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Grammarly: For the writers who think they don’t need it

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One of the most difficult things to get right is "tone", but confidence, optimism and neutral can't be too bad.

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.

Comma imperfect

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?

One of the most difficult things to get right is "tone", but confidence, optimism and neutral can't be too bad.
One of the most difficult things to get right is “tone”, but confidence, optimism and neutrality can’t be too bad. We’re a bit light on information and forcefulness, however, wimps that we are

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.

If you want to try Grammarly, you can find it here.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.

16 COMMENTS

  1. As usual, Michael, you make some excellent points about Grammarly. I have some pernicious baked-in faults from writing in auto mode. As you know you recommended Grammarly to me some while back and I downloaded the free trial. It does all you say that it does and it certainly had a field day with all my errors. I should have purchased it. Regrettably the price seemed too steep and other gear related purchases always seem to come first! I am therefore a sinner who is confirmed in his ways. Is forgiveness possible?

    • As I mentioned previously, Grammarly would make an excellent proofreader for your books. But I suppose I can run them through on my computer during the checking process!

  2. Thank you for the writing tips and tool suggestion. It is inspiring to know that even the fluid writers like yourself, require a good proof read.

    I have always found the Americans better at punctuation and the British stronger with vocabulary. As for the localisation, I tend to use the British spelling if the readers will be mostly in Europe, American if mostly in the Americas. Where are most of the Macfilos users based?

    • All over, really, including a huge contingent from the USA. But more in the UK and many in Australia, probably as a result of the many articles featuring Australia. I suppose the simplest solution is to stick with British English, which is what I know. It would be difficult for me to use American English. The spelling is one thing, but there are more subtle differences that I would have difficulty with.

      You could be right that Americans are better at punctuation. It’s something I’ve noticed also.

  3. “..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..”

    That isn’t cheap I and wondered whether or not.. ..I think you deserve a 50% refund!

    “..Few writers are perfect, least of all me..” ..WHAT? ..”Few writers are perfect, least of all I“! ..I think you deserve the other 50% refund, Mike!

    (S’cuse all the over-emphasis, please, but my blood’s boiling and I’m ripping out what’s left of my hair!)

  4. Decades ago now, the manual of my Yamaha motorcycle referred to “the bowels of the carburettor”. I treasured that page. Would Grammarly have corrected it? I hope not, because it might even be correct in terms of carby anatomy.

  5. This is wonderful and made me laugh. There’s a good reason for that, as my wife is a proofreader. I am forever being (gently) corrected for grammatical errors and punctuation excess.

    My proofreader is provided to me on an expensive and extensive subscription that automatically renews on or around April 21st each year. I’m not sure whether I have benefited from any software upgrades other than my proofreader seems to more intuitively understand what I want to say and then “pre-corrects” it.

    Because I’m required to switch between “English” and “‘murican English” she has over the years recognized phrases like “I couldn’t possibly disagree” and knows they belong in the “English” pile and not “‘murican English” pile, and that “Right now” belongs in the “‘murican English” pile.

    Please don’t ask me to change proofreaders – I have had this one a long time, and very familiar with its foibles – this one is an absolute keeper.

    • There are undoubted advantages keeping a traditional form of proofreader on a lifetime contract. If I had such a capable piece of software it would make my life easier. Grammarly is a soulless alternative but probably cheaper in the long run.

      Anyway, congratulations on using a word I had never heard of. At first I read Murican as Mercian and imagined you hailing originally from those parts of Middle England, complete with a Brummie accent. Then I double-checked the spelling and had to look it up. Learn something new every day, that’s my motto.

      Alfred the Great would have been proud of us. And Godiva, Countess of Murica, sorry, Mercia, might have been a great proofreader when she had her clothes on.

    • Excellent comment Le Chef, I had to look up “Murican” too, not because I didn’t get your drift, but rather because I had always read it in context with former president “G Dubbya” and it was then always written as “Merkin”.

      And as Mike suggested, you have almost certainly taken the expensive route for acquiring a grammer chequer!

  6. Provided you know the basic rules of grammar, not taught as such in Engish schools nowadays, the author is the handiest proofreader. Unfortunately, speed prevails, leaving little or no time for proof-reading. By simply taking a break and re-reading what you have written, reveals errors and unclear or ambiguous text. Given time, leave your draft overnight and start the new day with a fresh and clear mind. You will be amazed at some of the mistakes you, or your Spellchecker, made a mere twenty four hours ago.

    As we get older and, dare I say, more forgetful, it becomes easier to read through mistakes, while the brain alone continues with ‘auto-correct’. Be aware of that possibility.

    From school days onwards, I have continued learning how to use the English language. In fact, I never stop learning. I learned that each profession and business has its own specialized version of the language. It is called ‘jargon’ or ‘house-style’. Outside the circle, jargon becomes a foreign language to strangers. When you leave that group, you might face learning another new form of jargon in order to understand your new group of work friends. Sometimes jargon passes into the wider spoken vocabulary. It is wise to use jargon sparingly in the wider world.

    Mike, with your proven intellect, erudition and worldly experience, together with the refresher lessons learned by using Grammerly for a year, I am sure you are now ready to ‘fly solo’ and dispense with your subscription proof-reader. (Note my use of jargon in my last sentence) Macfilos readers, in general, are a foregiving group.

    • David, you are absolutely right on the way in which we can read stuff and not see the obvious. I’m not even sure it is a product of age. My experience is that however often I read a draft, the errors hit me in the face when I see the published article. In my journalistic days, there was no correcting the printed page. Now, fortunately, I can sneak back in and right my wrongs before anyone notices.

      I managed most of my life without a grammar checker but, as I said in the article, Grammarly does a useful job and speeds up the editing process. It generally finds those gremlins that I might otherwise overlook until the article is published.

      One thing Grammarly cannot do, however, is turn bad writing into good. It is very much GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. But, at least, it will be grammatically correct garbage.

  7. I remember writing a note of admiration to the first girl I liked in middle school. She corrected my spelling mistake and gave the note back with a smile. It all came back to me in a dream last night that woke me up. I think it was because I had read this article before going to bed.

  8. An excellent and funny piece Mike.

    In default mode, MacOS underlines “Bad Grammer” (isn’t that in Austria?) with a squiggly green underline but I turned it off, since my pidgin does not seem to be catered for.

    Pidgin is all one needs as an inmate of the London conurbation these days… innit?

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