Digital Humanities Abstracts

“The limits to computer-based grammar checking for foreign language learners of English?”
Philip Bolt Department of English, Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Although much work has been carried out in the areas related to computer-based grammar checking programs (those wh ich specifically deal with syntactically ill-formed input), the history of this endeavour is not an especially successful one for either native speaker language or the possibly less complex language of the English as a foreign language (EFL) learner. A number of factors militate against the development of a program about which we can be confident in its capacity to identify faulty syntax and provide linguistically appropriate reformulations. Yet, with sufficiently fine-grained lexical and syntactic data and sensitive processes (including those involving the learner to some degree), it is possible in some cases to identify the syntactic aspects of a faulty sentence and to say, with reasonable confidence, what is wrong. In many cases, it is possible to locate a problematic area, rather than a single feature and to suggest one or more reformulations involving that area, and possibly beyond. In other cases, however, the lexical and structural complexities, the range of problems within and across phrase and clause edges and the range of potential solutions make structural analysis, and problem identification and reformulation, much more difficult. This suggests that there might be a threshold (or rather series of different thresholds) of complexity/corrigibility beyond which a grammar checker might not be effective. ISCA (Interactive Sentence Constructor and Analyser) is a program which provides the framework for the demonstration and discussion of what is involved in the design, construction and operation of a grammar checking program for EFL students, together with the features which collectively contribute to the above thresholds. In addition to the graphical depiction of the program and related issues provided by the poster, likely discussion will be approached through the demonstration of a number of well and ill-formed sentences, which illustrate the data and process involved in sentence construction, correction and the user's contribution to these. It is suggested that these sentences illustrate a range of structural features - including the number, nature and distribution of items - word-form/word-class pairings - the directness of such pairings to phrases and clause elements, the availability of a range of key words, and the range and type of possible reformulations - which contribute to the notion of a number of complexity/corrigibility thresholds. The use of the software will provide a `hands-on' opportunity and complement the information provided on the poster. Together, they will give those interested an opportunity for observation and discussion of the program and its underlying philosophy and ontology. The presentation might appeal to a) those disdainful of the performance of commercial grammar (style) checking programs, but who may not have fully appreciated what is involved, b) those who have (or are) working on parsers and grammar checking programs of their own, and, c) those who feel that syntax is not important for writers and readers.