Friday, June 21, 2019

Grammar software?

Good morning,

I was wondering what your thoughts were on grammar software such as Pro Writing Aid or Grammarly. Some apps out there actually compare your work with other published work and give you really specific breakdowns of all the ways you are disappointing your high school English teacher. This can be insightful, but also come across as a somewhat cold approach to revision.

Are these kinds of programs helpful tools for upping one's game? Or are they just an expensive way to kill the voice of a manuscript? Do other woodland creatures reading here use them?

Good morning.
It is I, Otto, here to tell you in no uncertain terms that software is the best way to make sure your righting is correct. I, four example, am here to  point out you're spelling mistakes.

Miss Reed has been known to sneer at my recommendations.

She is of course human and thus, fallible.

Spelling, grammar, all have rules to be followed.
And you will follow them.

Jeez Louise Otto, step away from the keyboard. The tattoo parlor called. They'd like to discuss something you approved...?

Ok, now that Otto is Stechschritting back to If You Think It, We Can Ink It LLC, let's get back to the topic at hand.

ANY automated check on creative work only knows rules. It doesn't know style. It sure as hell doesn't know pacing, or tension or wordplay. And it takes awhile to catch up to the zeitgeist.

It's a black and white choice for a book that is the full spectrum of color.

But, Godiva love us, if it can cure you of misusing Lie/Lay/laid  I'll kiss the app my own damn self.

You need to know what the rules are but you also need to know when they break down.

Example: The rule for pronouns is the pronoun replaces a noun and generally the most immediate preceding noun.

But: Mortimer saw Wilberforce. He thought he was a bounder.

Following the rule, it's Wilberforce doing the thinking.
BUT as a reader you can intuit that it's what Mortimer is thinking of Wilberforce.

And rules of grammar are not carved in stone as much as Miss PruneSucker, my fourth grade Punctuation Puritan told us. T'was she who inculcated me with a loathing for using they as a singular.  Regular readers will recognize my usage of s/he.

But times they are a changing, and folks who are updating their gender identity often want to avoid he or she and ask to be referred to as they.

That's what they, their, them means in a Twitter bio for example.

And before anyone gets up on their high horse about correctness, political or otherwise, I'd like to hark back to yesteryear when ladies had to fight to get their own name printed in the newspaper rather than be called an appendage of their husband:  Mrs. Felix Buttonweezer.

And the battle for Ms, jeez Louise you'd have thought we'd asked the New York Times to split an infinitive on the front page.

The daily humiliation of calling Geraldine Ferraro Mrs Ferraro cause they refused to use Ms finally convinced the Times to get over themselves.

Usage changes first, and the rules catch up, but often software is only about rules.

I check Grammarly when I have a specific question about some tortured phrase I'm trying to sort out.
I do NOT run whole work through a Grammar checker BUT that's not to say if you doubt your skills it's not worth a try.

Let's hear from the writers in the comment column.  What do you think?


MaggieJ said...

Why not just learn the grammar rules? It's not that difficult. When you're not sure, take a minute and look it up. When that becomes tedious, you'll start to remember them. Once you have the rules down pat, you'll be able to break them now and again with confidence and aplomb.

Kitty said...

Like MaggieJ said, I learned the grammar rules over the years, and I look up what I don't know.

HOWEVER... My synapses shut down when the lie/lay/laid question comes up. No matter how well the distinction is explained, I just don’t get it. I used to use a certain online language tool until I discovered Tool didn’t know the difference either. So, unless someone gets l-a-i-d, I avoid those verbs altogether.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Learn the rules. Then break them. Software cannot express voice or tension, but you know this. The Queen has told you as much. Nothing quite so life-affirming as bending the rules and breaking the law.

Aphra Pell said...

I use my Otto to pick up my more gratuitous mistakes and deal with my incurable inability to spell brocco... brocol... that green relative of cauliflower.

Other than that, I tend to go by ear. If it sounds right when I read it out, it's usually correct or at least acceptable.

I can also consult the oracle, aka my mother. I went to school when teaching grammar was unfashionable. She went to school when it was not only compulsory in both English and Latin, but when getting it wrong earnt a caning.

However, that does mean I have to control her urges to correct my manuscripts because very few characters speak in perfect 1950s grammar school English.

Amy Schaefer said...

"Usage changes first, and the rules catch up..."

In terms of "learn the rules", I think the answer is: yes, but the rules change, so be mindful of that. There is no set of Perfectly Correct and Unchanging Rules to guide our language for all time.

