The first time I tried the online writing tool Grammarly, I admit that I was mostly interested uncovering its faults. I was caught off guard by what the app did well, though unsurprised (but hopefully not too smug) about where it came up short. That was three years ago. Grammarly has grown and improved since then, with new features that let you choose what kind of document you’re writing and what type of audience will read it.
Grammarly is a writing app that benefits non-native speakers, certainly, as well as busy professionals who want to nip typos, errors, and poor word choices in the bud. Even experienced writers may find that sending their copy for a quick spin through Grammarly forces them to at least reconsider a few words and phrases that they may have overlooked.
What Is Grammarly?
Grammarly analyzes writing and suggests improvements. Despite its name, Grammarly is much more than just a grammar checker. It looks for repetitive words, jargon, homonyms, and hackneyed phrases, as well as words that non-native speakers commonly misuse.
To use Grammarly, you can install an extension for some apps so that it checks your work as you type, or you can open the Grammarly app and paste entire documents into it after you’ve finished a draft. I much prefer the second option, as I find it distracting to see suggestions for changes while I’m still figuring out what I want to say.
Take a Grammarly Test Drive
If you install Grammarly’s browser plugins and let it run nonstop, it reviews nearly everything you write online, including emails, social media updates, and blog posts.
Seeing as that method isn’t my cup of tea, I skipped it this time around and stuck to pasting blocks of text and in some cases entire book chapters into the online editor.
When it’s at its best, Grammarly identifies vague words such as “great,” and suggests you swap them for more descriptive ones. It finds typos and offers corrections, which you can accept in one click. It underlines words you use with high frequency and recommends synonyms. Even if you reject its suggestions, Grammarly forces you to pause and reconsider your word choices, which is a beneficial activity in itself.
When Grammarly is at its worst, it suggests words that change the meaning of your sentences or remove the effect of reusing a word or phrase repeatedly. My biggest disappointment came when Grammarly couldn’t suss out the fact that “however” has more than one meaning, and it suggested I make a change that would have introduced an error. It can also be as fussy as an eighth-grader in an advanced composition course about comma usage. If only someone would tell Grammarly that most commas are discretionary.
Was I getting too cocky about my writing? Should I have been accepting more of Grammarly’s suggestions? Second-guessing myself wasn’t making anything better.
Analysis of a Pro
Out of curiosity and to give myself a sanity-check, I copied and pasted a creative nonfiction essay published recently in The Paris Review. This piece was garnering all kinds of attention and praise. I decided to see what Grammarly thought of it.
I set some goals for the piece, calling it casual and for a general audience. The analysis of this pro’s work was more of the same. Grammarly thought the word “character” could be changed to “style” even though the author was referring to a fictional person in this instance. The app wanted “Tell me I look nice” to be “Tell me, I look nice,” stripping away all of its power as a command. Could we get a few more commas? Grammarly sure thought so.
In short, you have to be confident about what you ignore from Grammarly. It’s better at catching dumb mistakes than making something shine.
Technology’s Understanding of Language
When I first learned about Grammarly, I got in touch with a computational linguist who works there, Mariana Romanyshyn. We talked by video conference back in 2016 about how hard it is for computers to parse language and what Grammarly is doing to make computing systems better at it.
“Language is very ambiguous,” she said. “It’s not always possible for a machine to detect even what part of speech a word is.” She said Grammarly makes incorrect suggestions sometimes and other times misses errors that should be flagged because of limitations with part-of-speech taggers. “This ambiguity is a really tricky task for computers to solve.”
I asked her for some examples. “There’s this classic linguistic sentence: The old man the boat. The word ‘man’ is the verb.” In other words, it means, “those who are old are the ones who man the boat.”
“An automatic language processing system would never be able to detect that,” she said. Machines will always assume that “man” is a noun in this context. Another example well known to linguists is “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” It is a grammatically correct sentence, and please do puzzle over it for a moment before reading about how to parse it.
As far as privacy goes, be careful what you feed into Grammarly, as the company could conceivably see everything it analyzes. PCMag reviewer Ben Moore addresses this topic in detail in his review of Grammarly.
Grammarly Makes (Bad) Writing Better
Since my first experience the app, I’ve used it for a few writing assignments when an editor required I submit a Grammarly report alongside my copy. Another writing team I worked with gave all its writers a hearty nudge to use the app to catch and correct the kinds of writing faux pas that made one cranky editor crankier.
When I’m on a deadline and have only written a first draft, Grammarly does the boring work of finding and bringing to my attention errors, typos, and needless repetition. It’s a handy productivity hack. As I mentioned earlier, though, the suggestions are only beneficial when I can confidently throw away the bad ones. Grammarly isn’t cheap, either, at $29.95 per month, $59.95 per quarter, or $139.95 per year. But when you’re on deadline with an important piece of writing that you know could be better, it may be money well spent.
Many people need help with their writing, sometimes in do-or-die situations. Job seekers working on cover letters only get one chance to make each first impression. Students turning in assignments may find that bad grammar makes the difference between passing or failing. And business professionals putting together presentations that make or break their quarter can always use some extra backup. Practically everyone has a vested interest in writing as clearly and as well as they can, and Grammarly can help, if you know enough to take its best suggestions and discard its worst.