Student guest post: Why can’t Microsoft Word be smarter?

by andybechtel

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Tim Freer is a senior graphic design and editing major at UNC-Chapel Hill. He spends his hours writing, enjoying the company of friends, debating philosophical issues and in the near future (he hopes) traveling the world.

Microsoft Word is easily the most widely used word processor in America. It was what I grew up typing with, and I’m sure most of the people of my generation can relate to that.

Word has long boasted many useful tools for paper-writing, checking spelling and grammar and offering templates for users, along with much more (including long-standing problems that still have yet to be fixed). Especially given the recent technological surge, I can’t help but feel that Word should be a much smarter program than it is.

Considering the vast array of technological wonders we’ve accomplished in the last few years — touch screens, 3-D movies, video chat, video games that map your body movements and transfer them to the screen — you’d think that we would be able to formulate a program that can  provide useful grammatical insight while simultaneously allowing users to format a visually appealing page.

However, that reality remains elusive. At the most basic level, Word is often frustrating, even for a common user like me.  The faulty grammar check is one of the biggest turn-offs: Nothing is more annoying than writing a grammatically accurate sentence, only to see it underlined in squiggly green because Word misinterpreted a comma or an apostrophe.

As a writer, I have conditioned myself to know the difference between sound-alikes like ‘tail’ and ‘tale.’ “The boy stepped on the cat’s tale” is an obviously flawed sentence that Word could never see because its abilities are so limited. This is a very basic example, but it applies to countless other words and grammatical situations; eliminating these misunderstandings could be highly useful for practically everyone.

Grammar is just the start of it. In terms of layout, Word is also ages behind a program like Adobe InDesign, which allows for much easier placement and organization of pictures and text boxes. This makes Word’s on-spot placement and irritating text wrap seem clunky and outdated.

As far as I know, you cannot change the spacing in Word without the format of the entire document reverting back to its original size and font. Even if Word can do that through changing the default settings or doing some other complicated maneuver, the point is that these annoyances are a non-factor in InDesign. Indentations and bulleting are still problematic and inconsistent in Word as well.

Why Microsoft Word has fallen this far behind the technological curve is somewhat puzzling, because it clearly seems to be within our capabilities to improve it. Is it that far-fetched for a program like Word to be able to map word rhythms and patterns, analyze similar-sounding words and multiple meanings, and sniff out those little ‘tale-tail’ mishaps?  What if, similar to Word’s built-in spell check, thesaurus and dictionary, it had a pre-programmed AP style guide (or any other guide, for that matter) that could detect flaws accordingly and suggest changes?

I understand that more complex functions like these could have difficulty analyzing sentences as they are being written, but how much more complex is that, really, than the basic automatic grammar and spell check? Regardless, if the function were not automatic and instead initiated by the user for the sake of revision, that argument becomes more difficult to make.

Before I get ahead of myself, I must clear up one reservation I have with all of this. There is truly something to be said for people being able to formulate sentences themselves without seeking wisdom from a screen. A pampered society is a stupid society (and in this case, a potentially illiterate one). I certainly want my kids to be able to use proper grammar, to write and to spell on their own.

At the same time, at least at a professional level, the utility of a program with a built-in style guide or group of style guides would be undeniable. Though it may be less exciting to create a problem-free, all-encompassing word processor than it is to create a dazzlingly realistic video game, the former could quicken the transfer of news and information around the world considerably. It’s astounding to think of how much more efficient writing and editing news stories could be if newspaper staffs didn’t have to leaf through their AP style guides looking for guidelines that may or may not exist at all.

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