Should writers really be using grammar correction software?

A few days ago, while I was looking at a website, a video advert appeared for something called ‘Grammarly’. I hadn’t heard of it before, but no prizes for guessing it’s an app that checks your grammar (as well as spelling and punctuation). I don’t know why, but I’ve never really thought that such a thing might exist. I have to admit I was appalled, and particularly concerned about the implication for writers, but should I have been?

Grammarly doesn’t have the market all to itself. As you might imagine, if one company is selling a grammar checker, others will be too. Two of the more imaginatively named competitors are White Smoke and Ginger. White Smoke says it will:

improve your writing by catching common grammatical, spelling…’ etc. ‘The result is elevated writing that conveys a command of the English language.‘ (1.)

But shouldn’t we all be able to write in a way that ‘conveys a command of the English language’? It hurts me to think that in the twenty-first century people are still coming out of school unable to do that for themselves. These apps target, amongst others, students. I can’t help thinking that giving students access to these tools isn’t a good idea, but it’s the application of this kind of tool to those who write for a living that concerns me most.

According to the website (and just in case you were wondering, I’m not getting paid for adding these links):

Grammarly helps you write mistake free…‘ it ‘corrects…grammar, punctuation, spelling mistakes, contextual errors, suggests style improvements.‘ (2.)

It’s that phrase ‘suggests style improvements‘. For anyone who writes for a living, whether you’re a journalist, you have to produce business reports now and then, or you come up with the rhymes that go into greetings cards, I’d call that cheating. I’d give you the analogy of putting a guidance system into a golf ball, so that however much the player slices the shot, the ball always stays on the fairway.

But for a creative writer – a writer of fiction – it’s even worse. Because ‘style’, surely, is what gives  a writer their identity; what the publishing industry, with its love of euphemism, calls the writer’s ‘voice’. It’s interesting that, as writers are increasingly expected to be adept in marketing, computing software is taking away the need for some of their more fundamental skills. Do grammar checking apps diminish the craft of writing? You could argue that fiction writing (or at least, mainstream fiction writing) is becoming ever more homogenised, with writers being trammelled into producing work that fits into narrow formulaic categories. These kind of spell-checker-on-steroids apps are unlikely to do anything for the diversification of creative writing.

Surely producing interesting prose that communicates effectively, has character, style, and is maybe even beautiful, whilst also being grammatically correct (although we have the prerogative to break the rules on purpose) is what makes a writer. If the process of writing involves being trailed by an app that changes the order of your words, or suggests alternative phrasings in real time, doesn’t that take away much of the satisfaction? Doesn’t it mean that the finished work is rather less your own work?

This is modern life. The machines allow us to achieve more and more that we couldn’t manage on our own. But there’s a price to pay. We are increasingly allowing ourselves to be moulded to fit the machines; the laptops, tablets, phones – the devices. It’s something of a Faustian pact – the computers offer us things we could only ever imagine, but in some respects, we’re giving up our souls in return. The machines allow us to fly, but one day they’ll stop, either because they’ve become so advanced they realise they don’t need us any more, or because our delicate, over-elaborate ‘tech’ infrastructure is rendered useless by a change in our circumstances. And then what are we going to do?

The Top Ten Reviews website (3.) gives Grammarly a gold award and says it’s their best performer. But at the same time, they give it an accuracy figure of on 60%, so perhaps these apps are not all they’re cracked up to be. And maybe these grammar checking apps aren’t actually much more than advanced spell-checkers. Or perhaps the damage they do in relieving us of the need to be able to ‘write properly’ will be outweighed by their ability to teach us how to write properly.

What do you think? Do they devalue our talents as writers, or are they just another tool to help us communicate more effectively?

Oh, and if you find any mistakes in this post, it will be because I didn’t use a grammar checker…




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The Post of Xmas Past…

…and present, and future.
xmas cardChristmas!
A time when millions of Britons take time out from their busy lives to worship at the altar of gluttony, binge drinking and conspicuous consumption. A time when, for once, we can briefly forget about our responsibilities toward the environment. We decorate our houses and gardens with enough lights to suck a power station dry (and don’t they look pretty?) And it’s been estimated that over the festive period over 114,000 tonnes of plastic packaging will be thrown away [1].
Humbug! Yes – some of it will comes from mint humbugs (probably not much!)

But cut to the chase Graham. I present below, for your delectation, a Christmas poem. It’s called…

Bad Jumpers.

The epitome of Christmas,
The litmus test of our commitment to being merry,
The very height of kitsch,
With every stitch a garish addition
To this recent tradition of keeping warm with an absence of style.
For a while, this temporary fashion trend holds sway,
Until at least Boxing Day,
And then it goes away for another year.

Let’s be clear,
It wouldn’t do to wear the same jumper two years running;
Where’s the fun in that?
Each design is unique;
The price of belonging to the clique,
Worn only for a week
Then never seen again.

