Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Difference between Even If and Even Though

Even if you don't know the difference and even though English grammar can be tricky for learners of English as a Second Language, this question comes up often: what is the difference between "even if" and "even though"?

Do you know the difference? 
What is the difference between even if and even though?


 Even if robots are not human, they have many human characteristics.
 Even though robots are not human, they have many human characteristics.
Use "even if" when your are not sure if it is true. Use "even though" when you are expressing a fact.

Common Errors 

Here are some examples of common errors that the VirtualWritingTutor can catch.
  • I am always screaming like a stuck pig even if I am not one. 
  • She loves them all, even if they are wild animals.
  • Even if Routers are not humans, they still have one human characteristic. 

Useful Resources

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Aspect and Its Effect on Meaning

Many English Second Language learners understand the difference between past, present and future tenses, but they struggle to understand the difference between the simple, progressive, perfect progressive and perfect aspects. What is the difference between the following sentences?
  1. I work.
  2. I am working.
  3. I have been working.
  4. I have worked.

Do you know the difference? 

The effect of aspect on meaning on English verbs
The effect of aspect on meaning on English verbs


  1. I work. The Simple Aspect emphasizes that an activity is normal and routine.
  2. I am working. The Progressive Aspect emphasizes that an activity is temporary and in-progress.
  3. I have been working. The Perfect Progressive Aspect emphasizes that the activity was recently finished or interrupted. 
  4. I have worked. The Perfect Aspect can express a past event to emphasize its present consequences.

Common Errors 

Here are some examples of common aspect errors that the VirtualWritingTutor can catch.
  • My brother is usually playing video game.
  • I live here since I am born.
  • I am working here for 4 years.
  • After the party, while I was sleeping I've been dreaming about something wrong. 

Useful Resources

Friday, November 27, 2015

Aspect Error with the Present Progressive and the Simple Present

English can be confusing for many learners because of something called aspect. To illustrate, you can say, "I am eating breakfast" and "I eat breakfast." Both are correct. Both are in the present tense, but each has a different aspect and communicate a different meaning. Do you know when to use the Simple Present and when to use the Present Progressive? Try this.

Do you know the answer? 


 Every day, I am waking up at noon. 
 Every day, I wake up at noon.
Use the Simple Present, not the Present Progressive, for normal routines, habits and facts.

Similar Errors

  • My brother is usually playing video game.
  • My mother is really special for me because I can't cook without burning the whole house, so she's making all my meals all days.
  • Every year student is having difficulty to decision the right career.

Useful Resources

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Double Object Unnecessary Pronoun Error

Sometimes it is not clear whether a pronoun is needed or not. This is especially true in sentences where the object comes before its verb. Here's a quiz that illustrates the choices that many learners of English face. Which one is correct? 

Do you know the answer? 


 Name one thing that money can't buy it
 Name one thing that money can't buy it with
 Name one thing that money can't buy. 
? The object of the verb "can't buy" is "one thing," as if to say, "Money can't buy one thing." Don't double your object by adding the unnecessary pronoun "it". 

Similar Errors

  • Most the students try to do everything that their teachers ask them to do it.
  • Name the best football player that he won the first prize this year. 
  • When you get home, what is the first thing you are going to do it?  

Useful Resources

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Indefinite Article with an Uncountable Noun Error

Articles in English can be tough for learners of English whose first language does not have articles or uses articles differently. Do you find articles difficult? Try this one question quiz. 

Do you know the answer? 


 She has a brown skin
 She has the brown skin
 She has brown skin.
? Don’t use an indefinite article with uncountable nouns like “skin”. It is not something you normally count.   

Other examples of this error:

  1. I have a homework to do tonight.
  2. She called because had an information to tell me.
  3. Can you make me a software? 


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Negative Adverb Word Order

Word order can be tricky for learners, especially questions and emphatic sentences like the one below. Which is correct, "my child was" or "was my child"?

Do you know the answer? 


 At no time my child was in danger. 
 At no time was my child in danger.
? When a negative adverb begins a sentence, invert the subject and (auxiliary) verb.  

Other examples of this error:

  1. Never I had heard such a noise. 
  2. Hardly I had come in the door when my roommates started complaining.  
  3. At no time the students were in danger. 


