Jack Smith

Taking a computer odyssey with HOMER to discover whether good writing can be programmed

April 29, 1985|JACK SMITH

As much as I love my computer, I don't believe the computer is going to make a better writer of me, or of anyone else.

The first principle of the computer must always be: Garbage in, garbage out.

However, it was inevitable that the computer would be used in the composition of English, beyond being merely a typing machine; and I am told by John Clendenning, professor of English at Cal State Northridge, that this revolution has already begun.

"I don't need to tell you that we live in the computer age," he writes. "Even English departments feel the impact. A number of software programs that help to teach writing have recently appeared. Next year I will use one of them, HOMER, in my freshman composition class.

"This method guides writers to clear, concise prose that uses strong verbs and nouns," Clendenning says. "It eliminates strings of prepositional phrases, nominalizations, 'woolly' words and that all-purpose blah verb, to be.

"Students type their rough drafts into the computer, and HOMER analyzes the text, marking prepositions, 'to be' verbs, 'shun' words and 'woolly' words. The program doesn't actually revise the prose; it only counts and flags words that may indicate weak prose. The students must decide if they can use HOMER's analysis to improve their work."

To get my attention, Clendenning had enclosed the printout of a few sentences from a column of mine, as analyzed by HOMER. Naturally, I had to see what it said.

The column happened to be the one I wrote about going to a seder at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. It began like this:

"We went to a seder the other night."

HOMER didn't like that preposition, to. The sentence was marked by a P.

Next sentence: "I had never been to a seder."

HOMER marked that one with a T and a P. It hadn't liked my to be verb-- been --nor my preposition-- to.

"I am not a Jew." Got another T there; to be verb.

"I am not a religious person." Another T.

"But Rabbi Alfred Wolf," I wrote, "of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple (P) was (T) holding this seder in (P) the interests of (P) brotherhood, and he knows I believe in (P) that.

"He had invited the congregation of the Second Baptist Church. . . ." (SP)

What was that S for? A shun word? Which one? Congregation? What's wrong with congregation?

" . . . a landmark of the black community (P), to share the feast in the temple (P) with his own congregation." (PS). No doubt of it now. Congregation is a shun word.

All in all, Clendenning fed a total of 166 of my words to HOMER, in 12 sentences, and HOMER counted 28 prepositions, 8 to be verbs, 3 shun words and 0 woolly words.

I don't know what woolly words are, but perhaps they are words like scrumptious, glitzy, humongous and so forth. In any case, I am quite pleased that I didn't use any.

However, if HOMER is a good judge of bad prose, I'm in trouble.

I wonder if I could rewrite those sentences to avoid all those to be verbs and prepositions. First, "We went to a seder the other night."

Easy: "We attended a seder the other night."

Do you like it better? I don't.

Next, "I had never been to a seder." We have to get rid of both the to be verb and the preposition.

How about this? "I had not previously attended a seder."

Better? No way.

Next we have, "I am not a religious person." How can we say that without a to be verb?

How about, "Religion does not interest me."

But that isn't true. Religion does interest me. It's just that I'm not a member of any church.

From there on, as I try to eliminate the prepositions and the to be verbs, always at the sacrifice of simplicity and grace, it becomes increasingly absurd.

I suspect that what HOMER has in mind is the kind of wordy writing that is full of cumbersome prepositional phrases such as in order to, and for the purpose of, and of which.

I don't know what its objection to congregation is, unless it automatically objects to four-syllable words; of course congregation may be used in a loose way, as aggregation is, to mean merely a crowd or gang; but I was using it in its specific sense. As for to be verbs, I suppose HOMER would automatically fault Descartes' Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), on the grounds that I am is the first person singular, present tense, of the verb to be.

One's identity is, after all, at the center of all writing, and one can only imagine the bad writing that will be produced when HOMER's pupils begin trying to avoid the verb to be.

What it comes down to is something that is not going to be changed, I think; and that is that HOMER couldn't actually read what I had written. He couldn't actually make sense of it; he had no idea who I was, or what a seder was, or the nature of being Jewish, or black, or non-religious.

All HOMER knows is what his inventors told him--that prepositions and to be verbs and certain types of words are bad, and should be reconsidered by their authors.

It might help; I don't know.

But I'll still bet on those freshmen college students who had good reading teachers in kindergarten and grammar school, and learned how to put a sentence together before they ever encountered (S) HOMER.

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