My thoughts on Grammarly

For those who don’t want to read a long review, here’s the brief summary: The free version of Grammarly is a useful utility for writers, but only if they already have a good knowledge of English grammar.

Grammarly is an English language grammar checker. It is available as a browser extension, an MS Word add-on, or as a standalone application. It is seemingly free but promptly starts urging you to upgrade to the premium (subscription) version. They offer a 7-day money-back guarantee on subscriptions, but I found so many people complaining about it not being honored (and poor customer service in general) that I opted to only test the free version.

I installed the macOS version. To test it, I employed the text from my 160,000+ word first novel. I pasted each scene individually into Grammarly, and it then proceeded to analyze the text and flag issues. The issues are divided into critical and advanced categories, with the advanced requiring the premium version. Critical issues are flagged to the right of the line of text where they were found. There are options to accept (and apply) the recommended change, to view more information, or to simply ignore it. An example issue is to flag “afterwards” and suggest a change to “afterward”.

So how did Grammarly do? It did an excellent job of spotting repeated words and mistakes such as writing “though” when you meant “through”. These kinds of errors are the ones that our brains often skip right over without us even noticing. It also did a good job of recognizing when commas were either omitted or unnecessary. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the complete list of things Grammarly does well.

Grammarly will often recommend changing a verb from singular to plural or vice versa. It is occasionally correct, but often wrong. It will also make suggestions when it thinks you have typed the wrong word by mistake, but most of these are wildly wrong. For example, it repeatedly suggested replacing “robe” with “role”. This is the kind of mistake no human proofreader would ever make.

I also experienced problems employing the Grammarly application. Sometimes when I pasted in new text it would fail to scan it, forcing me to start a new document. Sometimes the scan would get stuck and never complete. To me, this feels more like beta software than a finished application.

Would the premium version of Grammarly have performed better on the so-called critical issues? I have no idea, but I rather doubt it. Automated checking of English grammar is incredibly difficult. In my opinion, it’s going to take a large company employing advanced AI to really crack the problem.

I did look for other reviews of Grammarly and found them mixed. Disturbingly, many of the positive ones end with buy links for Grammarly, suggesting that they may be biased or even paid for. The best reviews were those that looked at several different grammar-checkers and compared their performance to a human’s.

In summary, the free version of Grammarly can be a useful aid for finding some types of simple grammar issues. It caught typos that have been in my book for ages without anyone noticing. On the other hand, blindly following its suggestions would have wrecked my book, filling it with bizarre and ungrammatical sentences. So don’t even think of using Grammarly unless you already have a good knowledge of proper English grammar.

And never start a sentence with a conjunction!

A good friend of mine was actually taught in school that a sentence should never begin with a conjunction. In other words, a sentence shouldn’t be started with “And”, “Or”, “But”, etc. And she’s not the only one. Many people have been taught this, even though it is complete nonsense. Even today, you will find idiots on the internet claiming that this is the proper way.

The reality is that the use of conjunctions to begin a sentence has been part of the English language for centuries. In general, about ten percent of sentences start that way. Never starting with a conjunction can also lead to confusing run-on sentences that may annoy or confuse readers. Sometimes it’s simply better to break a compound sentence into two separate ones, even if the second one starts with a conjunction.

So do begin sentences with conjunctions when there is a need, but not all the time.

Pronoun Trouble

rabbitduck3.jpg

(image from the classic Warner Bros. cartoon “Rabbit Seasoning”)

In the process of reviewing my first book and looking for issues, I noticed something that I could then not unsee: I underuse personal pronouns. What do I mean by this? I mean that I tend to repeat character names when I could just as well have used “he” or “she” or “they”, as examples. Fixing this issue is taking considerable time, and is complicated (as I will describe below). When I am finally finished, I will upload a revised version of the book and ask Amazon to push out the changes to anyone who has automatic updates turned on.

My primary concern is that I will go too far and end up erring in the other direction. If the reader can’t figure out who is speaking, or who is being referred to, then they’re probably not going to keep reading. A sentence like “She told her that she wasn’t interested.” can be a nightmare. Each of the three personal pronouns could potentially refer to a different person, e.g. “She told Jane that Sally wasn’t interested.” But even that version requires that the reader understand who “She” refers to.

The use of personal pronouns depends on both the number of characters involved and their genders. If there is only one male, then “he” and “his” are clear. Two of the same gender makes it much more difficult to use personal pronouns. Three or more speakers in a single conversation almost always requires the repeated use of the actual names.

This issue is something that I am still struggling with, and it’s probably only a matter of time before I discover yet another of my bad writing habits.

The Editing Never Stops

I am currently making another pass through my book, Audrey of Farmerton, preparatory to offering a paperback version. Despite the best efforts of both myself and my beta readers, I am still finding typos and minor mistakes. It appears that no amount of copyediting will ever find all of the mistakes. The good news is that when I am done, I can update the ebook version, and the new version will be automatically pushed out. You can’t do that with printed books.

It is my contention that there simply aren’t that many decent editors left out there. These days, even books by popular authors are published with obvious typos and grammar errors. Last year, I read a science fiction novel that had won major awards despite having significant plot holes and the author not really understanding how to use commas. The editor was either incompetent, or was too rushed to do a good job.

The advent of easy self-publishing is probably to blame for the current situation. The publishing industry in general has dealt poorly with  emerging technologies. That has led to cutbacks, including editorial staff. And when cutting staff, it is invariably the most experienced (and best paid) people that are let go.

What makes a good editor? They obviously need to have a good knowledge of the English language (or whatever language they are editing). This includes both spelling and grammar. But they also need to understand composition. They need to be able to judge if sentences are properly grouped into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, and scenes into chapters. They also need to understand what they are reading, otherwise they will be unable to spot larger issues such as plotting and pacing. To be perfectly honest, a good editor first needs to be a good writer. But a good writer isn’t likely to be interested in editing the works of someone else unless they’re a close friend or relative. A good writer would rather be writing.

I can’t offer any magical solution. For now, I’ll just rely on my own editing skills, resigned to the fact that the things I write will never be perfect.

Dialog and Dialect

People from different backgrounds, or different places, speak in different manners. This can take the form of a different accent, altered vocabulary, or variation in how a sentence is constructed. Accents are difficult to convey in writing, and when attempted are often annoying to the reader. For example, I have relatives that pronounce the word chair with two syllables (chay-are). I know of no way to put that in writing that isn’t both awkward and confusing. So it’s best to focus on the other two methods and simply mention when someone has an accent.

Consider the following sentences:

  1. Dontcha worry, Audrey.
  2. Don’t you worry, Audrey.
  3. Don’t worry, Audrey.
  4. Do not worry, Audrey.
  5. Be not concerned, Mistress Audrey.

The first example uses English slang, which is a way to make someone sound informal (and less educated). The second example sounds more folksy than the third because of the added (and unnecessary) you. The fourth differs from the third simply by dropping the contraction, and it is a simple way to make a character sound more formal. The final example is designed to sound extremely formal, pretentious even.

Simple word choice can help to differentiate characters. Where one person might say “okay”, another might say “all right”. Something might happen “a lot”, “often”, or “frequently”, depending on who is speaking about it.

Deciding on just how a character should speak is a challenge, and the way they speak might change over time or even depending on who they are speaking with. (Think about how most adults simplify their language when talking to small children.) But it is definitely something that a writer needs to keep in mind.