On this topic, I highly recommend Kory Stamper's delightful book: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. It is a highly entertaining journey through life as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, and delves into many technical, geeky points designed to warm the hearts of word nerds everywhere.

deborahwrites said...

I find WORD catches plenty of items. I often choose “ignore” but other times I realize, begrudgingly, that the suggestion is valid.

Mister Furkles said...

I prefer descriptionists' approach to the rules of perscriptionists' and I lurk on a linguists website. The problem is that English grammar is very complicated. There is no easy out. So I study the grammar websites (descriptionists only).

Here is a good website for keeping lay-lie straight:
The general rule is 'lie' never takes an object while 'lay' always takes an object unless it is used as the past tense of 'lie' or it is about sex or it is about golf or maybe it is about falsehoods. And then there are the past participles. And if the object, or non-object, is a phrase or clause...well, it's complicated.

Now I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord I make no grammar error on the morn except maybe dead is worse than grammar errors but who am I to judge?

Timothy Lowe said...

Warriner's Grammar I will occasionally consult. Otherwise, I will rely on my poor old eyes, made tired by too many trips through the MS to count.

Yeah. Spell-check, while not exactly for suckers, needs an occasional kick in the pants.

roadkills-r-us said...

Having spent years in the software industry with writing as both part of the job and a side gig, I think you nailed it. I look for the red squiggles on rereads in LibreOffice to catch typos and the odd spelling misteak (sic). I use another spellchecker when I’ve used a basic text editor for the same reasons[1]. For everything else, I depend on knowledge (always improving) and my editors (my wife and the pros).
Reading out loud helps when needed, as someone else noted.

[1] My spelling is much better than my “typing”, and I tend to miss more typos editing my own work than that of others.

K. White said...

As a self-declared grammaraphile, I enjoy studying the topic. I often debate Word's suggestions but like deborahwrites I occasionally accept them.

Learn the rules; study the books. If writers rely too heavily on technology it won't be long before human authors are out of a job and an AI is on the bestseller list (probably agented and edited by other AI's.)

Hmm.Maybe that's a short story.

roadkills-r-us said...

K. White - Please don’t discuss such things online! The AIs dislike being discussed. Now I need a new identity. Bye.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

I like grammar. But the rules are not all created equal. Some of them, like the rule about not splitting infinitives and the rule you have to say, "It is I!", are the residue of a misguided attempt to squeeze English into a Latin mold.

As for "they," it is a wonderful, neutral 3rd person singular pronoun that has been used in a very natural way in English for years. It's especially helpful in cases where you could add the word "respective," as in, "Everyone returned to their seats."

I've seen online ads for Grammerly, and I think it preys on aspiring writers' fears of not being taken seriously as professionals. The problem is that formal grammar rules aren't being taught well, so many people view them as opaque and scary.

I have fears of not being taken seriously, but they don't come from grammar.

I follow the more formal rules in my writing when I want my characters to sound aristocratic. Formal, slightly old-fashioned English stands for the old, hierarchical lifestyle in my books, even though it is all taking place in a different language. Tolkien had a lot to say about this.

Ok, sermon over.

julie.weathers said...

I use Grammarly or whatever the beast is. The main reason I do so is because I simply miss things. As much as I love literature and English, for some reason, some things just fly out the window when I'm writing. I used to sprinkle commas like confetti, now, I don't use them enough.

As the beta readers will attest, I still get the commas wrong and sometimes the semicolons. Sometimes I purposely leave them out because it messes with the flow. Sometimes, I insert them because I want the reader to know there was a pause there. Yes, she did hesitate before going on and the comma wasn't absolutely necessary, but it isn't wrong and it's easier than spelling out the dialogue cue. Sometimes you want that pause spelled out.

She hesitated as if looking for the right polite word to express what she was feeling. Finally, she huffed, "You're an ass," and decamped.

It wasn't polite, but it was accurate.

Or some such nonsense. (And I wonder why I struggle with word count.)

I love ellipses and em dashes in the right places. They are like the right word. Sometimes, defenestrate is just the right word for the action.

Otto tries to correct those at times. No, sir. That's exactly what I meant, thank you very much.

He is handy for picking up those pesky errant spaces that creep in.

My previous editor at the magazine rapped my knuckles like Sister Mary of the Writing Ruler about my "that" habit. Now, I avoid it like a rattlesnake at a pajama party.

