Monday, 24 October 2016

Grammarly: instant grammar checker

You can't have missed the ads for Grammarly if you're interested in writing. Not only does Google serve up Grammarly ads on most of my web pages, I actively advertise it. Although many people need a human proofreader, others can benefit from an automatic review of their writing. Last spring, while on vacation in Hawaii, I met an author who self-published her book with the help of Grammarly's oversight. She swore by it. So I decided to give it a try.

Grammarly: Free proofreading

Grammarly underlines errors in red.
You can use the free version of Grammarly as a Chrome extension. This will provide you with an automatic review as you type. Like the grammar tools in MS Word, the free Grammarly underlines misspelled words in red, and it allows you to add words to a custom dictionary. The paid version also imports MS Word documents and offers advice on wording. It offers a document score based on "critical issues" and "advanced issues." It identifies "overused" words as well. A critical issue is an explicit grammar error. An advanced issue could be a problem with the wording or an error of style.

Critical Issues and Advanced Issues

Passive voice is actually correct here.
Six of one; half dozen of the other.
I found that the most common "advanced issue" was that Grammarly doesn't like the passive voice. Unfortunately, in most academic papers, the passive voice is commonly and correctly used. It's possible to adjust the settings for different types of documents, but what would be really great would be if Grammarly learned from your writing style to determine what kinds of errors to flag. For advanced academic documents, such as the ones that I edit regularly, Grammarly tended to flag not only passive voice constructions but also other issues such as "wordiness." A sentence with a complex phrase as a subject followed by a number of clauses would be flagged as "wordiness," even though it is both grammatically correct and necessary to express a complex thought. On the other hand, common phrases like "to" should definitely be shortened to simply "to." One critical issue that I grew to appreciate was the way Grammarly flagged missing serial commas.

Not as Good as a Human

Grammarly, however, also failed to notice errors regularly. Frequently, I find that writers substitute incorrect words for what they meant to write. For example, Grammarly failed to understand that "attribute to the development" cannot possibly be correct. The correct phrase should have been "contribute to the development." Grammarly adheres to obsolete grammar rules such as the one against a split infinitive.

I've been using Grammarly on work I've already corrected, and it's been helpful, but it doesn't replace a close reading by an expert set of eyes. I usually catch additional errors on my second and third times through documents before I send them back to clients. But what about poor writers? Can it help them?
Here's a sample of writing that was sent in for free proofreading. Notice that Grammarly incorrectly flags "learned," which is an acceptable British variant. It correctly flags the misspelling of "modern." But it doesn't seem to care about the sentence that's made up of a series of cascading clauses separated by semicolons. Even though the passage is about education, it flags "education" as a repetitive word. I'm not sure that this writer would find his/her mark improved by the use of Grammarly.

Plagiarism Detection

I can't give a fair evaluation of the plagiarism detection capability. I tried copying a paragraph from Wikipedia and running it through Grammarly, and Grammarly accurately identified it and its source. It also provided correctly formatted references to be used. But that's no guarantee that something that passes Grammarly's test will get past the plagiarism software that your school uses.


I'm actually impressed by Grammarly's ability to quickly run through text. I used it to review a 60 page Ph.D. thesis that another editor and I had each worked on, and it found several errors, including that troubling serial comma. For a final proofing of a document that is largely correct, it could be very helpful. In fact, I'm using it right now! If you are a good writer and you understand the rules of grammar, it could be a great tool. It will help you hone your writing.

But if you are struggling with your writing, tend to use incorrect words, or don't understand the rules of grammar that you are violating, you need a professional proofreader or tutor. Grammarly either won't help you improve your writing, or it will confuse you without telling you how to fix your errors.

Update July 2017

I've been using Grammarly regularly now for a year. All of what I wrote above is still true. Grammarly makes plenty of mistakes, but it's very useful for final proofreading.