(I will convert the Computers and Composition post into a pedagogical resources page on our sidebar. This post is the first in a series of excercises that use computers in composition. I haven’t been able to locate any sites that consolidate computer-centered exercises specifically for essay composition. Although this exercise primarily revolves around MS Word, the ones that follow will employ a number of Digital Character Art devices. Writers Respond Teacherly with your own exercises and we’ll add them to the database).

Word Processes

Most students use their word processing programs early in their writing process. These are power tools which can easily slip off track and slice off a rhetorical finger. The exercises below address some of the techniques for safe handling when using MS Word, all though most of the exercises can be performed on any word processor.

Snapshot of Clippit

GREP Editing
Grammar Chucker
Shift-F7 Vocab
Track Tricks
Version Verbage

GREP Editing: Formerly g/re/p: Globally search for the Regular Expression and Print the lines. Essentially GREP is the search-and-replace process in editing code. In editing your work, GREP can serve to help you search for your frequent grammatical mistakes. Exercise: Edit one of your papers by searching for the usual suspects of the grammar errors you tend to make.

Ex. You mistake ???complimentary??? and ???complementary.???
Search for all instances of both words and re-evaluate.

You over or misuse certain punctuation marks (;) or you put ??? inside punctuation ( ???.) Search and re-evaluate.

Grammar Checker: This so-called tool can add to your woes, particularly when auto-correct is also activated. However, some writers suffer from Grammar Checkers gone wild. The goal is to develop a sense of when to follow and when to ignore the green squiggle. Here we review tips on how to use the squiggle without becoming an automaton. Exercise: construct 4 grammatically incorrect sentences that grammar checker does not flag. Flip-side: construct 4 grammatically correct sentences that grammar checker marks as incorrect or suspicious.

Spell Check-mate: Spell check is a miracle enacted by an idiot deity. As we did in the grammar checker exercise, let us examine the shortcomings of the spell checker, particularly the hazards of technical terms, proper names, et cetera. Exercise: Write a paragraph that completely baffles your spell checker by using custom terms or jargon, unusual vocabulary, and the typical homophone errors.

Shift-F7 Vocab: (Also right-click on the mouse) This Windows shortcut will access the thesaurus. Many word choice errors are born of this attempt to automate variety of lexicon. Exercise: Write a paragraph and then use shift-F7 for each noun, choosing the first offering, regardless of context. Print out your ???before??? and ???after??? paragraphs.

Track Tricks: Instead of commenting on hard copies, try tracking changes on each other???s documents. One note: please do not ???Accept all changes,??? as that would be a form of plagiarism.

Version Verbage: When does it pay to save versions of your documents? Here we take a page out of the computer science practice of ???versioning??? to more rigorously track the development of drafts. Tasks include saving versions and using the compare and merge function.

6 Responses to “Computers and Comp. Excercise 1.”

  1. 1 Jeremy Douglass


    I enjoy this lesson concept a lot. Two reactions:

    GREP: first, it seems to me that the GREP excercise needs more thinking through, in particular claryfing to students how/why the use of advanced Find/Replace is different from using a spellchecker. For clarity, we might want to refer to the history but call call the excercise itself a Find/Replace excercise if it will be occuring inside Word / OpenOffice / etc. and not using GREP syntax - although ideally the excercise would still use wildcards. I think it is a mistake to ask students to fix their own most commonly occuring problems, especially because they often don’t know what those problems are or don’t know to what extent they can be pattern-matched. Perhaps better to ask them to clarify a key term, phrase, or conceptual label used often in their paper, e.g. “Mr. Arthur Doyle -> Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” “people -> citizens” etc. (”America -> the United States” is a common problem, for example).

    Tracking and versioning: ideally, this would round up a defined sequence of previous excercises. That is, you write something (1.0), clarify a key term (2.0), get feedback (3.0)… the trick is to decide where the “perverse versions” that break the spellchecker, grammar checker, and thesaurus should fall in the sequence.

  2. 2 Mark Marino


    You say:

    I think it is a mistake to ask students to fix their own most commonly occuring problems, especially because they often don???t know what those problems are or don???t know to what extent they can be pattern-matched.

    But this is exactly what I hope to teach students to do. I imagine this exercise as coming after the first few papers in which the teacher has already given them feedback on their most common mistakes. I encourage students to keep their own lists.

    If done in a lab, the teacher could help them hands-on to use the exercise, though I like your ideas for editing the text as well.

    The goal eventually would be for this to be a process that they could apply before turning in final drafts but that they could use in adapt as they become more aware of their process.

  3. 3 Jeremy Douglass

    Also check out the archives of the Research in Word Processing Newsletter (1983-1989), particularly issues 5.5, 6.5, and 7.5 for the lit review.

    From Bradley Morgan’s 1983 introduction to the first issue:

    “For students and professors in a wide variety of disciplines, writing is???or should be???a primary tool for learning. The computer can help with all phases of the writing process, from the heuristic mustering of an idea-base to oft-neglected revision. It can provide a quantitative measure of a writer’s style???or allow a professor with a standalone system to offer detailed, student-specific comment sheets. The word processor not only saves time, conserves labor, and solves problems, but it also reinforces the traditional mission of writing programs.”

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

    re: GREP

    Mark, maybe I’m misunderstanding the sense in which you mean GREP. Spelling and Grammar checkers are already amazingly optimized for situations in which commonly occuring errors need to be considered, often on a case-by-case basis, then dealt with. The results of asking a writer to Find/Replace or GREP common errors will usually look like this: 1. Writer hits “Spellcheck” 2. Writer skips each checks, noting common ones on a scrap of paper. 3. Writer uses Find/Replace as instructed to manually enter an edit that could have been done using the spellchecker “Replace All” button. 4. Writer wonders what the point was.

    I use GREP constantly as a programmer and when editing large documents - but not to correct common errors. Instead, I generally use it to rename, paraphrase, and restructure ( http://writerresponsetheory.org -> http://writerresponsetheory.org ). There are good examples of when you should eschew the specialized frontends to Find/Replace that are the grammar / spellchecker - but I’m not sure that grammar and spelling mistakes are among them. But perhaps we are saying the same thing in different terms….

  5. 5 Mark Marino

    Going back to how say I have used this practice effectively, writers can search for homophone errors that may not bee caught by a grammar checker. Or writer may cheque for over-used transitional words: Therefore or a family favorite: Meanwhile.

    These exercises also are not meant solely for the purpose of improving a particular document either. They are meant as exercises to get the students to think about (by typing in and searching–a form of writer response) the errors that they make.

    When people spellcheck (and again I use myself as an example) they do not often learn the correction so much as “accept” the correction the way they might just make all the changes a teacher marks on a draft without learning why the correction needs to be made.

    This exercise tries to encourage students to make note of their common errors (specifically grammatical and maybe broadly stylistic), to think of how to “find” them in a search, and to replace when appropriate.

    Take the imaginary person who mistakes compliment for complement. Spellchecker won’t catch this. Grammar check probably won’t catch this, but if the student is aware of a tendency to make this mistake, searching for instances of compliment and complement might be an efficient way of weeding out the mistake while testing his or her knowledge of the rule.

    Btw, my grammar checker caught nun of the errors in this post.

  1. 1 Single-Click Grammar & Spelling Checker | 7Wins.eu

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