Spell Check and Grammar Check
Once your paper is in the word-processor, safely saved, run the spell checker. Some spell checkers are better than others, but virtually all spell checkers will allow some misused homophones to slip through. Depending on how much experience you’ve had as a writer, you probably know the words you have trouble with — affect/effect, their/there, its/it’s, your/you’re. You can do a search for words that give you special trouble and make sure you’ve used them correctly. Some spell checkers will catch your typing of duplicate words, but most won’t, so you’ll have to look out for that, too. It’s usually the the little words that slip by as duplicates, something that your fingers do when your brain slips into idle.
Pay special attention to words that end in -s. Some will be possessives, but you might have forgotten the apostrophe, and some will be plurals, which can present their own kind of difficulty in spelling.
Grammar checkers are available on many word processors. They are far less reliable than spell checkers, but they are becoming quite sophisticated. Some grammar checkers are quite good at pointing out potential problems and even suggesting possible solutions. Don’t always rely on your grammar checker, though. The computer can easily catch extra long sentences and alert you to the fact that a particular sentence is really long. It’s quite possible, though, that you need a really long sentence at that point, and if the sentence is well built (i.e., not a run-on sentence), let it stand. If there are several sentences that the computer judges to be extra long, however, that’s probably an indication of a serious problem and some of those sentences might be better off broken into smaller units of thought.
Grammar checkers are also very good at picking up on passive verb constructions. Frequently, a sentence will be improved and your meaning will be more clear and forceful, if you replace passive constructions with active verbs, but not always. If you’ve used the passive construction in an appropriate way, leave it alone, no matter what your grammar checker says.
Go through the essay with an eye for proper punctuation, especially for errant commas. Again, whether you tend to leave out commas where they belong or use commas where you don’t really need them is a personal matter that requires your personal attention. It could be a good idea to print out the section on comma usage to have it on hand when you proofread your paper. Being careful about commas forces you to be thoughtful about the way your sentences are put together.
Whether you have a grammar checker or not, it is good to know the problems that bother you most as a writer and do your best to eliminate those difficulties as you go from assignment to assignment. Try to grow as a writer with each assignment, eliminating the little glitches that your instructor caught last time and trying different methods of expression. Mostly, look for patterns of errors so you can predict the kind of thing that gives you trouble — fragments, run-ons, comma splices, parallel form. Never throw out an old writing assignment. Whether its grade made you happy or not, there is always something to be learned from it.
If your grammar checker does not check for expletive constructions (sentences beginning with “there is” or “there are” or “here is”), you can do a simple search for the word there in the initial position and try to change clauses with those weak beginnings. Usually it’s a matter of eliminating the expletive construction and then saying something useful about the real subject of the sentence.
- There are 1200 students on financial aid at that college.
- The 1200 students on financial aid at that college have applied for renewal of their scholarships.
You can also do a simple search for apostrophes, checking to make sure that your possessive forms are built correctly and that any contractions in your text are appropriate. (Some instructors feel that contractions are signs of lax writing or inappropriate informality and thus should be avoided in academic prose. See the Contractions section of Tone.)