Stellar Startup: Grammatical calculator

Grammar correction, unlike spelling corrections, are not always straightforward; often it depends on the context of the text.

whitesmokes 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
whitesmokes 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
In Class (, his amazing analysis of the American class system, University of Pennsylvania professor Paul Fussell says that one can quickly gage the social class of an interlocutor in conversation. "Speech is the main way they estimate a stranger's social class when they first encounter him," Fussell writes. "'Really,' says one deponent, 'the first time a person opens their mouth, you can tell.'" What's true for speech is nowadays perhaps even more true when it comes to the written word. It's the age of e-mail and computer presentations, with long-distance business conducted by instant messaging and PDFs. It's tough enough beating the competition on price and service; you don't need the extra added burden of being stereotyped as having poor English factored in, as well. In fact, it's in writing that one really shows off their English language skills, or lack thereof; a grammatical mistake in speech comes and goes in a matter of seconds, while a writing error is forever, or at least as long as your correspondent keeps your message. In other words, people out there need help; and help is what they get with the writing and grammar software produced by Israeli start-up Whitesmoke. The program sets itself up as a plug-in accessible in in most of your PC's programs, and makes suggestions based on the context of your writing to improve grammar. As the business world expands to encompass markets in the third world, more and more people who never learned English properly are finding it necessary to communicate people in the English-speaking West. But according to Hilla Ovil-Brenner, the founder and chief executive of WhiteSmoke, WhiteSmoke's typical user is not a newly-arrived capitalist from Canton (Guangdong) in China or St. Petersburg, Russia; WhiteSmoke users are far more likely to hail from Canton, Ohio, St. Petersburg, Florida or even Boston (you'd expect New Englanders to write more properly than others, no?). Ovil-Brenner says the phenomenon took the company by surprise, as well. "As it turns out, the English-speaking world is where the most help is needed. There is a market of millions for a product like WhiteSmoke's" Ovil-Brenner says. Grammar correction, unlike spelling corrections, are not always straightforward; often, it all depends on the context of the text. So, a much bigger "backend" is necessary in order to make sure the right corrections are offered at the right time. To make sure users get things tight, WhiteSmoke has a huge database of suggestions that When you ask it for help, WhiteSmoke will offer suggestions on fixing spelling and grammar errors, eliminating cliches, and dumping over-wordy phrases. It will also suggest enhancing your text via adverb and adjective suggestions. It's a tall order, but Ovil-Brenner says WhiteSmoke has got users covered. "We have teams of expert linguists providing input for the program's database, making sure we have as many situations covered as possible," she says. The company also sends out Web crawlers that seek out what errors are in vogue right now on Web sites and blogs; new information is added to the database on the basis of the crawlers' findings, and are written into subsequent releases of the software. Thus, users are able to avoid falling into a "me, too" trap, where they cut and paste error-ridden text and incorporate it into their work - while the solutions offered by the program are within the proper range of common usage, and not overly formal or didactic. If this sounds like something you already have - as in the grammar and spelling tools in Microsoft Word - you're wrong, Ovil-Brenner says. Although the MS tools may be somewhat helpful she says, they are significantly inferior to the ones offered by WhiteSmoke. "Eighty percent of our customers use Word, but they install and use WhiteSmoke as well, using the suggestions offered by the program over those offered by Word," she says. And, the program allows you to expand usability by adding plug-ins for specific industries; WhiteSmoke provides modules geared towards general usage, managerial jargon, and specialty terms and language used by doctors and lawyers. If it seems strange that an Israeli company would be engaged in helping native English speakers with their grammar, it isn't, Ovil-Brenner says. Born in South Africa, she's lived here for many years, getting a clear picture of how non-English speakers struggle with learning to write in a language infamous for its inconsistent grammatical rules and weird spellings. That gave her the impetus to start WhiteSmoke, which, in typical startup fashion, was established in the apartment where she and her husband Liran live. "It's only very recently that we moved into a 'real' office," she says, with the business getting too big to run off a kitchen table any longer. Established in 2004, WhiteSmoke now has 30 employees, Ovil-Brenner expects a big rise in users following the release of its 2008 edition. In fact, she says, users who begin applying WhiteSmoke to their text never go back. "WhiteSmoke is to text what a calculator is to math," she says. It's an apt analogy; can you imagine trying to figure out how much to tip in a restaurant or a cab without a calculator? Course not; and users of WhiteSmoke say it's hard to imagine how they wrote business letters without the software, as well.