Grammar should not be a slave to the pedant
UPDATE: Having suffered some fairly critical problems with the plugin, including problems with multiple-monitor setups, crashing, false-positives, and no UK English support, I have now stopped using Grammarly and use StyleWriter 4 instead. Please read my article here.
(Quick ramble first, so scroll down if you just want to read about Grammarly.)
I admit to a little word blindness at times. I am not dyslexic, not properly so, but I can reverse letters very easily and do strange things that I just don't notice or sometimes cannot see.
It is a little bit of a pain, but I am very tolerant of people's foibles in English. Languages are living things and they are a reflection of culture. I was educated to believe there was good and bad use of English (bad should be punished), that there was only one "proper way" of saying something, and that spelling was so much more important than creativity. Oh, and that swearing was only for the lazy and badly educated. All a complete load of bollocks, to be honest.
I do need whatever I read to be readable, but I want to visit an author's mind, especially within the realms of fiction, not the mind of some student of grammar who cannot see past either a mistake or, worse, an intentional twist to the style of the story. As a reviewer friend of mine pointed out the other day, there must be some pedantic readers for whom reading is a very bitter and angry experience. One wonders why they bother.
I am a lover of the way that popular culture tears language apart and reinvents it for a new world. I love the fact that someone will write "thru" instead of "through" (depending on country) or will mess up ideas in a rap and all those other things that keep a language alive. Before the OED in the UK, there was no such thing as consistency of spelling. People spelt words as they came across them, and grammar had to tolerate the same twists and turns dependent on geography and the knowledge of the writer. The noble bard just invented words when he couldn't think of one. Rather fun! It has certainly turned English into a rich if a rather confusing way of communicating ideas. It is a pity that there is now a community of people who are so fussy, that they risk stagnating the language.
However, despite wishing to see a more liberal and organic approach to language, I do understand the need for consistency, if nothing else; it can reduce ambiguity and can help with the "flow" of the journey across the page.
And now to the point
Sorry, got a little sidetracked there. In a bid to help myself, I have been using Grammarly as a plugin to MS Word. I must admit I do like certain aspects of technology, especially anything that allows me to be a bloody lazy git, so I am attracted to such beasts. I started out by thinking the tool was useful, but I am now getting very frustrated with it.
I am using the premium version which offers slightly more in-depth analysis of your writing. For my use, it comes in two forms; the browser plugin that gives you spell checking and grammar checking of online forms and so on, and then the Word add-in, which is what I am going to chat about.
Grammarly now has given an option for using UK English, but this does NOT apply to the Word plugin and they have told me they have no plans to implement that feature.
If you are a UK author, I strongly suggest that you try another solution, as you will be getting annoying US corrections all over the place.
A bit slow, dear hearts!
Firstly, a note about speed. I am using Grammarly to help me write 170,000-word novels, so my words docs are a decent size.
Grammarly does not seem overly fond of my big files and causes latency issues which a right pain. Consequently, it really is not a very good tool to use when writing your first draft. But then, that could be said of any checker like this; if you are writing creatively, then you may not want your flow and enthusiasm to be constantly monitored for grammatical errors. It can be like having that nasty little prat of an English teacher hovering over your shoulder all day. The only creativity that produces is assorted murder plots with the teacher as the victim. (I sometimes wonder if teachers of the 1970s were under governmental instructions NOT to produce writers).
So, when writing in the raw, as it were, I leave it switched off. Then, when I am ready to edit, I switch it back on.
Grammarly themselves do not say on their website, as far as I can see, that Grammarly has a problem with big documents. But in response to a support request, they recommended that I keep docs no longer than 50 pages, which is very limiting.
Using in anger
This is not a full, step-by-step review, but just a note about my own experience. There are plenty of proper reviews out there, and before you spend money on this beast, I suggest you read them.
Grammarly checks your work for the following
- Contextual Spelling
- Sentence Structure
- Vocabulary Enhancement
- Plagiarism (which I have switched off)
When you enable the plugin, the Grammarly tab will give you something like this:
You can switch any the checks on and off to help you swim through your errors, or what it considers are problems.
Notice I have this set at Novel type - I am not sure how much difference there is between the settings, and I cannot find any information on the Grammarly website, which is suspicious.
On the right-hand side of your document, a new panel will appear with all your errors listed. Like this:
You just either click on the green suggestion, which will correct your work, or you click on ignore. The undo function on Word is disabled, but having made a correction with Grammarly, you can then undo each individual correction separately.
So, using it is easy, as you can see. On my big books, I have to wait a fair amount of time for the document to be scanned, but then, I like making coffee.
Getting the most out of Grammarly
Once it has finished the scan, you can if you wish, run through all the errors, changing or otherwise as you fancy, but I do not recommend working in this way.
Like any tool that does not have either intelligence or artificial intelligence behind it, it will not find everything. But then, I have read plenty of mainstream books over the years where there were problems, so I am not going to lose a huge amount of sleep over it.
However, in the full version, it picks up enough to help you focus your brain, so a much better way of using the tool is as an assistant to your proofreading rather than an actual proof-reader, which it is not.
Read through your entire document, word by word, paying extra attention to anything flagged up by Grammarly. That way you have the chance of picking up problems it has missed and of evaluating Grammarly's suggestions within the context of your work and your personal writing style.
The very act of having to stop and start reading because Grammarly has flagged up things all over the place will help you by slowing you down and forcing you to think a little less like a mad writer. Indeed, this might be more useful than it's actual suggestions!
Where it falls down
I was attracted to Grammarly, at least in part, by the vocabulary enhancement, style and structure suggestions of the premium version.
These have helped me focus on my writing, but the actual suggestions are often boring and quite regularly mad.
