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.

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