Time for new grammar checking

Subtitle: protecting the language

So I am often bad with sayings and grammar; as a result, I am fascinated by the subject. There are a number of these which I have often misused, some of which include:

  • I’ve used “here here” when I should have used “hear hear”. See this post for details.
  • I’ve said “intensive purposes” when I should have said “intents and purposes”. I had even worked out a definition, including how they differed from “extensive purposes”.
  • I’ve said “mute point” when it should be “moot point”. See here for details.
  • I also mix up a variety of sayings, such as the nonsensical “double-bladed edge”.
  • And the list goes on…

In addition to the language rules blog linked above, another great place to learn about such things is A Way With Words, broadcast on many local NPR stations.

Unfortunately, I see these mistakes as muddying up our language, so I would like to get better about it. But rather than
going out and searching down each of these cases to learn independently, I feel like there is a better solution. As a computer scientist, I recognize that we already have the perfect mechanism for this — the grammar checkers. Our word processing software already has a grammar checkers, and our web browsers have spell checking, so it may just be a matter of time. I think the grammar checker should be adapted to look for misuses of the language, and to suggest alternatives to writers. This suggestion should come complete with internet links to learn more about the cases found. So in the future, when I “tow the line”, it can let me know that I should instead “toe the line”. So short of listing all commonly mistaken sayings, how can we build software to do this? That is my question. But in the meanwhile, I would just settle for a [possibly community maintained] database of common mistakes it can check for.


I had the fortune of being upgraded to first class in my flights from Seattle back to Indianapolis yesterday. In Minneapolis, I got in line to board the plane after the announcement of first class seating, and was second in line, when I hear the gate agent ask someone behind me if they are in first class.

Immediately upon hearing the question, I cringe. I hope, hope, that the person behind me is looking lost and is in fact not in first class, to avoid the significant potential for a train wreck right there in line. The response from behind me is [imagine being said with a slight amount of attitude] “Of course I’m in first class. Why would I be in the first class line if I weren’t in first class!”. Uh oh. The gate agent just stepped in it, and in a big way. Thankfully, the African-American woman behind me leaves it at that. As we walk down the gangway, I hear the woman describe what just happened on the phone, while letting the person on the phone know that she didn’t make a scene. At this point, very amused, and thankful that the boarding process was not going to be delayed today, I turn around and let the woman know that I was very proud of her for keeping her cool. Tiffany ends up being seated next to me, and on further discussion about it, she lets me know that today, she is in a really good mood, and she wasn’t going to let that bring her down.

So let this be a word of warning. Don’t assume. What I expect the gate agent should have done was to first check her ticket, and then remind her she was in the wrong place only once he was sure her ticket was not a first class ticket.