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10 Places to Ignore Your Grammar and Spelling Checker

You check your documents electronically to try to catch every error. But your grammar and spelling checker may be giving you bad advice. Because it’s a software program, it can’t read your mind or know your intentions. Also, it can’t always distinguish between correct and incorrect sentence structures and the use of words that sometimes confuse us humans.

Grammar and spelling checkers have improved over the years. But they still flag errors that don’t exist. Review these 10 situations in which your software may cause errors rather than catch them:

1. When you use your reader’s name in a sentence. Grammar and spelling checkers may not recognize whether you are talking to or about the person. The sentences below are correct, but my grammar and spelling checker flagged them anyway.

  • Eric, thanks for writing this article. (The comma after Eric’s name is correct because we are addressing him directly.)
  • Dave, in the employee version, add an example here. (My checker suggested changing add to adds–wrong!)
  • Lynn, may we have permission to print your material? (It suggested that I capitalize may as a month.)

Spelling checker


2. When you begin a sentence with an introductory clause. Your grammar and spelling checker does not recognize where you intend the clause to end. In the first bulleted sentence below, for example, it may suggest a comma after write, Mark, or program. Just remember to use a comma before the main part of the sentence, as these sentences do:

  • When you write to Mark about the program in Kansas City, be sure he understands that it is in Missouri.
  • If they do give you a copy of the receipt, keep it for your records.
  • If you want to help employees improve their writing, use this guide.

3. When your software suggests changing a verb from singular to plural or vice versa (by adding s, removing s, or changing from is to are, for example). Your grammar and spelling checker may frequently suggest new errors in subject-verb agreement. The three sentences below are correct, but my grammar and spelling checker suggested changing them.

  • Subordinates has been replaced with the phrase “direct reports.” (The verb has is correct.)
  • Why is 5 wrong? (The verb is correct; are would be wrong.)
  • Thank you for letting us know about your shopping experience. (Know is correct–not knows!)

Spelling checker 2

4. When you use a plural noun. Your grammar and spelling checker “worries” that you might have intended to use a possessive form. If you want a plural, don’t be misled into changing your word. These sentences are correct:

  • I have taught thousands of professionals at all organizational levels. (Not professional’s and not professionals’!)
  • Be sure to give last names because there may be several Annes and Melanies in the group. (No apostrophes needed.)


5. When you use a possessive form or the contraction it’s. Your grammar and spelling checker may flag a correct possessive form or it’s, suggesting a different form. But don’t change sentences like these:

  • I went to the Nielsens’ cottage. (Not Nielsens.)
  • The car is hers and her mother’s. (Mother’s is correct as is.)
  • It’s ten miles to the next gas station. (This contraction is correct, but my grammar and spelling checker suggested its.)


6. When you use numbers less than 10. Your grammar and spelling checker is probably programmed to change numbers less than 10 to words, except in special situations. These sentences are correct, but my grammar and spelling checker flagged them:

  • He gave the performance a rating of 4.
  • See below for the details of what will happen on the 7th. (Not seventh.)
  • The meeting takes place from 3 to 5 p.m.

Spelling checker 3

7. When you use quotation marks.
Some grammar and spelling checkers suggest inserting commas before or after phrases in quotation marks. But those commas are often incorrect. These sentences are correct as is:

  • What does “insist” mean in this context? (No comma after “insist.”)
  • Did you read “Are You on Track for Retirement?” (No comma after read.)

8. When you write a sentence that is not in traditional subject-verb form. Your grammar and spelling checker expects standard word order, and it may flag correct sentences like these:

  • Below is an example taken from a performance appraisal. (It is not a question.)
  • If you have completed all the lessons, congratulations! (It is not a fragment.)
  • Coach employees to highlight their requests for action. (It is not a fragment.)
  • Within that quotation is the title of an essay. (A comma would be wrong after the word that.)