Monday, November 16, 2015

Adjective Form Error

Knowing when to use the noun form of a word or an adjective form can be tricky. You can link a subject with either a noun or an adjective using the verb to be.  You can say,"I was a star," where star is a noun. You can also say, "I was famous," where famous is an adjective. Some choices are more difficult when nouns, adjectives, and adverbs are similar.

 Which is correct, "I am angry" or "I am anger" or "I am angrily"?

Do you know the answer? 


 When I heard the news, I was very anger.
When I heard the news, I was very angrily.
When I heard the news, I was very angry.
The noun "anger" means, "a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility."  The adverb "angrily" describes an action and means, "in an angry way."  The adjective "angry" means, "full of anger." Use the adjective form not the noun form in this context.

Other examples of this error:

  1. Let's eat. I'm hunger.  
  2. As a cheerleader, I have to be enthusiast. 
  3. I'm so pride of my son. 


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Adjective Agreement Error

In some languages, adjectives agree with the noun they modify in terms of gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and number (singular or plural). Do you know the rule for English? Test yourself. 

Do you know the answer? 


We sell t-shirts and some others clothes.
We sell t-shirts and some other clothes.

Adjectives and noun modifiers should not take a plural form when they modify plural nouns in English. There are, however, a few noun modifiers that end in an –s: operations, arms, sports, jobs, forensics, physics

Other examples of this error:

  1. Sometimes, stranges things happen to me. 
  2. They look like two twins girls.
  3. Maybe in a few years I will do a couple of faces lifts to look younger.
  4. I am always reading some loves stories in secret.  
  5. I have the strange habit to inform myself about the latest students parties.
  6. I have worked on many films projects.
  7. I don't pay rent, but I help my landlord repair differents things.
  8. We sell offices products.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Bad Corrections, Hedges, and False Alarms in the Corrective Feedback of an ESL Grammar Checker

One distinction I like to make between the Virtual Writing Tutor and other online grammar checkers is that the Virtual Writing Tutor is an English second language grammar checker whereas all others are English first language grammar checkers. You might wonder what the difference is since good grammar is good grammar. For me, it is a matter of assumptions, frequency of occurrence, and catching more errors.

Bad Corrections

Whereas certain popular and well-advertised commercial grammar checkers will detect and flag verb form errors, they might not be able to propose the right correction because the wrong assumption has been made about the error. Here's how one very popular and well-developed online grammar checker responds to one of my student's sentences.

What has happened is that this grammar checker has used the auxiliary to guide the correction of the verb. Looking further into the sentence, it is clear that "am going" is a bad correction. This particular grammar checker seems to have assumed that the writer has full control over auxiliaries and simply used the wrong form for the participle. This assumption has led the developer of the error-detection rule to ignore the rest of the sentence and propose just one correction based the theory that the auxiliary is right but the lexical verb is in the wrong form.

There are other theories that might explain this error. My preferred theory for most errors is that a combination of chaos and the first language impose themselves upon the expression of the message in the second language. From my experience teaching English to French-speaking college students here in Quebec, learners lack control over both the participle and the auxiliary. They don't know when they need an auxiliary and they don't know how the auxiliary interacts with the lexical verb that follows it. When they don't know, they frequently turn to their first language for guidance.

Teachers familiar with the learner's first language are usually able to interpret the error and supply a correct form because of clues the learner provides. Learners tend to have a sense that if the event happened in the past, pastness needs to be conveyed either with the verb or with other words in the sentence like "yesterday" or "before." In many cases, how best to convey pastness remains a mystery for beginners and low-intermediates, so no assumption based one part of the verb or one part of the sentence is safe. In other words, as I attempt to write error detection rules for the Virtual Writing Tutor, the presence of an auxiliary won't always indicate how best to correct a verb form error.

In this case, a combination of chaos and first language word-for-word translation seems to be responsible for "I am went at New-York." French speakers might produce "I am went at New-York" simply by translating "Je suis allé à New York" word-for-word, plus a little confusion about what the past participle of "go" might be. Since students may be more familiar with the Past Simple form "went" and less familiar with the past participle "gone," the combination "I am went" would not surprise ESL teachers working in Quebec. The correction "I am going" would.

