In common with many writers, I used to think my grammar was fine. At least, not too bad. Why use a grammar checker when I’ve been managing quite well most of my life? Or so I thought. I repeatedly spurned offers to subscribe to Grammarly, feeling that it would be a waste of money. Perhaps pride was driving this reluctance. And we all know what they say about pride. Eventually, though, I thought I’d try it for a time, just to see. I downloaded it two years ago in April 2018.
When eventually I tried Grammarly, I was annoyed to I discover that my confidence had been misplaced. Thanks to Grammarly’s nagging, however, I’m working on it and learning from the alerts.
Tooteling the horn trumpet
At least it isn’t as bad as is demonstrated in this exciting passage taken from a list of Honda motorcycle safety rules published in 1962:1
- At the rise of the hand by a Policeman, stop rapidly. Do not pass him by or otherwise disrespect him.
- When a passenger of the foot, hooves in sight, tootel the horn trumpet melodiously at first. If he still obstructs your passage, tootel him with vigor and express by word of mouth, warning Hi, Hi.
- Beware of the wandering horse that he shall not take fright as you pass him. Do not explode the exhaust box at him. Go smoothingly by.
- Give big space to the festive dog that makes sport in roadway. Avoid entanglement of dog with wheel spokes.
- Go soothingly on the grease mud, as there lurks the skid demon. Press the brake good as you roll around the corners, and save the collapse and tie up.
That last lot set Grammarly all aquiver, as you can imagine. Strangely, though, it highlighted only four words (tootel, vigor [because of the missing u], smoothingly and roadway [lack of article]). Surprisingly, it said nothing about the general nonsense, festive dogs and all. All this proves is that Grammarly is an aid; it will not put you right if you write nonsense.
But my Achilles’ heel, without a doubt, is the humble comma. Pesky thing. (Oops, no verb. Sorry, Grammarly but I insist). At first, Grammarly complained repeatedly that I was missing commas in compound sentences and, above all, forgetting to use them after an introductory phrase. I’m still doing it to an extent but thanks to Grammarly I can say that I have learned the error of my ways and my commas are now more disciplined and judiciously placed.
Grammarly hates missing articles, too. Now, I often drop the article for effect and there’s nothing wrong with that. Prerogative is mine (sic, another bad mark). Yet the fact that I insist on being contrary is one of the reasons I’m consistently marked down.
I’ll also sometimes write a fragmentary sentence without a verb. Grammarly goes into overdrive on that one. Again, though, it’s something we all do in the spoken word and it can be acceptable in the written.
And I’ll frequently start a sentence with a conjunction. It’s one way of avoiding over-long and convoluted sentences which impair readability. Grammarly seems relaxed about that supposed Fowler-howler because it is becoming much more common.
Woe would have betid me had I committed that sin at school, all those years ago in more pedantic times.
Out of the focus
On the downside, Grammarly isn’t particularly well-versed in technical terms such as those we use frequently in the world of photography.
It insisting on flagging “focus” (when used as a noun) as an error and insisting on “the focus” which isn’t always appropriate. In general, I ignore such nags provided I’m satisfied it isn’t a mistake, even though I might be marked down. On the other hand, it’s good to review the potential errors in case there’s a real howler there.
Above all, I value Grammarly as a proofreader. During the editing process, particularly the fettling of outside articles, it’s easy to miss a superfluous or duplicate word or phrase. A magazine or newspaper journalist has the benefit of an eagle-eyed sub-editor to iron out such glitches. At Macfilos, though, I have to act as head cook and bottle washer at the same time. This is where Grammarly is worth its salt.
(Gotcha, Grammarly, you wanted to change its to it’s in that last sentence and you were wrong, I know not why. At least you made me stop and think and I will relish my pyrrhic victory. For once.)
“From Alexander the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion.”
— Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
In line with my own view, Grammarly abhors the superfluous and incorrect apostrophe in “1970’s”, “MP’s” and so forth. Even worse are false possessives such as “photo’s” instead of “photos” – but we don’t need Grammarly to spot that one. It is good at detecting the sense of a sentence and will flag misuse of conflicting pairs such as complement and compliment, effect and affect.
