Sing Me a Song, You’re the Grammar Man

Some people in the Facebook writers’ group were touting Grammarly. I pooh-poohed the idea that it could be useful, but quickly realized that I was talking through my hat. I didn’t actually know. The premium plan is $30 for a month, with a seven-day money-back offer. So trying it out is going to cost me nothing.

I’m pleased to report that I was right. Gruesome examples follow. Here’s a brief passage from Chapter 1 of my upcoming book:

They dithered for another minute, crossed out words, and made corrections. At last the first scholar handed the paper to the messenger. “You’re for the king. Off with you.” The messenger trotted away.

What’s amusing about Grammarly’s attempt to grasp this rather simple paragraph is that it flagged the second instance of the word “messenger,” but not the first instance. The second instance, according to Grammarly, is a “possibly confused word.” “The word ‘messenger,'” the software announces, “doesn’t seem to fit this context. Consider replacing it with a different one.” Since the first instance of the word passed muster — Grammarly accepted it without a qualm — I’d say this “error” qualifies for a WTF.

It soon becomes clear that “doesn’t seem to fit this context” is a catch-all message that should perhaps be understood as “the software’s comprehension algorithm just failed miserably.” At the beginning of Chapter 2, I have the sentence, “Tell Meery what the statue had said?” Grammarly thinks the word “statue” doesn’t seem to fit this context. A few paragraphs on, in a flashback, I mention how after Meery’s mother died, “the owner of the apartment building had slammed the door and turned Meery out to beg.” Grammarly thinks “beg” doesn’t seem to fit this context, and suggests “be.” Yowza.

Later in the chapter I mention that a man “looked strong enough to toss a horse over his shoulder and stride out the gate with it.” Grammarly thinks “stride” doesn’t seem to fit this context, and suggests “strode.” This is a complex software error. First, “stride” is in a parallel construction with “toss,” which makes the present tense mandatory (because it’s an infinitive). Second, on what basis would a verb tense error be flagged as “doesn’t seem to fit this context”? That makes no sense at all.

To be fair to Grammarly, it also picked up a word in Chapter 2 that I misused, though it had no idea how I misused it. It flagged “parry” with the same message (suggesting “party,” believe it or not). When I looked it up, I discovered that a parry is a defensive maneuver, which is not what I was describing. This earns Grammarly half a point!

Grammarly regularly flags passive voice verbs — but of course there’s actually nothing wrong with an occasional passive voice verb, so this is an example of the software acting like your seventh-grade English teacher. Once in a while it hits something that isn’t actually a passive verb at all, as in this sentence: “We are educated people, not elves of the forest.” Do you see the problem? It snagged on “are educated,” but it wasn’t capable of noticing that “people” is a predicate nominative being modified by “educated.”

Here’s a weird goof. I have a brief passage of internal monologue in which the paragraph ends like this: “(No, just a coincidence. Don’t think about it. But….)” Grammarly thinks that that’s an unnecessary ellipsis. “The ellipsis in your sentence may not be necessary. Consider removing it.” But … if there’s no ellipsis, we’ll have a one-word sentence: “But.” Quite aside from the fact that the ellipsis is meaningful in context, would Grammarly prefer that one-word sentence? Evidently it would. When I delete the ellipsis, Grammarly goes through the file again and doesn’t flag anything there.

The elf looks at the injured horse and says, “This horse. Its leg.” The elf is not a native speaker of the language they’re using, so his speeches trip up Grammarly elsewhere — no point belaboring the software over that. But here, Grammarly specifically suggests “It’s”. Whaaat? Okay, I guess that would be, technically, a complete sentence in pidgin: It is leg. So maybe I shouldn’t slam Grammarly over its mistake, even though it’s specifically recommending the wrong form, which would add a commonly made mistake to the text.

Here and there it suggests adding an optional comma where I didn’t want one, and then, a few sentences later, suggests deleting one where I had used one. I should write a whole post about optional commas. Once in a while, its comma advice is even worse. Consider this sentence: “Only after she said it did she realize that both she and the elf had spoken Sa’aknan, not Garathian.” Grammarly recommended putting a comma after “said,” which would be 100% dead wrong.

Here’s another Grammarly punctuation booboo. My sentence is, “The afternoon was warm but not too warm, the sky scoured blue by a fresh breeze.” Grammarly wants to change that comma to a semicolon, which of course would be wrong, because the second clause has an implied “was” that’s left over from the first clause. Possibly Grammarly thinks “scoured” is an active verb whose subject is “sky” — but “scoured” is a transitive verb. Does it think “blue” is a thing that the sky scoured? Let’s hope not.

And check this out. My sentence begins thusly: “When the sheets were hung and the empty baskets set back against the wall, Meery grabbed and hefted a heavy stick….” Grammarly wants to see a comma after “hung.” It thinks “and” is “the coordinating conjunction … in a compound sentence.” If this were a compound sentence containing two independent clauses, a “were” would be required before “set back.” In fact, this is a parallel construction (again, the elided copula, and if you don’t know what an elided copula is, you can look it up) in a subordinate clause (“When the sheets … and the empty baskets…”).

Something similar happens again here: A man says, “I reckon the lad and I can manage today,” and Grammarly wants to put a comma after “lad,” because it thinks the “and” is “the coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence.” If this were a compound sentence, the first clause would be, “I reckon the lad.” Does anybody here think “reckon” is a transitive verb that can take a simple noun as an object? No, “reckon” requires an entire clause as its object. Here, that clause (“I can manage…”) happens to have a compound subject. So again, Grammarly is just plain wrong.