Grammar Checkers for ESL Teachers

Bad automatic corrections put ESL teachers off all automatic grammar checkers. One of my colleagues confessed to me that he has never used the Virtual Writing Tutor with his students simply because he cannot believe that a machine could ever be effective at correcting ESL writing. His limited experience with automatic correction has led him to believe that grammar checkers are terrible and only a human teacher can sort out the chaos of ESL writing.

I try not to press my grammar checker on my colleagues for two simple reasons: 1) I do not want to be a bore, and 2) I recognize that it is still very much a work in progress. Even so, I earnestly want teachers to incorporate automated quizzes and automatic grammar correction into their pedagogy because I want to free them from some of the drudgery of teaching ESL. I believe that the less time teachers spend on surface errors, the more time they can spend developing their own digital literacy and preparing really engaging lessons for their students.

A Work in Progress

I remain optimistic about the Virtual Writing Tutor because frankly the trend is good. My students can pop in a one-thousand word narrative that they have been working on and get 15-35 appropriate corrections in just a couple of seconds. If you consider that a teacher can correct a couple of surface errors in a minute, the time savings for an ESL teacher supplied with a free ESL grammar checker is potentially enormous. If my skeptical colleague spent just two minutes per student of surface error correction for each of his 150 students, that's two and half hours not spent reading students' papers for meaning and two and a half hours not spent developing greater proficiency with other pedagogical power tools

But who can blame the skeptics among us? Look at the effect of the bad correction advice on our learner's sentence. As you can see below, the corrected version of the learner's sentence based on the feedback offered by this popular grammar checker makes the sentence even less comprehensible than before.

Notice how no further errors are detected. Teachers who care about providing quality feedback to their students will roll their eyes and then roll up their sleeves to get back to correcting errors the old-fashioned way. When teachers lose confidence in automated grammar checkers, they won't introduce them to their students and one potentially powerful source of lifelong learning opportunities is denied to them. When students complete their ESL courses, their source of corrective feedback on grammar errors dries up and they may avoid writing in English in the future. Teachers need a better ESL grammar checker for their students for better instruction now and for lifelong learning in the future.

A Better ESL Grammar Checker

A better ESL grammar checker should avoid bad correction advice and detect more of the errors that learners make. Look how the Virtual Writing Tutor responds to the same sentence. It recognizes that it is the (#1) auxiliary that is the problem, not the lexical verb. Also, it detects an issue (#2) with "at New-York" and (#3) the hyphen in "New-York." It detects that (#4) two sentences have been joined with a coordinator but without a comma. Finally, it flags (#5) the use of the definite article before "shop." This last error is debatable.


Since the Virtual Writing Tutor matches patterns at the sentence level in order to detect and correct errors, I can never be sure if the pattern and message I define for it will always anticipate the intended meaning of the author. False-alarms occur when an error-detection pattern matches a correct combination of words in an unanticipated context. When I suspect that a pattern could be correct, I hedge my bets by asking the writer to decide if the pattern has the intended meaning. I want to avoid giving such bad advice that it turns learners and their teachers off automated feedback forevermore. Correction #5 is one example of a hedge. I ask the learner to apply a rule "unless" dot, dot, dot.
Do not use the definite article before the word "shop" unless it is a shop you have mentioned before or there is only one shop, or it is a specific shop that everyone knows of. Did you mean "and I was lost in a shop"?
A human teacher wouldn't have to hedge in this situation. He or she would be able to look back at the sentences that came before to see if a particular shop had been mentioned earlier. The Virtual Writing Tutor can only look at the other words in the same sentence. Hedges that ask the writer to decide if there is only one shop or if there is a shop everyone can be expected to know runs the risk of making the feedback message overly complex for beginners to read and understand. Like bad corrections, overly complex feedback may put learners and teachers off also. Users can, however, try the Google Translation button when they feel really stuck.

Correct but Not Correct

Let's look at trickier problem for an ESL grammar checker. What do you do with a sentence which is grammatically correct but totally inappropriate for the learner's intended meaning? You hedge, of course. Here's an example of where I had to hedge. Consider the following three sentences: Our work place is a prison. It names Bordeaux Prison. It have three floors.