Grammarly prefers company names to be in the singular, as do I. I try always to say “Leica has introduced a new camera” rather than the alternative “Leica have introduced”. Both are acceptable these days and many opt for the plural because you can’t half get yourself tied up in knots by insisting on the singular. It needs careful attention. Using the plural for a company can less stressful, if less traditional because it avoids the need to use “it” instead of ‘they”.
However, if you go back through Macfilos you’ll find me veering alarmingly from plural to singular use with corporate entities, according to context. I am now resolved to stick to the singular wherever possible. Consistency is everything.
British or American?
One of the issues I face when editing contributors’ articles is in deciding whether to leave spelling in the form native to the author or to standardise on British English.
Most magazines and newspapers convert spellings in this way in the interests of conformity and house style, making the experience for the reader more comfortable. But it’s a difficult one.
What do you think if you are a contributor to Macfilos? Do you mind your spelling being changed (“generalise”, “colour”) if you originally wrote generalize or color? I’m all for consistency across the platform.
There’s much more to Grammarly than proofreading, though. It analyses your writing in an effort to instil better habits. It does not, however, rail against the boring repetition of common words. That’s a pity because this would be a good nag.
Unnecessary repetition of the same word is one of my pet hates. The lazy duplicating of “photo”, “camera”, “lens” grates. Sometimes I can find “photo” used three or more times in a single paragraph. This overuse of common words is unnecessary and spoils the reading experience.
It is easy enough to find synonyms for almost anything, even if you can’t think of one immediately. That’s why, in Macfilos, you will find “photo”, “shot”, “image”, “snap”, even “file”, used to create variety. None is preferable (and I really don’t like “snap” or “file”) but alternatives to “photo” make an article easier to read. There aren’t many synonyms for camera and lens, however, but “body” and “optic” can be used sparingly to avoid boredom.
Last week I ran nearly 15,000 words through Grammarly – some mine, some from contributors but after initial editing – and found, as is usually the case, that we are using more unique words than most (97% last week) of Grammarly users. That’s a very good thing. We must try harder to get to 99% but it’s better than languishing at 30%.
Between us, too, we are more accurate than 74% of users, marked down largely by that errant comma. One thing that isn’t in doubt, however, is productivity. Here at Macfilos, we’re more productive than 92% of Grammarly readers over the 1,886,138 words processed in the last two years.
Subscribe or not?
Last week the Macfilos Grammarly subscription came up for renewal and I gulped at the $139 price tag. That it isn’t cheap I and wondered whether or not I really need it. Perhaps, I thought, up with this I will no longer put.
The answer (for Macfilos at least, bearing in mind the throughput) is a resounding YES. I would now miss Grammarly and its gentle and sometimes misplaced nagging.
Incidentally, Grammarly can be set to US English or British English (possibly other versions, I haven’t checked) and, as far as I can tell, its attention to detail on this side of the Atlantic is impeccable.
It even insists on “ise” rather than “ize”, something which is thought to differentiate US and British English – but erroneously since both versions are correct and acceptable according to the OED. Along with the publishers of most newspapers and magazines, however, I prefer the “ise” and that’s what you will generally find on Macfilos.2
In conclusion, then, I can thoroughly recommend Grammarly. It isn’t a gimmick, it is an extremely useful aid for all writers, whether they think they need it or not. Few writers are perfect, least of all me. But it’s the ones who think they don’t need it who actually need it most – quod erat demonstrandum.
- I am grateful to my old friend Frank Malley for resurrecting this memory of Japanese best-practice translations from the late ’50s and early ’60s – before they got savvier. ↩
- Most newspapers and magazines in Britain now use the “ise” ending and I’m happy to fall into line (not least because the Z in “ize” looks ugly to my eyes). The (London) Times used “ize” until 1992, when it switched to “ise”, having decided to follow the trend. ↩