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Jack Smith

It was all Greek to him, until a human explained the hard-and-fast software of Homer

May 13, 1985|JACK SMITH

I am loath to be mean to people in this space, whatever their failings; and so I tend to be mean to machines, e.g., computers and their programs, since, presumably, they have no feelings.

But of course every software program has its father, or mother, and they have feelings.

And so when I undertook the other day to question the value of a software program named Homer, whose purpose is to help writers improve their prose, I didn't consider that Homer had a father, and that Homer's father, inevitably, had a mother.

You may remember that John Clendenning, professor of English at Cal State Northridge, had sent me a printout of Homer's analysis of an essay of mine, in which it noted that in only 166 words I had used 28 prepositions, 8 to be verbs, and 3 shun words (though I had used no woolly words). Such forms, Homer notes, make for bad prose.

I argued that my prose had been simple, graceful and effective, and could not be improved by revising according to Homer's suggestions.

"As the fellow who wrote Homer," writes Michael E. Cohen, programmer, of UCLA Writing Programs, "I must say I found your article very interesting. I agree that the 'first principle of the computer must always be 'garbage in, garbage out.' And, of course, you're right when you state that Homer couldn't actually read what you had written: It only compares the words in your test with its programmed word lists.

"I based Homer upon Richard Lanham's 'Revising Prose.' The book presents its stylistic advice as a 'paramedic method'--that is, emergency treatment for prose that is seriously sick. The symptoms include overuse of the passive voice, endless strings of prepositional phrases, excessively long sentences consisting of noun phrases linked by the verb 'to be'--in short, the sort of prose that bureaucrats and academicians all too often write. I found Dr. Clendenning's Homer analysis of your writing, while intriguing, a somewhat inappropriate use of the program.

"Homer does not require that you (or any writer) avoid all prepositions and 'to be' forms. You simply can't write intelligible English without them. But if almost every sentence you write uses a form of 'to be' as its central verb, your prose will almost certainly sound flat and lifeless. And if you bury your thoughts in rambling sentences consisting of one prepositional phrase after another, few readers will ever take the trouble to read your work."

Cohen clears up my misunderstanding of Homer's mark--an S--for a "shun" word. I had mistakenly assumed, when it marked my congregation as a shun word, that any four-syllable word was a shun word.

Cohen explains: "Shun words are words that contain the letters 'tion' or 'sion.' Such words are, as Homer's built-in Help feature explains, often verbs that have died and become nouns. 'Congregation,' for example, is the noun form of 'congregate.' In the essay that Dr. Clendenning analyzed, however, you couldn't possibly have converted the noun back into a verb; 'congregation,' in that instance, was specific, intended, and right. . . . "

As for Homer's "woolly" words (marked with a W), those are words that teachers hate to see students use--especially words like aspect, factor, basis, facet-- high-class-sounding words that usually substitute for thing .

I reiterate that Homer didn't catch me using any woolly words.

To prove that programmers are human, Cohen adds: "If you choose to write about Homer again, could you mention my name? It would make my mother very happy."

All right, let's make his mother proud of him. Of teaching English, he says:

"I wrote Homer as a teaching tool--not a teacher substitute. It is only as good as the teacher who uses it. I never meant for students (or any other writers) to use the program as a final authority on written style. It merely provides a new way to see a text, a 'relief map' of some very rudimentary stylistic features. An inventive teacher, knowing the program's strength and limits, can use it to spark some lively and informative discussions about style. I firmly believe that the most powerful piece of educational software is a good teacher, and without the teacher, all educational software suffers. . . . "

Meanwhile, Clendenning writes again to say that "the computer cannot make us better writers. Good writing cannot be programmed. But thoughtful programs, such as Homer, can pinpoint awkward, prolix phrases that need revision. For example, I notice that you ignored a sentence in your Seder essay where Homer identified a long string of prepositional phrases. When you wrote that sentence, did you know you were piling words upon words?"

I suppose he means this one, from the essay analyzed, in part, by Homer: "He sat at the head table beside the Rev. Thomas Kilgore Jr. of the Second Baptist Church, along with their associates in the two churches, and their wives."

"That's where Homer is useful," Clendenning comments. "He sees, somewhat superficially, and says, 'Hey, pay attention.' "

In that paragraph I had the reportorial problem of identifying those people and seating them at the head table in relation to each other; could Homer have done it better?

By the way, I'm not sure that the computer can't make writers better. The ease of revision must improve the finished product of any writer, excluding geniuses.

As for the forceful use of to be verbs, Dirk Tousley offers two heroic examples:

Hamlet: To be, or not to be . . .

And Popeye: I yam what I yam . . . .

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