While this well-known grammar checker catches the conjugation error, in the context of the three sentences, a human should also recognize that "It names Bordeaux Prison" is not the right way to express the author's intended meaning in English. "It names" should be "it is called" or "it is named" even though the there is nothing wrong with the conjugation of the verb or pronoun choice. Ignoring this nonstandard phrase error is, in my opinion, a bad idea because it is an error an ESL teacher would ordinarily correct. 

Nevertheless, there are contexts in which "it names" makes sense. Checking Lextutor's concordance of a 14 million word corpus is encouraging because "it names" returns zero hits. See below. 

The standard phrase "it names" to express the meaning that a report names a particular individual or institution is relatively rare. But we can do better than even large corpora these days when looking for low-frequency phrases by doing a Google search. Here is the result of Google search with "it names" in quotes. Look what I found: a number of matches.

 While none of these instances of "it names" occurs at the beginning of a sentence they way it does in our learner text, restricting the error detection rule to only "It names" at the beginning of a sentence makes the rule less robust and there is no reason to believe that correct uses of "it names" could not also happen at the beginning of sentences. To avoid an outright false alarm in the future, I have chosen to hedge. 

Here is how the Virtual Writing Tutor ESL grammar checker detects, corrects, and hedges as it responds the errors in "Our work place is a prison. It names Bordeaux Prison. It have three floors."

Notice how correction #2 appropriately catches the non-standard phrase error. Also, notice how it is only by reading the preceding sentence "Our workplace is a prison" that we can be sure that the second sentence is indeed an error. Since the Virtual Writing Tutor cannot use words in other sentences to decide if a correction is warranted, a hedge is in order based on the assumption that "It names" has a higher probability of being used incorrectly in ESL writing. 

This is what the Virtual Writing Tutor says:
The phrase "It names Bordeaux Prison" will cause readers to pause and scratch their heads if you are using it to inform the reader of the name of someone or something. A more standard way is to say, ''It is called Bordeaux Prison''. The phrase "It names" can, however, be used in a sentence to tell the reader that an official report or legal judgement identifies a key individual. 
In my view, adding the hedge at the end should make the inevitable false alarm less upsetting to advanced ESL learners and their teachers. In the meantime,  this error detection rule can continue to catch the relatively high frequency inappropriate uses of "it names" + proper name in ESL writing.


So there you have it. I wanted to provide a little insight into the kinds of difficulties I face in writing error detection rules and correction messages. I also wanted to show how the Virtual Writing Tutor is aiming to become the best ESL grammar checker available by catching more errors--even if they are not strictly grammar errors--and how I am hedging my bets along the way. Finally, from time to time I like to reiterate my view that technology has the potential to liberate teachers from some of the time consuming drudgery of surface error correction and how a well-developed ESL grammar checker could help learners become lifelong learners of English writing. 

So what do you think? Leave a comment.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Noticing and Explicit Correction: a Grammar Checker for ESL Learners

Learning English as a Second Language isn't just about practice, as many teachers and students believe. Accurate and effective use of the grammatical forms and sentence structures of English requires extensive focused attention on form and meaning (Schmidt, 1990). Explicit corrective feedback helps in that regard. It leads the learner to notice how his or her expression of an idea is different from the usual way a native speaker might express the same idea, helping the learner notice the regularities of the target language. Giving focused attention to both the error and the correction with a clear explanation brings the linguistic structure under conscious control and prepares it for automation.

Consider the golfer who sends his golf ball into the woods instead of onto the green. No amount of
practice will help if he continues to practice his mistakes. Correction from a golf-pro can help the golfer bring aspects of his swing under greater conscious control during practice so that a correct swing will become second-nature over time.

In the same way, the Virtual Writing Tutor online grammar checker helps learners notice what they are doing wrong, why it is wrong, and how to correct it in the future. Over time it can help learners gain greater control over the grammar, spelling, punctuation, word order and word choice of English by providing explicit feedback to enhance noticing.

