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In the sentence

The presence of a university can also shape…

MS Word suggests writing "can also shapes...":

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What's happening here?

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    I think MS Word believes "a university can" is an object that "shapes" things.
    – gotube
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 15:09
  • 1
    When a university can is present, its presence shapes the thingamabob. I think you've accidentally discovered a new garden path sentence. Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 23:14

3 Answers 3

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It seems that your grammar checker is interpreting "university can" as a noun phrase - "university" (higher education institute) + "can" (metal container of food or drink).

When a university can is present, its presence also shapes the design of the carton in which the can is stored. The larger radius of the university can necessitates a wider carton which doesn't fit neatly into the dimensions of the pallet. If the carton only contains corporate cans, it may be made narrower.

It's pretty contrived.

I suppose that a good grammar checker would notice that "can" is either a verb or a noun, and that it's probably a verb.

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Essentially, what's happening here is that you have discovered why grammar checkers are so bad You should turn off MS Word's grammar checker. It is (or rather its creators are) not, apparently, aware that 'shape' can be a verb as well as a noun. Or, alternatively, it may 'know' that (I use the quotes deliberately), but not that the verb can have singular and plural forms. Or the creators do know all these things, but aren't smart enough to create a grammar checker that can implement all this (because no-one is smart enough).

The author of the article I linked to above typed 'the car was parked by the curb' (i.e. adjacent to the curb) into MS Word 2011, and its grammar checker thought it detected passive voice, and suggested 'The curb parked the car'. This is crazy. The author quotes a Professor Perelman, who ran a university writing program:

"So much of English grammar involves inference and something called mutual contextual beliefs," says Perelman. "When I make a statement, I believe that you know what I know about this. Machines aren't that smart. You can train the machine for a specific situation, but when you talk about transactions in human language, there's actually a huge number of inferences like that going on all the time."

Perelman has a beef with grammar checkers, which he claims simply do not work. Citing previous research, he found that grammar checkers only correctly identified errors in student papers 50 percent of the time. And even worse, they often flagged perfectly good prose as a mistake, known as a false positive.

In one exercise, Perelman plugged 5,000 words of a famous Noam Chomsky essay into the e-rater scoring engine by ETS, the company that produces (and grades) the GRE and TOEFL exams. The grammar checker found 62 errors — including 14 instances of a sentence starting with a coordinating conjunction ("and," "but," "or") and nine missing commas — all but one of which Perelman classified as "perfectly grammatical prose."

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What is happening is that the grammar checker has incorrectly identified the word "shape" as noun and not a verb.

If your example is exactly as in the question: that is you have asked the grammar checker to check a half sentence that trails off with "..." then this is not too surprising. Grammar checkers expect full sentences of fairly formal written English.

If that was a complete sentence (and you have only quoted part of it) it would be a misparsing by the grammar checker. Grammar checkers are computer programs. Natural language is hard for computers to parse. The noun "shape" is much more common than the verb. In this particular instance, it seems that the presence of the adverb "also" is confusing the algorithm and resulting in the mistake.

But notice the wording of the error message: "Double-check that ..." The computer is not saying "This is wrong". It is saying "I'm not sure, can a human look at this again". It is up to the human to decide. I'm less categorical than Michael Harvey on grammar checkers. I think they help catch typos and can enforce stylistic consistency. But I never let the grammar checker overrule my own judgement.

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  • I turned off my MS Word and Outlook grammar checkers principally because they kept pushing the tired old 'don't use passive voice' thing. Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 18:15
  • Yes, that always was annoying. But I still make enough typing mistakes, like writing "the" twice that I do like the machine to notice those. I think you can turn the "passive voice" warning off, in some setting.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 18:49
  • My big bugbear is 'teh' for 'the'. But my boss writes things like 'If I had of known...' and nobody turns a hair. Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 19:07
  • I don't think it has identified "shape" as a noun. Rather, it is confused about what role "can" is playing. As intended, it's part of the verb, "can shape." MS Word is thinking it's part of the noun, "a university can" (as in a paint can that a university owns).
    – nasch
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 18:44

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