Some days I need a pedantic friend with a touch of obsessive behavior to read through my work.
Most times I don’t have one to hand, though, and that’s where a program like Grammarly can come in handy. This week I took it for a spin to see whether it would be a useful tool for me to use – either as a final check on the manuscripts I edit, or as a second pair of eyes to help polish my writing before I hand it off to a publisher.
Grammarly is like Microsoft Office’s spelling and grammar check on steroids: it will be very strict with you, sometimes too much so, but you might be surprised how many flaws it finds. If you’re at all wobbly on aspects of grammar, word choice or punctuation, Grammarly might be the pedantic friend you need.
I tried out Grammarly on extracts from manuscripts in various stages of polishing. The first obstacle I encountered was that when you use Grammarly online you can only check 20 pages at a time, though if you use the Microsoft Office plug-in there is no limitation. So I broke my manuscript into chunks and fed it through bit by bit.
Grammarly offers different modes: general, business, academic, technical creative, casual, depending on the style of writing you are aiming for. It is important to master these modes, though you will need to do that by trial and error as Grammarly refuses to explain what the types mean. In their FAQ section, they say, “Each review style is based on a specific set of checks. (We can’t disclose what those are because it’s intellectual property.)” That seems a mite neurotic and not terribly helpful.
The first extract I fed into Grammarly was full of direct quotes that could not be changed, so many of its suggestions were less than useful. Once I shifted from general mode to casual mode, though, we got along better. There were some good pick-ups on run-on sentences and comma use. Overall, only about 10 or 20 percent of the queries and suggestions were useful: most were overly pedantic or not appropriate in the context. It’s easy to ignore the suggestions you don’t want to apply, though.
Casual mode was so super-casual it didn’t query a two-word non-sentence like “Every time.” It also turned a blind eye to the use of double hyphens for dashes (“just like all her recipes–wet ingredients and dry ingredients”). I was surprised that those two things didn’t ring alarm bells.
The robotic nature of a program like Grammarly comes through when it tries to correct use of a singular verb with any noun ending with “s”, such as “Childs was a leading investor…” It also dislikes the use of “could” without a verb following it. Grammarly is not a fan of foreign phrases, either: über and maître d’ were both stumbling blocks.
Some of the suggestions to replace often-misused words seemed off-key. “Seated” was offered as a replacement for “sweated”, “while” instead of “whale”, and “to late” for “too late”.
You can select to check through only one category of queries at a time: subject and verb agreement, for instance, or capitalization. That could be handy if you have a particular area that you need help with. For me, the most useful checks were split infinitives (I don’t mind the occasional one, but Grammarly caught some nasties), redundancies (“exact same”) and passive voice.
Would I keep using Grammarly on a regular basis? Yes, I probably would. I ran the program on this blog post, and found two out of its nine suggestions useful (remembering that this article does include words such as über that I know will ring Grammarly’s alarm bells). It took just a minute or two, so I’d count that as a worthwhile check.
Can Grammarly take the place of an intelligent copy editor or proofreading? Not on your life. Think of it as the literary equivalent of feeding some coins into a massage chair versus booking a session with a good massage therapist. The chair’s going to pummel out some knots, but the therapist will deliver that deep healing experience.