Use computerized grammar checking programs wisely if at all

Grammar checking or style analysis programs are now widely available either as part of word processing programs or as separate software. However, unlike a spellchecker, which is fairly mechanical and straightforward, a grammar checker requires a great deal of personal judgment. Each word, phrase, or passage that it questions must be considered individually to decide whether the program truly has flagged an error. Sometimes, this is more time-intensive than relying upon the grammar checker built into one's own neural anatomy.

Style analysis programs are most helpful for picking up simple mechanical problems, such as a missing parenthesis or quotation mark. Some will alert you to commonly misused words such as affect and effect. They will identify redundant, overworked, wordy, or trite phrases, and can help you detect noun-heavy passages by counting prepositions. They also can pick up writing quirks, such as too many short sentences or overuse of "to be" verbs. However, they flag only items that can be detected by pattern-matching. For this reason, errors such as subject-verb agreement - a particular problem in scientific writing - sometimes slip by. Logic is completely beyond them, and they will approve a completely incomprehensible document if it appears in a form that passes for Standard Written English.

To date, style analysis programs are not very closely targeted to biomedical writing. They tend to flag a great many passages that do not need revision. For example, they may question every instance of the passive voice, even when used appropriately in scientific writing. Some programs allow you to disable the passive voice rule and certain other rules, but many idiosyncrasies inherent to the topic of your scientific paper will probably be questioned over and over again.

Writing experts stress that organization and coherence are the main determinants of writing quality. These are beyond the scope of any available editing program. Trying to use one of these programs while composing a first draft wastes time and promotes writer's block. The most efficient time to use a grammar checking or style analysis program, if at all, is near the end of the writing process, after the document has been shuffled into a reasonable organization and polished to a reasonable degree of coherency, style, and grace. At this point, a grammar checker can provide one more way to ferret out undetected mechanical errors.

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