Grammarly thinks highly of and consistently recommends what Fowler calls elegant variation, the needless and indeed confusing use of synonyms and alternative phrases when a simple repetition is all that’s needed. In fiction one quite commonly wants to repeat a word because that word is the subject of the fucking paragraph! But Grammarly doesn’t care for it. In the opening paragraph of Chapter 2, Kyura and Meery are hanging wet sheets on the clothesline, and the word “sheets” is used twice. The second time, Grammarly recommends “using a synonym in its place.” The suggested substitute is “leaves.”

Pathetic, really.

Oh, and I love this. In one sentence Grammarly objects to the word “large” on the grounds that it’s a “weak adjective.” The software suggests replacing “very large” with “huge” or “tremendous.” In itself this isn’t bad advice, it’s just wrong for the tone of this particular bit of dialog. But later in the scene I describe a minor character as “a massive, sleepy fellow.” Here, Grammarly suggests “that the noun ‘fellow’ might combine better with an adjective other than ‘massive.'” And what word does it suggest replacing “massive” with? You guessed it: “large.”

I typed out the first chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and fed it to Grammarly. It’s a short chapter, but Grammarly found 17 places where Hemingway ought to have used a comma. Using commas would have weakened his writing, of course, but Grammarly doesn’t know anything about strong or effective writing. Grammarly did, however, spot the fact that I had plagiarized the entire thing, which tells me the app connects to an online database.

Next I copied the opening of a self-published book (not my own) from Kindle and tossed Grammarly the raw meat. When not fussing about commas or whining about duplicated words, Grammarly managed to make a mistake that would destroy just about the only good sentence in the whole passage. The sentence: “The Chairman of the Conclave spoke, soft as a snake’s slither.” Grammarly wanted to change “snake’s” to “snakes”! Never mind that that would have made the “a” wrong and also made hash of the sentence. The problem seems to be that Grammarly thinks “slither” must be a verb. I would imagine it knows that many common English words, such as “run” and “throw,” can be either nouns or verbs; but in this sentence “slither” is a noun. Because Grammarly flagged it as a verb, the software looked around for a subject for the verb, and came up with “snakes.”

A couple of paragraphs down, the writer had the sentence, “He pointed a finger at the young man.” Grammarly thought “pointed the finger at” would be better. This was described as “wrong article with set expression.” That is, Grammarly thought this was a standard metaphor, when in fact it’s a literal expression of what the other character in the scene is physically doing. That’s the essence of the problem, right there: Grammarly is not reading the text. Software can’t do that — not today or tomorrow, and maybe not ever. It’s applying a set of fixed rules. If the rules are misguided, misapplied, or even nonsensical in a given context, Grammarly does not know it. And if you’re relying on software to check your grammar, you probably don’t know it either. In order to take advantage of its occasional useful suggestions, you have to be able to separate the sheep from the goats. But if you know how to do that, you don’t need the software.

As a final, acid test, I wrote a deliberately bad paragraph for Grammarly to fuss with. To be fair, it did find many of the errors I had created. I then used its editing interface to change the sentences. I found ways to make the sentences even worse without tripping any of Grammarly’s sensors. That is, I cheated. In the end I had a truly awful paragraph that Grammarly rated as 100% good. Here it is:

It was David’s birthday, a day to celebrate about him. David’s grandmother gives for him the blue and large telescope. Looking through the telescopes at the stars were much bigger and bright than ever while David is looking them. Before the telescope is his own; David could not see much about the stars at all. He hugs of grandma. Separated from his new shiny toy sadness and emotions filled David’s listless joyful and feelings. It was a more exotic gift he never was gotten. Can five telescopes too many?

If you write like this (and I’m sure you don’t — just saying), Grammarly won’t help you at all. In the end, Grammarly gets half a point for prodding me to look up “parry.” Other than that, its advice turns out to be consistently bad.

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2 Responses to Sing Me a Song, You’re the Grammar Man

  1. John Hanson says:

    I will never purchase any grammar checker, and it’s not because of bad programming but of the inadequacies of digital computers. The context and meanings created by word combinations cannot be captured in binary logic. Yes or no. Your examples are not things that can be stored and searched for.

    By the way, I enjoy your acerbic style. I learned the terms elided copulas and predicate nominative; though I know what they are. I will be back.

    I do have issues with some of your writing.

    You wrote “the owner of the apartment building had slammed the door and turned Meery out to beg,” and Grammarly has issues with the word beg. I do too, but maybe not for the same reason. What does beg mean? It is a verb. It could mean to beg for money or beg for the apartment. It could mean any number of things the reader has to fill in. Maybe it was set up previously, but as it stands, I want the word unpacked.

    Your use of dashes and parenthesis bothers me. The sentence “Grammarly regularly flags passive voice verbs — but of course there’s actually nothing wrong with an occasional passive voice verb, so this is an example of the software acting like your seventh-grade English teacher” makes me cringe. The wording after the dash is not set off; it is a continuation of thought. “Nothing wrong” is more a reaction than a sideline. And two conjunctions makes me shiver 😉

    Anyway. Keep up the good work.

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the comments, John. From your mention of dashes and parentheses, I suspect your usual writing tone is a bit more formal than mine. In this blog I go for an impromptu, conversational style. In the sentence you quoted, the em-dash could easily be replaced by either a comma or a semicolon; the dash adds a bit of emphasis, that’s all. The comma and “so” could be replaced with a period, a new sentence then beginning with “This”. That might be better than what I wrote, but it would certainly be more formal.

      If seeing two conjunctions in the same sentence makes you shiver, I suggest that you not read Hemingway. He uses actual run-on sentences pretty regularly. 🙂

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