The Virtual Writing Tutor goes one step further. The system also provides links to remedial practice activities in its members area MOOC to further assist the learner in recognizing and correcting similar mistakes in a series of graded practice activities. With use, students who use the Virtual Writing Tutor online grammar checker will become more accurate and confident at ESL writing over time.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Schmidt, R. (1990).The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11,129-158.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The First ESL Grammar Checker


The First and Best ESL Grammar Checker
The Virtual Writing Tutor is a free online English as a Second Language (ESL) grammar checker. Virtual Writing Tutor references over 5100 error detection rules developed by analyzing the errors of low-intermediate Francophone college (CEGEP) students' writing in English. Thanks to the generous support of Bokomaru Publications and with the help of a programmer, was launched on April 5th, 2012.


Our goal from the outset with the Virtual Writing Tutor has been, above all, to enhance ESL pedagogy. Since one of the best ways to learn the structure of English is by writing in English, we figure that good pedagogy will be served through the development of a tool that supports teachers in their efforts to get students to write more. Automating corrective feedback could reduce the amount of time teachers spend giving corrective feedback to their students, and therefore should allow teachers to set more writing assignments for their students.

Here is the logic. The amount of writing college students do in a course is usually constrained by the amount of time a teacher has for evaluation and feedback, and, as any teacher will attest, most students are loath to write a multi-paragraphed, structured text unless it "counts." However, when an assignment counts, there is also the expectation of corrective feedback on grammar, word choice, and punctuation on one or more drafts.

I cannot attest for other countries or provinces, but in the Quebec junior college system (a.k.a. CÉGEP system), teachers routinely teach between 125-150 students per semester. Since each writing assignment will normally result in a minimum of 5-10 minutes of underlining, error-coding, or explicit correction per student, each writing assignment adds 10-25 hours of correction time to a teacher's otherwise busy week.
125 Ss x 5 min = 625 min = 10 h 25 min

150 Ss x 10 min = 1500 min = 25 h
With such an impact on workload, teachers usually do not assign more than one or two 350-500 word writing assignments per semester. Automating corrective feedback on errors, should therefore free teachers from the most time-consuming element of writing evaluation and allow them to set additional writing assignments each semester. More assignments will lead to more writing practice, more corrective feedback, and better learning.

Good ESL pedagogy is also served when a student receives corrective feedback in a timely fashion. The very fastest a teacher can provide hand-coded corrective feedback to a class is the week after they have handed in an assignment. Automatic corrective feedback provided online through a website such as the Virtual Writing Tutor can provide at least as much or substantially more corrective feedback in about one second. That's 144000 times faster!

In short, our goal for the Virtual Writing Tutor is to be non-trivial.


Underpinning the development of a grammar checker for English-Second-Language learners is the assumption that second language writing errors are both predictable and recurrent. Any teacher who has spent more than a year teaching writing can tell you that they see the same errors again and again from the same student and across groups of students, year after year.

Errors are understandable when we look at their causes. The most frequent errors in my students' writing tend to originate as translations of structures and sequences in the learner's first language. An example of one such error is the word choice error have 18 years old for I am 18 years old, and the word order error She is a woman very popular for She is a very popular woman. Such transfer errors are very common and may need to be corrected many times before the learner is able to eliminate them from his or her writing.

Another high frequency type of error comes from learners simply not knowing the correct form, so an incorrect form is used in its place. That seems to be what is going on in sentences such as We did a lot of sandwiches.French employs faire in contexts where English uses either do or make. The problem is that when earners do not have an extensive knowledge of word collocations, they will guess between the two English forms. The learner will guess correctly sometimes and incorrectly other times.

A third type of error comes from the learner using a false analogy. The learner may know how to write a sentence such as It's big or It's far, but then he or she will falsely assume the sentence It's depend is equally correct because the sentence shares the first word it. Obviously, the learner is not yet aware that big and far are adjectives while depend is a verb and needs to be conjugated.The learner has yet to analyze enough English to know the difference.

A forth type is the false belief. Sometimes learners think they have understood something about English when in fact they have got the wrong idea. For example, one student wrote, You can describe myself as impulsive. What he meant was You could describe me as impulsive. The writer seems to have concluded that myself is an object pronoun.

