & More.”
- Scroll down to see all of the options available; select or clear any rules that you want the grammar checker to flag or ignore. (Note: Any changes you make here will apply to all documents that you open in Word. If you want to go back to Microsoft’s default settings, click “Reset All.”)
- When you’re finished, click the “OK” button.
Rich Adin asked, “What types of manuscripts does Microsoft’s grammar help work best with, and with what types will it only cause problems? For example, it is clear to me, based on my experience with grammar checkers, that they tend to do better with short, nontechnical documents than with long, technical documents. Writing a short essay with grammar checking on might be helpful; editing a 100-page medical chapter that is replete with acronyms, initialisms, abbreviations, measures, chemical formulas, clinical terms, and the like with grammar checking turned on is inviting problems and a great slowing of the editing process.”
Versions of Word before 2016 included various writing styles that you could select for the kind of document you were editing:
Of course, “Custom” was probably the most useful style, as you could select the items you wanted it to check. Unfortunately, Word 2016 includes only two writing styles:
- Grammar & More
Those are of limited help, although Microsoft claims to be working on new styles to be added in future updates.
In the meantime, I’d recommend selecting only the grammar options that you think might really be of help. Here, less is definitely more.
If, however, the idea of using a more advanced grammar checker appeals to you, you might try Grammarly’s free add-in for Microsoft Word.
Toggling the Grammar Checker
Turning the grammar checker off and on requires digging through several Word menus—it’s not easily done. So let’s solve that problem with a macro:
Sub ToggleGrammarErrors() Dim GrammarCheck GrammarCheck = Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType If GrammarCheck = False Then Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType = True ActiveDocument.ShowGrammaticalErrors = True Else Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType = False ActiveDocument.ShowGrammaticalErrors = False End If Application.ScreenRefresh End Sub
Here’s how the macro works:
That line defines (“dimensions”) a variable called “GrammarCheck.” We’ll use that variable to hold the value of the current setting (grammar checker on or off).
GrammarCheck = Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType
Here, we get the value of the current setting. If the grammar checker is on, GrammarCheck is set to “True”; if it’s off, GrammarCheck is set to “False.”
If GrammarCheck = False Then Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType = True ActiveDocument.ShowGrammaticalErrors = True Else Options.CheckGrammarAsYouType = False ActiveDocument.ShowGrammaticalErrors = False End If
If the value of GrammarCheck is “False” (that is, the grammar checker is off), we turn it on by setting it to “True.” We also make sure grammar errors are showing in the active document. Otherwise (“Else”), if the grammar checker is on, we turn it off by setting it to “False.” We also turn off the display of grammar errors.
Finally, we need to refresh the screen. If we don’t, we’ll be wondering why our changes didn’t take effect, when in fact they did — a small Microsoft “oops.”
Unfortunately, Microsoft has not made it possible to set individual grammar options in a macro — yet another “oops.”
How to Add the Toggle Grammar Macro to Word & to the QAT
Here’s how to put this macro (or any other) into Microsoft Word so it will be available when you need it:
- Copy the text of the macro, starting with the first “Sub” and ending with the last “Sub.”
- Click the “View” tab on Microsoft Word’s ribbon.
- Click the “Macros” button.
- Type a name for the macro in the “Macro name” box — probably the name used after the first “Sub.” For this macro, that’s “ToggleGrammarError.”
- Click the “Create” button.
- Delete the “Sub [macro name]” and “End Sub” lines that Word created in the macro window. The macro window should now be completely empty (unless you already have other macros in there).
- Paste the macro text at the current insertion point.
- Click “File,” then “Close and Return to Microsoft Word.”
To actually use the macro:
- Place your cursor in your document.
- Click the “View” tab on Microsoft Word’s ribbon.
- Click the “Macros” button.
- Click the name of your macro to select it.
- Click the “Run” button. (If you wanted to delete the macro, you could press the “Delete” button instead.)
Here’s how to put the macro on Word’s QAT (Quick Access Toolbar):
- Locate the QAT (it’s probably on the top left of your screen either above or below Word’s Ribbon interface).
- Right-click the QAT.
- Click “Customize Quick Access Toolbar.”
- Under “Choose commands from:” click the dropdown list and select “Macros.”
- Find and select your macro in the list on the left.
- Click the “Add” button to add it to the QAT.
- Click the “OK” button to finish.
What About You?
Do you use Word’s grammar checker? If so, what options do you find most useful? I’d love to hear about your experiences with this.
Jack Lyon (email@example.com) owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals, Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.