One Way to Use Grammar Checkers Carefully

The screen shots shown here layout how you can set up a grammar checker to search for particular surface level errors one at a time. By controlling what the grammar checker looks for, you can use its eyes to help you see. Different iterations of Microsoft Word and other word processors will vary slightly in how you control and set up your grammar and spell checkers, but the sequence should be similar enough to these screen captures.

Grammar Checker Opened
Grammar Checker Opened from Tools Menu in Microsoft Word '97. If you click the Options button, you'll get the Spelling and Grammar settings box pictured next.

Grammar Checker and Spelling Options Dialogue
Here's what you get after selecting options. Note: This is the place where you can turn off (by unclicking as pictured here) the feature that has Word check your spelling and grammar as you type, an annoying and distracting intrusion when you want to concentrate on getting your early drafts done. By selecting the Settings button under the grammar area, you get the next screen.

Grammar settings screen.
You'll note that the Grammar Style Options can be customized, selected and deselected by scrolling through the options and clicking the check boxes on or off. Here's where you can use the grammar checker to help you see. Turn on only one or two features, as a proofreading step in your writing process. Focus on those issues that are important to you or where you frequently have trouble or need help. The grammar checker will flag and highlight those things. From a print out of your paper, find the corresponding spot in your paper, and consider it. Is the grammar checker correct or misreading? If you agree that something needs changing, do you like the grammar checker's suggestion, or do you have a better idea on how to change things. For example, in the following screenshot, the grammar checker makes a wrong suggestion:
grammar checker wrong

The possesive pronoun their is correct. You wouldn't use they're because you'd be saying "without they are permission." But still, since you're looking at the sentence, it does seem very redundant (captured, held, and archived all say pretty much the same thing). So you could revise the sentence to, "Students' work is archived without their permission, which goes against the grain of most writing pedagogy." And when you do that, the grammar checker doesn't flag the their because it is put closer to the noun it represents--students. The sentence becomes clearer.
So it goes with grammar checkers. They can and do misidentify issues (They can't read afterall.), but by calling your attention to sentences, by isolating sentences in the small box and letting you see them literally through a new window, they help you to see your writing in a slightly different way. And with a little patience and practice, you can use that new view to help you proofread.