The G Files

The G Files Part 5: You Would Lose Clothes

Happy new academic year! Here’s a reminder of how automatic grammar-checking software can mangle your work into nonsense, because it’s just applying blind rules and heuristics without understanding the meaning.

This is an example I found in the wild in a published article, so, to be fair, I don’t know that this one was the result of grammar-checking software; but it seems like exactly the sort of thing that software would do. The alternative is that there was a human editor who just unintelligently changed the spellings of words based on the words immediately surrounding them rather than understanding the whole sentence; but that’s a bit depressing.

In this article, the author is writing about cuboidal bags into which you pack your clothes, so that “you’ll have a much easier time fitting these packages into your suitcase or backpack than you would loose clothes” – as in, you can fit these into your suitcase more easily than you would be able to fit loose clothes into your suitcase. “Loose” is an adjective here, modifying “clothes”.

But either the grammar-checking software or an unintelligent human editor saw the sequence of words “you would loose clothes” in isolation, and mistook them for a complete grammatical chunk, without understanding the whole sentence. It thought “you would loose clothes” was an error for “you would lose clothes”, with “lo[o]se” as the verb, and so miscorrected the whole sentence to “You’ll have a much easier time fitting these packages into your suitcase or backpack than you would lose clothes”, which doesn’t parse or make sense.

(Trying to spot “loose” being used as a verb is a reasonable heuristic for the software’s creators to have programmed in, since bad writers often do write “loose” when they mean “lose”. But this example shows how this process can fail because it lacks true understanding. Plus, of course, “loose” can occasionally be used correctly as a verb, as in “to loose the hounds”.)

If I were editing the article, I’d probably just reword it to “these packages will fit into your suitcase or backpack much more easily than loose clothes will”. It’s important to remove errors, but it can also be worth rewording grammatically correct sentences which careless readers might mistake for errors, because that can hurt your brand image in the same way as genuine errors.

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