As in the screenshot further up the page, "Overused word" is something you will see a lot. However, the suggested synonyms can be quite limiting and off track. Also, to be honest, rather uncreative.
So, in a speech, I have the line: "Oh, good, here comes the boat." Nothing wrong with that, but Grammarly thinks I might want to use "Oh, right, here comes the boat."
Fair enough, though to me, that does change the sense of the sentence. Then, a little further on, I have used the word right, and at that place, it is telling me that it is an overused word and would I like to use the word good. Hmm.
This is a regular problem with the system, made worse because the suggested synonyms can be somewhat dull. So, I have the line, "Any objections he might have had were thrown into the fire with some of his less reputable garments."
Grammarly flagged up an objection entitled "Better word pair." In this case, it suggested that I might want to remove "reputable" and replace it with "good."
Yeah, right, that would be nicer. Please note, I have this set on "Novel" document type, so one would expect some creative suggestions.
A constant problem is that it really does not like my use of the word "bloody." As a Londoner, it is a favourite word in speech. So, "It is all the fault of the bloody dragon!"
There you go.
Now, I am not sure if this is a bug or whether it is having a puritanical moment, but it invariably suggests that I replace the word "Bloody" with the word "Good."
Seeing a pattern here?
It is interesting to compare the Grammarly suggestions to Word's own. Grammarly will often offer two or three very ordinary suggestions, while Word offers ten.
A little bit of a war goes on here. Generally speaking, Grammarly's suggestion for comma usage is good. But it has a few areas where it falls down, but this might be a language issue between US and UK; I am not certain.
As an example:
"He was pleased enough with the result, at least as far as it went."
Grammarly has a hang up with "at least," and would rather I wrote:
"He was pleased enough with the result, at least, as far as it went."
That changes the reading of the sentence. It would certainly mess up a voice over reading a script.
This has an up and a downside.
Grammarly will wave a flag if it thinks you are using a word too often within a paragraph. Unfortunately, the words it flags up most often are "he" and "she." If you writing a section where a character is going through a series of moves or ideas, the chances are those words will get repeated; there is a limit how often you can use "the man" or "the big bloke" and so on for variation without pissing the reader off. This is probably where I hit the ignore button most often and I wish that Grammarly could be a little cleverer in the words that it chooses to flag.
Thank bloody hell there is no automatic correction
This is good, actually.
Grammarly suggests rather than insists which makes it more of an assistant and less of a teacher. You are free to accept or ignore as you wish.
I find myself ignoring most suggestions, but I do not object too much to them being made in the first place; as I said earlier, it slows me down and helps me focus.
What could it do better?
If I were to make one big suggestion, it would be that it had optional access to a better thesaurus. The chances are that a good number of the potential errors in your novel are because you have overused a word, or have not thought broadly enough.
In both these cases, Grammarly offers very limited suggestions and that is frustrating. Quite often I have agreed that I should choose another word, but found Grammarly's ideas are either boring or completely wrong. I then have to use a separate add-in, as it were, to find a word, making my life harder, not easier.
The lag, although I am used to working around this, is also a problem. Considering that you are paying for the plugin, this is not very professional. However, friends who use other similar systems have experienced the same issues. That doesn't forgive any of them - they still need to sort it out.
I am not sure how Grammarly works, but I get no sense that it is learning from me - in other words, that it is understanding my style of writing and adapting to it. I am a primarily creative writer, but even with the Novel setting, Grammarly's suggestions are pushing me towards being less interesting and less creative.
I would love to see it have a setting that works more closely with my style of writing. My current book is a fantasy set in a sort of medieval world. However, some of the limited suggestions are very 21st century, which is inappropriate. To be able to instruct it to suggest "no modern terms," or "all modern terms" or "more adventurous," or whatever, would be nice.
Grammarly is a US company, and yet plenty of writers are from the UK. A common complaint over the years has been that there is no UK dictionary option. Despite this, there has been no attempt by Grammarly to allow you to opt not just for UK spelling by the odd variations of UK grammar.
This is a big hole in the programme, to be honest.
NOTE: You can now set UK for the online version, but not the plugin.
Update - Bugs
There are bugs all over the place, to be honest. Initially, I thought I could live with them, but I am rapidly changing my mind.
- I have been suffering some crashing where it can suddenly start scrolling backwards through a document and even delete words and you can't stop it without closing word down. I STRONGLY recommend that you always work with it on a COPY of your document, just in case, and you save REGULARLY!
- It has terrible trouble dealing with long documents. If you are a novel writer this may cause you problems.
- It does not always identify what is a word correctly. So it will underline just part of a word and then flag that as an error.
- It sometimes simply stops working. I was told that it was because I have multiple monitors and that I wasn't using my primary monitor. That is a failing - it should be as flexible as the host program Word.
- It sometimes loses contact with their website for no apparent reason (you must be connected to the internet to use it). When you click on Retry on the error, when it reloads it sometimes forgets all the "ignores" you have done, so they are all listed again.
- It messes up search in Word's navigation pane, preventing it from working correctly.
Will I keep using it?
Despite the issues, yes I will for this year. It is finding problems that I am often blind to and it helps me concentrate. But I doubt I will renew my subscription - the bugs are simply too many.
Also, you MUST be online to use even the Word add-in. That is daft. I use Word all over the place and I do not always have an internet connection. To have an add-in for a program that works offline, that itself relies on a connection, it bad design.
There is a sizeable gulf between where it is currently and where it could be and I have no indication that they are moving to bridge the gap. The lack of a UK dictionary is a problem and considering the language started in the UK, it is irritating. I have had several online support requests with them now and yet no update has been made. I am wondering whether they are contemplating abandoning the add-in.
UPDATE: I am now evaluating StyleWriter.