9. When you include a series of items. Grammar and spelling checkers often stumble when series include items of more than one word. These sentences are correct and would be wrong with the suggested changes:

  • Use links for these materials: definitions, charts, tables, maps, spreadsheets, requirements, lists of contacts, agendas, registration information, and costs. (Do not insert and before lists.)
  • We will provide a continental breakfast, an LCD projector (with cables), an easel with a flip chart pad, markers, name tents, and a class roster. (Do not insert and before “an easel.”)

10. When you use bullet points. Your grammar and spelling checker is likely to flag bullets as fragments, even though their structure is fine for bullet points. For example, the bullet points below may be fragments, but they are correct:

  • Be sure your document is:
    –Formatted in a consistent, clear layout.
    –Easy to skim by fast-moving readers.
    –Free of distracting errors.

Of course, ignore any nonsensical suggestions from your grammar and spelling checker. Mine suggested changing skimmable to swimmable, but I stood firm! I knew what I wanted.

Does your grammar and spelling checker catch other nonerrors?

If you want to catch errors in your writing, take my online courses Proofread Like a Pro and Punctuation for Professionals.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

7 comments on “10 Places to Ignore Your Grammar and Spelling Checker”

  • Thank you for the great topic.

    Often my spell checker makes suggestions I don’t think are correct. I usually search the internet to see which grammar rules apply. I’m not always correct either but I don’t leave it to the computer.

  • Hi Joyce and Cathy,

    Joyce, I’m glad you don’t trust your grammar and spelling checker blindly. Every once in a while I learn something from mine. Sometimes it’s to avoid phrases when one word will do. That’s when I appreciate it. But usually I end up repeatedly clicking “Ignore.”

    Cathy, I can imagine you shouting. Does it work? (Smile.)


  • So are grammar checkers more trouble than they’re worth? It seems their purpose is to help people who do not have a firm grasp of grammar. However, your article makes it seem that anyone who doesn’t understand the rules runs the risk that relying on them and accepting their corrections might end up making more mistakes than otherwise.

    When I think about this issue from the standpoint of people who have a shaky mastery of English, it seems that a grammar checker could actually get them into trouble.

    What do you think, Lynn?

  • Marcia, thanks for asking about a side of the topic I had not explored. I don’t think grammar and spelling checkers are more trouble than they are worth, but they certainly can cause trouble.

    I know the rules, but my grammar and spelling checker flags items I have overlooked in my draft. For example, sometimes I start a sentence with the sluggish “There are” or “There is,” and my checker reminds me to cut it and cut to the chase. (Example: “There is one more item I want to mention” becomes “I want to mention one more item.”) Also, I generally avoid passive verbs, but my checker flags any that appear in my writing, which gives me a chance to rethink my choices. And occasionally a typo leads me to subject-verb disagreement, and I appreciate the nudge to add an s.

    You are right that people who don’t know the rules of English well can be misled by their grammar and spelling checker. In many business writing classes, an individual has defended an odd choice with “Microsoft told me to do it that way.” And yet for virtually every point flagged, Microsoft provides an explanation and examples, as other software programs do.

    For instance, I just copied your comment into a Word document. It flagged your second sentence with the comment “Wordiness (consider revising).” An explanation followed, saying, “You may be using more words than you need to express your idea. Consider deleting introductory phrases such as ‘there is,’ ‘there are,’ ‘it is,’ and ‘it was’ for a more forceful and convincing tone.” Several examples followed that explanation.

    An excellent writer like you might read the comment and say, “No, I intentionally began with ‘It seems’ because I want to be tentative rather than emphatic here.” A less experienced writer might puzzle over the advice–or automatically drop “It seems,” with a resulting unfortunate shift in tone.

    I wouldn’t tell anyone to avoid running a check of grammar and spelling because of the trouble it might cause. As you can guess, I would rather encourage people to recognize the limitations of their programs and to learn the rules and how to apply them. That way, they can more confidently decide when to ignore or accept suggestions.

    Thanks for the engaging question!


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