A virus that fixes your grammar

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In today's Dilbert strip, Dilbert is confused by why the company mission statement looks so different, and Alice diagnoses what's happened: the Elbonian virus that has been corrupting the company's computer systems has fixed all the grammar and punctuation errors it formerly contained.

That'll be the day. Right now, computational linguists with an unlimited budget (and unlimited help from Elbonian programmers) would be unable to develop a trustworthy program that could proactively fix grammar and punctuation errors in written English prose. We simply don't know enough. The "grammar checking" programs built into word processors like Microsoft Word are dire, even risible, catching only a limited list of shibboleths and being wrong about many of them. Flagging split infinitives, passives, and random colloquialisms as if they were all errors is not much help to you, especially when many sequences are flagged falsely. Following all of Word's suggestions for changes would creat gibberish. Free-standing tools like Grammarly are similarly hopeless. They merely read and note possible "errors", leaving you to make corrections. They couldn't possibly be modified into programs that would proactively correct your prose. Take the editing error in this passage, which Rodney Huddleston recently noticed in a quality newspaper, The Australian:

There has been no glimmer of light from the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords were signed, just the usual intransigence that even the wider Arab world may be tiring of. Yet the West, the EU, nor the UN, have never made the PA pay a price for its intransigence.

You may not even have noticed the mistake at first, despite being told that there is an error. The use of nor in the second sentence negates the clause (as in Nor has the UN ever made the PA pay). The word never then negates it again. So it has the same property as something like Nor has the UN never made the PA pay — which is grammatical, but (in standard dialects) only has a meaning equivalent to "And sometimes the UN has made the PA pay", which cannot possibly be what the writer meant given the context.

When computer programs can actively spot and correct such unintended syntactic slips and fix them correctly without human supervision so that they have a sense that coheres with the discourse context, the world will be a very different place. Robot-piloted Uber shuttles will float past the windows of the spaceport in warm and sunny urban Arctic Canada as you wait for the Musk-Zuckerberg Mining Corporation's scheduled service from our flooded planet to one of the inner asteroids.

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