Checked and Double Checked
Brendan Behan bummed a cigarette off my father 50 years ago in a Dublin pub.
“Got a fag, Yank?” he asked Dad, who had run into him earlier at the painter’s union and
decided to interview him for his thesis.
GrammarCheck didn’t care for my choice of vocabulary.
“Fag?” it asks. “If you mean ‘a cigarette,’ this slang term may be too informal. If you mean
‘homosexual,’ this term is considered offensive.”
“But that’s what he said,” I tried to explain to the Grammar Gods. “You want me to edit
Brendan Behan? Don’t you think that’s a bit presumptuous of me?”
I often find myself conversing with the computer when writing. Inevitably the time comes to
proof my composition and that’s when the lecturing begins.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t be better off with ...” it suggests, then offers a list of what it
considers more acceptable terminology. It gets particularly creative with proper names.
Behan, it tells me, is not in the spelling directory, and suggests several alternatives,
including ‘began,’ ‘bean,’ or ‘bauhin.’
“Bauhin?” I wonder. “You don’t recognize a grand Irish name like Brendan Behan but it’s
okay for me to use ‘bauhin?’ What does that even mean?”
It can’t answer that question. Its internal thesaurus doesn’t have a listing for bauhin.
Wouldn’t you think they’d provide documentation for their own suggestions?
The subject of the dispute doesn’t have to be someone as well known as Ireland’s Borstal
Boy. More common proper names set off the alarm systems. In correspondence it
questions the names of colleagues, offering ‘germy’ for Gerry, ‘naughtily’ for Natalie and
‘cyanide’ for Cyndi.
I don’t think so.
It is equally ruthless with members of my family. My sister Valentina never slips through the
filter, and I sense a little gender bias whenever her names comes up in a document.
“Don’t you mean Valentine?” I’m asked repeatedly.
“No, I don’t,” I mutter in annoyance. “I grant you she was born on Valentine’s Day, but she’s
a girl. We’ve gone through this before.”
The thesaurus sometimes is a little … well, dumb. I write to my college classmates about
our upcoming reunion and am asked if we will be celebrating a “return from the dead.” Now
granted many of us haven’t seen each other in 25 years, but we have been quite busy. I
don’t think any members of the Class of 77 would like to be thought of as having been
brought back to life.
But the system gets overly cocky the day it starts editing Thomas Jefferson. Even he, I
discover, is not exempt from editorial input. The rest of us may be awed by the “peculiar
felicity of expression” of his Declaration of Independence, over which he labored painfully
for weeks during that hot Philadelphia summer of 1776. To Grammar Check, he’s just
another guy whose grammar needs work.
Two hundred and twenty eight years ago the American Colonies were called to battle by the
document which began ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for
one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to
assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of
Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind
requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.’
It’s a long sentence says Grammar Check.
It finds several more in the document and wants them all shortened.
The word ‘usurpations,’ is not in its dictionary and should be replaced by either
‘usurpation’ or ‘usurpation’s.’
Members of the Second Continental Congress objected to Jefferson’s raising the issue of
‘acts which may define a tyrant.’
“How can you call King George a tyrant?” asked one of his colleagues. Grammar Check
doesn’t mind that name-calling, but would prefer a comma after ‘which.’
Subject-verb agreement seems to be another problem for good old Tom, and he is
particularly guilty of suggesting that ‘governments are’ instead of governments is.’
And so on.
It makes you wonder. If Thomas Jefferson had Grammar Check in his quill pen, where would
we be today?