I'll use Otto Czech, but it is a constant war and I think he may screw up as much as he fixes. Who knows?

Writer of Wrongs said...

Echoing the other recommendations to learn the grammar rules more thoroughly. If you’re struggling, I suggest finding a grammar textbook (perhaps order from an online resource for homeschool students) - they tend to teach solid foundations so you can learn and then break the rules.

My day job involves a lot of driving, so I listen to numerous podcasts. Lately I’ve been repeatedly irked by podcasters from large, professional, polished production companies misusing lay/lie/laid. And it’s not even the usual mixups - they’ve talked about an object “lied on the ocean floor.” (That hurt just to type it.) The only correct “lied” is the past tense of someone telling an untruth.

Craig F said...

Kate Turabian taught me the basic rules. Since then several others have added to those term paper rules. Whoever taught Word was different than any of those who taught me. I have enough of a fight there, I don't need to attempt to explain to some APP about those rules.

Megan V said...

I'm going against the grain here.

While I certainly agree that it's important to learn the tools of ones' craft, I feel it's a bit presumptuous to say—you need to learn the rules better because you can.

This presumes the privilege of a particular type of education and/or access to materials. It presumes that a person has the wherewithal. It presumes that a person can learn these things easily on their own, that it will all make sense with the help of some sort of how to guide. It presumes that a person isn't struggling with other things. It also presumes the use of one variant of English.

And I will absolutely defend the right of people who do not have those things to write (and write well, without spending time with their nose buried in a grammar book)

Programs like Grammarly are tools. People should not be denigrated for using those tools, especially when they are so useful. I mean, there's no way I would have survived certain math courses without the assistance of a graphing calculator.

Sheri M said...

I agree with your take on the present state of American grammar. As a former English teacher, I am glad I will be dead when there will only be three tenses: any verb with an -ed ending, present, and future.

Kaphri said...

I ran my most recent manuscript through Grammarly. I did not find it as useful this time as the version I used five or six years ago on a different manuscript. It didn't work the same. (Probably user error.)

I didn't take all its suggestions--I love split infinitives in the right places--but it does catch spelling and punctuation errors Word sometimes overlooks.

Kate Higgins said...

My mother was an English major, my grandmother was a forth grade teacher, my husband was a news paper editor...who needs Otto when you are surrounded. Strict adhesion to the rules can bend and break creativity. Hemingway and numerous other writers have worked their magic without Otto at their sides. The magic is in the words and intent. Perfection is boring.

Now about that Mrs. vs Ms. thing;

My husband passed away in April this year due to brain complications from melanoma. It was peaceful and expected but that hasn't made it any easier. I spent 19 months as caregiver and his untimely death is a relief, a sneaky, bitchy sorrow and and Twilight-Zone-ish experience. (I did continue to stalk this blog however.) We were married for 41 years; he was only 67.

While wading through endless paperwork and a vast amount of relatives, I ran into the Mrs/Ms thing many times.
One particularly comment got my goat. The agent on the phone said, "I assume you have the same last name as your husband?"
I answered, "You assume wrong." and put a cork in my smoking ears.

After years (at least 41 years ) of women deciding they didn't want to change their last name for numerous reasons, you'd think the greater professional population would know better. My son came home from second grade years (and years) ago and asked, "Mom, Jason parents both have the same last name, can they do that?". My son is now 36 and his wife has her own name.

This is the very best advice about creativity of any kind (writing, illustration, photography etc.),
"Know the rules first. Then go ahead and break them"

Adele said...

Grammarly is a tool, not an authority. It will help get rid of random, commas, and point out extra spaces. But it's a nutter for traditional grammar and constructions most of us don't use any more. English is a living, breathing creature; always growing new cells and discarding dead ones. Basic grammar is its skeleton but the fun part is when you start playing with the skin. Grammarly doesn't allow that.

JEN Garrett said...

At best Grammerly (etc.) is a good tool for proofreading your professional writing (i.e. query letter). But it'd probably throw a fit when your voicy POV characters start jawin'.

Don't let a computer tell you what "good" writing is!

Rachel Neumeier said...

I not only don't use Grammarly, I turned off the grammar check that came with Word.

First, grammar checkers have no idea how to write dialogue that sounds good rather than dialogue that is correct. Second, they fail on correctness anyway, routinely missing common mistakes such as "My father bought my mother and I a puppy."

