Your Grammar Wears Army Boots

I like having an automatic spell-checker. As I’ve gotten older, the connections between my brain and my fingers get scrambled more often. That little squiggly red underline saves me any amount of embarrassment.

I’ve never used a grammar/style checker. Last night I thought I’d see what this type of software has to offer. I jetted over to the ProWritingAid page and uploaded a sample of my work to see what it would do. The free web-based interface is quite nice, I have to admit — especially since the site has no list of features that I could find explaining exactly what the checking process will flag. And the report that the software produces includes a number of possibly useful categories of commentary — overused words check, cliches and redundancies check, grammar check, and so on.

Now, bear in mind. I’m a professional. I cannot presume to assert that ProWritingAid would not provide some benefit to an amateur. I will, however, state that in my personal opinion, if you don’t already know what you’re doing this software is likely to make your writing worse rather than better.

A full list of its malfeasances would be tedious to construct, and probably just as tedious to read. It flagged dozens of things in my modest sample that it thought needed attention. Most of them were simply irrelevant — but how could an amateur writer be certain of that? Some were based on a sort of caveman understanding of “strong” vs. “weak” wording. In two instances it recommended removing commas; in one instance removing the comma would have changed the meaning of the sentence so as to make it incorrect; in the other instance it would merely have made the sentence clumsy and harder to read.

Whenever ProWritingAid sees a word ending in -ly it admonishes, “Use adverbs sparingly in your writing, especially creative writing. You can often use a stronger verb, or omit it.” But the software can’t tell whether a given usage is needed to make your meaning clear, and it certainly can’t tell whether a given adverb even makes sense in context. It always flags passive verbs, recommending active verbs instead; but there are important reasons why a passive verb is sometimes a better choice than an active verb. One may want, for instance, to put the important noun at the beginning of the sentence, where its prominence will emphasize its importance.

Consider this sentence from the writing sample I offered up to ProWritingAid’s tender mercies:

In her shadow, as it were (though with so many lanterns in the room there were no shadows at all) stood a blond girl, somewhat younger, whose hair was cropped short, a style so bizarre as to be almost scandalous.

ProWritingAid flagged “was cropped” as a passive verb, but to make it active would be almost impossible. It would require a flashback to an earlier novel in the series — hardly practical in the middle of a sentence. ProWritingAid also suggested deleting “as it were,” whining, “Readability may be enhanced by removing this.” Given the context, this advice is simply ridiculous. But how would the amateur writer be able to tell?

As an added fillip, the software missed the punctuation error in that sentence. Can you spot it? I missed it myself until just now. There should have been a comma after the closing parenthesis.

ProWritingAid’s advice is not helpful; all it does is make the aspiring writer feel uneasy. Software that promotes anxiety and guilt in its users is a problem, not a solution.

If you want to write better, buy and absorb a copy of The Elements of Style. Read a lot of good writing and notice how good writers build their sentences and paragraphs. Track down a professional whose work you admire and ask nicely if he or she would consent to help you improve your prose. Take a few pages of your own writing and try rewriting the same material in five different ways — and then ask yourself which sentences you prefer, and what the subtle differences are in meaning and tone.

But don’t rely on grammar/style checking software. Better yet, don’t even go near it.


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