Other errors are recurrent but are not specific to second language learners. They are due rather to overly rapid typing, inattention or fatigue. An extra keystroke can result in a typo, and a distraction can cause you to type a word twice. While an online spell/grammar checker can be useful in helping locate these recurrent errors, they can occur for all writers writing in either their first language or second language. Here we might label these mistakes rather than errors. Simply having a classmate proofread a text will be enough to eliminate them. No specialized knowledge is required.

While all these errors are recurrent, they are not entirely predictable, are they? We cannot always be sure what forms learners will bring over from their first language because of the principle of homoiophobia. Nor can we ever know with absolute certainty what learners have forgotten from prior instruction or what false analogies and what false beliefs they will come out with.However, the past predicts the future in a probabilistic way. In other words, the more frequently an error has occurred in the past, the more likely we can expect the same error to be committed in the future. 


Since ESL writing errors tend to be somewhat recurrent in L2 writing, we assume that the best way to develop error detection rules is from authentic learner texts. One obvious place to start looking for high frequency errors is in learner corpora and our own learners' writing assignments. Of course, we would like our system to be useful to learners all over the world, so we equipped the Virtual Writing Tutor with a script to capture text submitted to the system and store it in a database for later rule development and refinement.

Some teacher-intuition comes into play as we review these texts for errors. High priority errors for us are those that relate to our lessons on English verb tense, aspect, and prepositions, and the error correction practice tasks we given them.

However, we do not rely on teacher-intuition alone to validate our rules. Collocations are checked in a 3+million word native speaker corpus in an attempt to create reliable rules and avoid false positives. Two things have become apparent in the process. First of all, 3 million words is not enough to capture the range of expressions and communicative functions that English has to offer. The corpus often comes up short when queried with what seems to me to be a common enough expression. Secondly, memory or teacher-intuition is not as reliable as you might think. Try it. You might be convinced--as I was--that to and said can never appear in sequence because infinitive structures must contain to + the base form of a verb, but a concordancer can show you an authentic context where to + said can occur. Creating an error-detection rule that identifies to + said would result in a false alarm, something we try hard to avoid.

Additional Features

The Virtual Writing Tutor is more than just an error detector. It is also an instant curriculum. When a learner submits his or her text with errors in it, the system returns corrective feedback messages and links to related online error correction activities. The idea is that motivated learners will be able to follow those links to individual activities and develop error-correction as a skill. For an example of the range of errors the system can detect and the type of individualize instruction the system can provide, see this click here. To see a random selection of sentences with errors, visit this random error-correction activity and follow the directions. 


Whenever we attempt to show off the system to other teachers, problems become apparent.Teachers have two expectations. One is that the system will detect all errors in a text. The second is that the system will not detect any errors in a "correct" piece of writing. By reviewing the database of captured texts, we are able to recognize these tests as the come along. Telltale signs are overly simplistic sentences that contain little else but a single agreement or tense error. For example, He work or He work yesterday are recent examples. Then there is always some attempt at feeding the system nonsense, like He work work. Here is a recent example of a test a teacher set for our system and how it bombed.

False positives are a real concern.  Recently, I was shocked to discover that the sentence, I have to leave at... produced a false alarm. Koreans and Chinese have the family name I or Lee or Rhee, so when the Virtual Writing Tutor detected a singular proper name before a verb without any inflection, it returned the corrective feedback message that I have to should be I has to. I quickly added the exception. Needless to say, the Virtual Writing Tutor is a work in progress.

Finally, a more serious concern is that we will not be able to provide much help to advanced learners. That is a bridge we will cross once beginner and intermediate errors have been more fully dealt with. Stay tuned.


The Virtual Writing Tutor is a work in progress, but the goal is sound. Month after month, we continue to develop rules based on our students's errors. With the help of learners and teachers who alert us to missed errors and false alarms and at the rate we are going, in a year or two, the system will begin to compare favourably with the range of errors a human teacher can correct--only quicker. When that happens, we will have achieved our goal of creating a non-trivial pedagogical power-tool.

Grammar Checker Forum

Grammar Checker Forum The Virtual Writing Tutor has added a community forum to its free grammar checker . Post your text, tell the community...