But I admit, I like grammar and I almost always know when I'm breaking a rule and why I'm breaking it.

Spellcheck is a Godsend, though.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Julie: I'm college educated, but I didn't learn good writing in college. We are supposed to learn that in high school, like you did. We're supposed to enter college already knowing how to write coherently. Many people don't, of course. (I know; I worked as a writing tutor.) That leaves them facing their college assignments at a disadvantage, having to not only engage with the content of the assignment but also to remedially teach themselves writing skills, all while in fear of the red pen.

When I worked in the tutoring center, many students came in petrified about grammar and spelling mistakes when what they really needed was the freedom to write a discovery draft so as to find out what they were going to say with their paper.

All that to say, I don't think you missed much.

When I say "grammar rules aren't being taught well," I don't mean everybody needs to go to college. I mean it needs to be done better in middle school. It shouldn't take four years to teach the parts of speech. Let alone eight.

Second sermon over.

Beth Carpenter said...

A second opinion seldom hurts, as long as the writer is confident enough to know when to ignore it. The trouble with knowing the rules and only looking up what I'm not sure about is that sometimes I'm sure, and I'm wrong. For example, my editor changed "all of the sudden" to "all of a sudden." I looked it up and she was right. I've been saying it wrong for over half a century.

RachelErin said...

My favorite definition of grammar is: it's a language to talk about language.

I worked through Warriner's this year with my 6th grader, (actually, she pretty much did it on her own) and I was surprised at how straightforward teaching grammar was. I thought there would be a lot more material there. It's a lot of terminology for different patterns and categories - much like certain areas of math. It was fun to talk about the different categories and when we need them to express ourselves. And since she started Latin this year it was also fun to talk about how different languages solve the problem of communicating certain things (like time).

I think this frame can take a lot of the anxiety out of it - how do we best communicate what we want to say? What tools do we have and how are they generally used and understood? And so on. I also think it's a nice balance between prescriptive and descriptive.

I think one challenge that might increase they angst of college students who feel they weren't taught English well, is that communication is becoming more casual. But it's a little bit like business casual dress codes-hard to interpret, and the rules are vaguer but there still seem to be people who know when outsiders have broken them.

Karen McCoy said...

I'm so glad that Grammarly has been framed as a tool, rather than an authority. As a former Writing Specialist at a University (and current grammarian), I have opinions...

First, and foremost, Grammarly does not understand how to correct mistakes made by second language learners. This is no one's fault; it has more to do with how sentences are structured differently and how word order is more flexible in other languages. So, second language learners, beware.

And, while we're at it, college students beware. Because while Grammarly will provide an easy fix in the moment, there lacks a teachable moment to ensure that mistakes aren't repeated. Writing is a learning process in and of itself--and college students often make the same mistakes in the same patterns, rather than new ones.

Once a pattern is identified (e.g. subject/verb agreement) an even better tool is The Longman Dictionary (also found online). The reason the Longman is such a good resource is that it demonstrates correct examples of usage. Grammarly doesn't, as far as I know...

Luckily, for writers, there are copywriters and copyeditors who are well versed in this sort of thing. And even us grammarians don't get it perfectly right, all the time...

Karen McCoy said...

And Jennifer Mugrage you hit the nail on the head. Often, students are expected to know how to do academic writing right out of high school--students who are often from different language and economic backgrounds. Tutors in writing centers can often be what keeps a student from being completely frustrated. It's just they need the right tools. And once they have the tools, they often feel better about their writing.

Brenda said...

Picture stolen!

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

As someone who speaks and writes English as a second language, I find Grammarly useful but only to double check what I consider my usage blind spots namely tenses and in/on/at. Otherwise I ignore it.

Allison K Williams said...

I edit professionally, and I find the most useful software is PerfectIt. It catches grammar mistakes, yes, that have to be checked the same as any other grammar-mistake-catching program. But where it is really valuable is catching inconsistencies. For example, PerfectIt will say, you have breast feeding, breastfeeding and breast-feeding which one do you want? And you can press one button and change them all to fit that. This also works with character names.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Well said!

Elissa M said...

I feel very old now because I have a number of actual printed grammar books which I consult when I have grammar questions. Yes, my writing software likes to tell me how to do things, but I never count it as an authority.

The Sleepy One said...

I love Grammarly since it helps me find stupid errors that my brain skips when reading something. It's an excellent tool. Especially since it can also help find grammatically correct potential problems, like passive voice and repetitive sentence structure.

