October 20, 2010

Is there any good software for checking prose style?

In the mid-1990s, Microsoft added a feature to Word that checks not just spelling but also grammar and prose style. It was rather rudimentary, but promising. The idea of using the brute processing power of the computer to point out potential stylistic infelicities was a good one. In fact, Microsoft hired James Fallows of The Atlantic to dream up new ideas for Word. 

But Microsoft soon had a near monopoly on word processing software, and subsequent improvements in Word have been grudging. I haven't seen Word 2010, but it doesn't appear they've done much to improve the self-editing process. I don't expect my computer to rewrite my stuff, but it doesn't seem too much to expect in 2010 that it can find more of the weak spots that I've overlooked.

Does anybody have any experience with third party software? Looking around on the Internet, it appears that the most heavily promoted product, White Smoke, might be a scam. (What does the name of the company imply? That it will help you write more graceful thank you notes after you've been elected Pope?) Judging by its well-written website, Editor from Serenity Software would appear to have potential.

The Microsoft model in the past, as a Silicon Valley executive explained to me in 1995, was to acquire third party makers of add-in software by making a lowball offer while simultaneously threatening to drive the target out of business if they didn't play ball. I clucked sympathetically at the executive's tale of Microsoftian nefariousness, but as a customer, it sounded pretty good to me.

24 comments:

playrink said...

"stylistic" elements are organically rooted, no? Re: Silicon Leviathan - lighten up on my wallet, all your principles are belong to us.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you might enjoy the automated text-analysis software that shows you the values that are present within your text!

You get a nice colourful chart showing which – of 125 values – appear in what you've written, and how often.

See here for two examples of these colourful 'Values Maps': http://bit.ly/9WiMDQ

One of them is a values scan of the 'Purpose, vision & strategy' webpage of the 250-year old 'Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce' (RSA).

The other scan is of a recent pamphlet by its Director, Matthew Taylor, titled 'Twenty-first century englightenment'.

It also arrays the values you use across a set of stages that owe something to Abraham Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs'.

Anonymous said...

not was you're looking for but
http://scribe.googlelabs.com/
suggests the most likely word in the context.

Anonymous said...

Is there anything specifically for Mac?

Anonymous said...

Steve, this the most SWPL thing you've ever asked.

Conatus said...

"Looking around on the Internet, it appears that the most heavily promoted product, White Smoke, might be a scam. (What does the name of the company imply? That it will help you write more graceful thank you notes after you've been elected Pope?)"
That is hugely funny, a real belly laugher.
That is what makes your blog so good, a sense of humor. You never know when you are going to come across a gem like this.

Anonymous said...

Yep, it was great until it killed all innovation in desktop software.

Lack of progress in editor software may be due to lack of progress in artificial intelligence. Natural language recognition (so I have read) hit a brick wall a few years ago.

DC Handgun Info said...

You might be interested in the "I WRITE LIKE" website:

http://iwl.me/

David said...

You should be programming such software, not using it.

Mr. Anon said...

Buy a copy of "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk and E.B. White. It's a thin little book filled with useful tips for good writing - only costs about $10. I wouldn't trust any software publisher or any of thier minions to offer advice on writing clear prose.

Robert said...

http://notinfallible.weebly.com/1/post/2010/09/every-write-makes-mistakes.html

Some ideas for you.

adsfasdfasf said...

I just ignore all rules and write whatever that is that be popping into my head time and again.

Kylie said...

Steve Sailer said..."Is there any good software for checking prose style?"

Your asking this question reminds me of the dentist who suggested that Gene Tierney wear braces to correct her overbite.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it would be possible to catch certain obvious style problems, like using "like" twice in the same sentence--things like that. But it is hard to envision a style editor that opted to go further not trampling on individual voice. Even if a program were successful in mimicking the work of a newspaper editor, in the end all the resulting prose would end up sounding like the same newspaper.

Anonymous said...

Listen to your inner voice, Steve. I found those versions of software annoying, not least because they would suggest PC edits, such as the use of 'gender neutral' indefinite pronouns. The voice in my head happens to be the BBC announcer, circa 1950, and he does not say 'their' when he should say 'his' or 'that' when he means 'which'.
Strunk and White is of course excellent.

DJCS said...

My boss and I had a similar question a few months ago. LanguageTool works well enough for our needs and is free:

http://www.languagetool.org/screenshots/

Whiskey said...

You can try OpenOffice. Its free, versions available for Windows. Word compatible. Also try Abiword. Both have grammar checkers, will get the worst infelicities.

Don't know about stand-alone grammar checkers. There were some in the mid-nineties, they seem to have been killed by Word though.

There is an add-in for OpenOffice here:

http://www.languagetool.org/

Don't know much about it. Got some good reviews. Requires Java (which duh, so does OpenOffice).

Free. Try it and see if you like it.

Anonymous said...

"not was you're looking for but
http://scribe.googlelabs.com/
suggests the most likely word in the context."

Great if you want to write like a bureaucrat. If you want to write like Shakespeare, try this:

http://shakespeare.writelike.com/

Anonymous said...

"Is there any good software for checking prose style?"

That's idiotic. "Style" is an aesthetic judgment, and no computer can do that!

As for grammar, anyone who thinks that the simplistic and frequently absurd suggestions made by MS Word are helpful should take one of those dandy $78 courses at the local community college and brush up on his grammar. Computers are fundamentally retarded, and are just good at doing very quickly and in bulk what a human tells them to do. For a sample of how great computers are at figuring out grammar on their own, just type some English into any online translation site, then put the translation into the same site and turn it back into English. If you know the foreign language, it always turns out that the initial translation was bad at best and gibberish at worst, and when you turn that back into English, you get something something back that's complete unlike the original version.

Language can't be studied outside of content, and computers are idiots. They compute swiftly, sure. But they understand nothing. And to interpret language correctly, you actually have to understand it.

Kevin said...

I hope you don't find what you are looking for. I find you very easy to read, which is the most important thing. If you try to to "improve" it who knows what may happen.

CC-bLF said...

"I find you very easy to read, which is the most important thing."

Yeah, I'm with Kevin.

Steve, don't you DARE go altering your prose style. Not only are you an irreplaceable source of hysterically funny anti-PC bon mots, you have a rare knack for explaining complex statistical truths in ways that math-stunted minds like mine can "get."

You and Isaac Asimov: The only two writers I can think of the last hundred years who are both prolific and superb at the same time.

eh said...

Not that I know of.

Just read (or re-read) 'Lolita', and try to write your prose (by which I assume you mean non-fiction) like that. Except that it should be prose-y, not fiction-y.

V. Walter said...

I suppose, Mr. Sailer, that you already know about the Flesch-Kincaid readability level assessor? It used to be bundled in with Word and WordPerfect [remember WordPerfect?], and for all I know, might still be. I'm typing this on a machine that doesn't have up-to-date Word on it, so I can't check.

TonyTunes said...

Just read today about this Chrome extension:
"After the Deadline uses artificial intelligence to check spelling, style, and grammar. Use it to check your tweets, find mistakes in your email, and socialize with confidence."
https://chrome.google.com/extensions/detail/fcdjadjbdihbaodagojiomdljhjhjfho