Do you use Microsoft Word’s grammar checker? I’ve asked hundreds of lawyers at CLE seminars over the years, and the near-unanimous answer is no. I hear muttered words like “useless,” and “stupid.”
I agree—if you run the grammar check with the default settings.
About half the suggestions it offers will be just plain wrong. Most of the rest will be things you know but don’t want to change. So it’s useless, right?
There’s a better way to use the grammar checker: reject the default settings and customize a handful of your own preferences or areas to improve. Word’s grammar checker does only a few things well, so don’t waste time using the default settings. Instead, use a few settings to help you.
To customize it, in Word 2010 go to File > Options > Proofing. Then look for “When correcting grammar and spelling in Word.” Check the box for “Check grammar with spelling.” Now set the Writing Style drop-down to Grammar & Style and click on Settings. There you’ll see what the grammar checker is checking. (Note: I hate the green squiggles, so I’ve unchecked “Mark grammar errors as you type.”)
Here’s the most important step: check only a few items you care about. (This means unchecking most of the boxes.) Now when you run a spell check, Word will also check grammar but will highlight only the items you checked. What’s more, for every grammar item it highlights, Word offers an explanation—though not all the explanations are helpful. Just click on “Explain.”
Some settings to consider.
Do you over-use the passive voice? Check the box for “passive sentences.” Word’s grammar checker is good at spotting passive voice, and although there are justifiable uses, many legal writers lapse into passive voice too often. For example, when I run a grammar check with “passive sentences” checked, I end up changing about half my passive sentences to active. That’s a worthwhile setting.
Haven’t mastered that versus which? Check the box for “relative clauses.” Word does a pretty good job of identifying that-which errors. By running a few tests, I surmised that it’s just looking for which without a preceding comma, but I wasn’t able to fool it into marking a correct use as incorrect. Naturally, it suggests adding a comma or switching to that, so you have to figure out what you mean. Still, it’s great practice if you haven’t mastered the difference.
Need help with possessives and plurals? Even if you know the difference between judges and judge’s, we all make unintended typos. Check the box and Word might save you some embarrassment.
Some settings you might want to avoid.
Prone to long sentences? Word offers only limited help. Check the box for “sentence length,” and Word will tell you when a sentence is 60 words or longer—a pretty high threshold and well beyond my own guideline of 45. In other words, I think a sentence of more than 45 words needs revision or division. But Word won’t prompt you to revise until 60. Not even at 59. I tried it.
Need help with fragments informal tone? Probably not. Although Word is good at finding sentence fragments, first person, and contractions, those are easy to spot and easy to avoid in formal writing. Leave those boxes unchecked. Word is also good at highlighting and or but at the beginning of a sentence and at spotting split infinitives. But most of us can spot those on our own or don’t consider them mistakes at all. Leave those boxes unchecked, too.
Commas? Word is terrible at commas; it can’t tell a series from a compound sentence from a parenthetical insertion. I leave the box for “punctuation” unchecked. And I’ve never been able to figure out what Word is really looking for with Wordiness. When I clicked on Explain, it told me to avoid “there is” and “there are.” Fair enough, but the highlighted sentence contained neither. Uncheck the box.
So it’s possible to make grammar checker a little less useless and even a little useful, but you have to take control. Don’t accept the default settings. Check or uncheck the settings as you prefer. You’ll probably keep just a few checked, so you won’t waste time with a tedious, full grammar check, but you’ll get a focused look at a few of your weaknesses.