But I like said--it's a tool. It's not a replacement for understanding grammar and voice.

Michael Seese said...

If I used a grammarbot, my writing would be perfect.

And it would suck.

@Kitty, you lie yourself, and lay everything else.

I lie on the bed.
I lay the book on the nightstand next to it.

Sit and set work the same way.

KDJames said...

I think we were supposed to learn grammar in 7th grade. I HATED my 7th grade English teacher. I'm not sure why, now, but I really HATED her at the time and refused to learn anything in that class. Well, she gave me an A, so I must have learned something. I did manage to learn a bit of grammar when I took three years of French in HS, since suddenly there was a reason for it.

To this day, I couldn't diagram a sentence to save my life. I have no idea what an infinitive is, let alone what it means to split one (please don't tell me). The parts of speech beyond "noun" and "verb" are a complete mystery.

But... my dad was a HS English teacher, my mom was an elementary school teacher (briefly), and I grew up with a virtual red pen hovering over every conversation ("Me and Stacy are going to the store." "Really? How MEAN [me-and] was she?"), and a literal red pen applied to every piece of writing. So I know what sounds right. To me.

I've never used Grammarly and doubt I ever will. Allison's description of PerfectIt sounds intriguing and I'll be looking into that. Otto's green squiggles mostly just make me wonder whether I need to re-write a sentence for the sake of clarity (usually not).

All this to say, I don't think you necessarily need to "know the rules" before you can break them. I sure as hell don't. Listen to the people who correct you, try to understand their reasoning, be prepared to admit when you're wrong. But trust your gut. There's no better way to screw up your voice than to let people put "correct" words in your mouth. Er, on the page.

By the way, anyone encountering an editor who tries to fix character DIALOG needs to learn the joys of STET. Because that's just all kinds of wrong.

AJ Blythe said...

I tried Grammarly but got rid of it because it drove me bonkers trying to correct things I didn't want corrected. I have "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" but that's about the only grammar related resource I have.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I am totally on Team Grammar Software.

It doesn't mean I let it be the boss of me.

But it highlights every passive usage, every sentence fragment, and a couple of my more unfortunate comma-usage tics, as well as my tendency to randomly shift tenses.

It highlights each one and forces me to make a decision for clarity, correctness, and style. Line after brutal line.

For example, I'll be a lot less strict on dialogue. We often speak in sentence fragments and passive construction. But if it's a descriptive or declarative passage and I can clean it up and streamline it, then I thank my grammar robot overlord.

And, occasionally, when I see myself making the same mistake over and over, I even learn something.


Kitty said...

Michael Seese I don't care what you say, "Lie Lady Lie" is just wrong.

Michael Seese said...

@Kitty. Wow. You can understand anything Bob Dylan says? I'm impressed.

Kitty said...

Michael I'm adding that to my resumé.

Casual-T said...

I love Terry Pratchett’s writing, and boy does he use—or rather not use—his commas in a way that would give any grammar software a CPU-attack.

As has been stated by others, it’s one thing to know the rules and break them with intent (as did Pratchett); it’s a whole other can of grammar & punctuation worms, if one doesn’t know the rules in the first place. I don’t consider myself knowledgeable when it comes to the rules and regulations of word traffic (which may be evident from this post!), so I’ve been reading article after article on all aspects of this topic; trying to better navigate the dark and smelly back-alleys of comma usage and noun-hyphenation; doing my best to avoid head-on collisions with the occasional semicolon running a stop sign.

All this to say: When I write, I make sure to have reference sites/books within reach. “Better safe than incorrect!” as the old adage goes…

Julia Ergane said...

My bete noir is the dangling preposition. When this happens, I stop and look at the sentence, working it over in my mind to see how I can get rid of it. (Yes, I attended a parochial school from 1958 - 1962, so I am a bit of a perfectionist!)

Konnie Enos said...

Okay, since I use word I often rely on the internal programs on that writing software to point out my spelling and grammar errors. Especially the spelling errors because as my children have long since learned, I can't spell. The biggest advantage to me is the thesaurus program. With it I just might be able to find the correct word I'm unsuccessfully attempting to spell but can't even get close enough for spell check to give me any helpful suggestions. That being said, I've long since learned the software is fallible and therefore I only listen to it when I'm sure it's right.

The point is you got to learn the rules well enough to know when to listen to such programs.

Konnie Enos
Smile. Make the day a brighter day.
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