JUST BECAUSE WORD DOES IT …

As a society, we’ve developed a frightening level of trust in technology. We often abandon our own knowledge and better judgment because some aspect of technology has a different answer — and it must be correct, right?

Microsoft Word is an amazing piece of technology. I spend several hours with it every day, and I know that I’ll never do more than scratch the surface of its capabilities. But any piece of software is only as good as the knowledge and preferences of its programmers.

Take Word’s grammar checker. What a handy tool! It can spot embarrassing mistakes, giving you an opportunity to correct them before your work gains a wider audience. Unfortunately, it often spots mistakes that aren’t really mistakes — but our abiding trust in all things Microsoft makes us go along with the suggested corrections. That’s particularly true when it comes to subject-verb agreement, a topic with the potential to ignite furious arguments among writers (and whose tendency to dredge up memories of fourth grade can drive ordinary mortals into therapy). For example, in the sentence “The group of kids at the museum was being unruly,” many people would say that “kids” was the subject, so “was” should be “were.” That‘s the kind of “error” Word often flags. But in reality, “group” was the subject, making “was” the correct choice. Simplify the sentence, and you’ll get “The group was being unruly.”

Word also has the annoying habit of automatically underscoring hyperlinks (and turning them blue), and people have allowed that habit to extend into printed materials. Hyperlinks are a dandy thing in online materials, but they’re useless in printed pieces. No matter how many times you click on a blue, underscored link in a printed brochure, your browser won’t pop open. Even worse, including those links marks you as an amateur, and makes your work appear to be amateurish. Be brave — don’t follow Word’s lead.

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