I like the sound of your dad — I too want as little to do with automatic gearboxes as possible!
To continue with a rant (I know Keith, as an ex-primary school teacher, is likely to train his big guns on me, and that any generalisations are going to be wrong in parts!):
I think the existence of grammar checkers, style checkers, spelling checkers have merely served to exacerbate the prediliction of our education systems to aim for the lowest common denominator and say, “We don’t need to teach children how to spell; they have computers with spell checkers. We don’t need to teach them grammar; they have computers with grammar checkers.” The same horrific principle as “We shouldn’t bother teaching them mental arithmetic; they have calculators.”
So we end up with a generation that can’t write — I remember seeing a PhD admissions tutor being interviewed on TV some years ago; he said that 80+% of applicants he turned down because they couldn’t write a correctly spelt, grammatical covering letter. Yes, there have always been people who have had trouble with spelling, grammar and arithmetic. That may have been a failure by the education system; to me it is an equally awful failure of the education system that many children who could have mastered spelling and grammar have not been helped to do so.
Admittedly, it is some time ago, but I’m sure there are still areas where this is the case today. When our daughter was coming up to four and we were moving to London, we were prospecting for a primary school for her. One head proudly showed me a writing assignment of one pupil in the top class — a description of the living room in their house. It was chock full of very elementary spelling and grammar mistakes, none of them even marked for the child’s attention let alone corrected, all done under the “Correcting their English will destroy their creativity” ethos. To be creative you need to master the relevant tools … or you did! And in writing, that is spelling, grammar and an ear/eye for style.
And to put the back up of the rest of you, I think that anyone who aspires to be a writer, but who thinks dependency on spell checkers, grammar checkers etc. will help should be wondering about his/her commitment to being a writer. Spell checkers miss hundreds of errors through homophones; grammar checkers mark perfectly correct grammar as wrong; and reliance on reading indices reduces writing to the most pedestrian and banal level, perhaps acceptable in business correspondence, irrelevant for any attempt at creative writing. It is only by giving the time to identifying our mistakes, solepsisms, infelicities and becoming aware internally of our usages and failures that we improve and develop our own style. To mechanise that process is to reduce its centrality.
Colonel X of Tunbridge Wells!
PS from Mark: I did once attend a conference paper which did for me give a valid use for the grammar checker in Office. The speaker was an Australian who taught writing to non-native English speaking postgraduate students on pre-admission courses. Over a number of years, he had completely customised the grammar checker, writing his own rules to mark up all the errors that his students produced, and none of the spurious rules. Every student was given the rule set to install, which they had to use with all their writing assignments, working out for themselves how to correct any errors it marked. He would not accept any assignment from his students with any errors marked. His records showed a considerable improvement in the students’ writing following the implementation of the system. So yes, any of you who are writing in a language not your mother tongue, grammar and spell checkers may help … but only if you can find someone to customise the grammar checker to the right level, and you distrust the spell checker!