Saturday, October 18, 2008

MS Word and dangling modifiers

I'm currently using Microsoft Word (gasp, shudder) to co-write a textbook (or "textbooklet"). Today, I typed the following sentence:

"Quite often when using statistics, our data will involve more than one variable."

It promptly got underlined in green by Word's "grammar checker". Usually I don't trust the grammar checker, but in this instance, once I looked back at my sentence, I realized that it does commit one of those "dangling modifier" type of boo-boos. So I changed the sentence to

"Quite often when we use statistics, our data will involve more than one variable."

The grammar checker didn't object at all.

So I guess my question is, is that really what the grammar checker was objecting to? The dangling modifier? But how would it know? Isn't that more a question of semantics than syntax? Suppose you type a sentence like

"Raised in Arizona, it is easy to miss the open land."

How would you program a computer to try to recognize that "raised in Arizona" doesn't really modify the "it"?

78 comments:

David said...

You can left-click on the sentence and Word will give you the option of finding out what it thinks is wrong. In this case it seems to think it's a sentence fragment, so you don't really have to worry about Word's grammar checker having any sort of validity.

doug i. said...

I don't know how Word's grammar checker works, but your "Raised in Arizona" sentence reminded me of how obituaries are written in the newspapers. According to Theodore Bernstein, a complaining reader once wrote to a newspaper, "Born in Waukegan, I get damn sick of the non sequiturs."

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