What happens, I wonder,
To all those Christmas jumpers;
Can anyone explain?
Are they given away, or thrown away?
Are they stored in ever growing piles,
Until the inevitable clear out comes about,
And the ghosts of Christmas jumpers past,
Musty and moth-eaten, are chucked out at last?

Don’t think these woollen wonders are moronic.
No – they’re ‘ironic’.
And as well as parting with the cash,
It requires confidence and panache
To wear these garments,
Gaudy, warm and thick,
Without looking like a dick.


[1] UK environmental coalition calls for stronger measures to cut plastic waste.


Text and graphic copyright © Graham Wright 2017

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Robot Writing

I’ve heard reports that an increasing number of articles are being written by robots. This is a worrying trend. We’ve become used to robots in manufacturing, and accepted that while they might have displaced some human workers, at least the jobs that have gone generally weren’t very rewarding. And the loss of jobs has been at least partially offset by new, more interesting jobs creating, programming, and managing the robots.
But now we’re being warned of a new wave of automation, with so called AI – Artificial Intelligence – machines that can do the jobs we thought machines could never do. And with the machines beginning to encroach on my territory, I’m starting to get twitchy. Continue reading

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Charles Bradlaugh: Forgotten Hero?

If you haven’t heard of the Victorian freethinker and rights campaigner Charles Bradlaugh, it’s probably because the establishment have done their best to write him out of history.

Bradlaugh was an atheist at a time when atheists were expected to stand silently aside and let the church get on with the business of dictating what people could and couldn’t do. Not that things have changed so very much. But staying silent in the face of injustice wasn’t Bradlaugh’s way. Elected to parliament in 1880, but prevented from taking his seat because he refused to swear an oath, Bradlaugh campaigned for rights such as freedom of belief, the right to peaceful protest, the rights of workers, and the right to information about, and to practice, birth control. He supported self determination for India. And in 1866, he founded the National Secular Society, an organisation which is still thriving, and of which I’m proud to be a member. And last Saturday I travelled up to Manchester to attend an event; the inaugural Charles Bradlaugh lecture, organised by the National Secular Society (NSS) as part of their 150th anniversary celebrations.

Despite being a member for some years, this was the first NSS event I had attended. Most are held in or around their London home in Holborn, and I haven’t been able to get down there. But when I discovered they were holding an event in my former home and favourite city, I just had to make a special trip. The venue was the Manchester Art Gallery, home to a magnificent collection of Victorian art (as well as earlier and later works) in a city that was at the heart of the struggle for justice, rights, and fair wages and conditions for ordinary working people.

I have to admit, I was a little nervous. The NSS is an inspirational organisation, with a formidable reputation. Despite being outside the establishment, it moves among the higher echelons in the UK and the wider world. It’s officials make the case for secularism to the UK government, the European Parliament and even the United Nations, and make regular appearances on local and national radio and television. So to find myself in a relatively small (though very full) room with many of their leading lights, including the president, the executive director and the campaigns director, was daunting. Given the nature of their work, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was struck by how friendly, approachable and down-to-earth they all are.

The lecture was very interesting, and well received by the enthusiastic audience. The speakers were Bob Forder, the NSS resident historian, who like me retains a fond affection for Manchester, where he lived and worked for a number of years; and Professor Bryan Niblett, author of ‘Dare to Stand Alone’ the biography of Charles Bradlaugh. There were refreshments before and after, in the lobby of the gallery’s new extension, overlooked, in pride of place at the top of the staircase, by Walter Sickert’s large full length portrait of Charles Bradlaugh. The painting has been in the gallery’s collection since 1911, but had been in storage for some years. It was cleaned and re-hung to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the NSS, and getting it up there was apparently such a difficult job that it won’t be coming down any time soon.

Bob Forder set the scene for us, describing the repression of radical ideas in early nineteenth century Britain, partly a result of fears that the revolutions that took place on the continent might spread to Britain. He talked about Bradlaugh’s predecessors; people like Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill, and the growth of radical ideas during Bradlaugh’s lifetime, particularly in the industrial powerhouse of Manchester, and in the labour movement. The NSS was formed in the same year as the Howard League and the Fawcett Society, but that unlike those, the NSS was primarily a working class organisation.

Bryan Niblett went on to talk more specifically about Bradlaugh himself. Apparently he was a great orator, with a powerful voice. When he was elected to parliament (to represent Northampton) he asked to affirm rather than swear an oath (swearing an oath of allegiance to the crown with the words ‘so help me god’ was always going to be a difficult one for a republican and an atheist). When his request was refused, he actually did agreed to swear the oath, but wasn’t allowed on the basis that it wouldn’t be valid. By asking to affirm, he had let on that he didn’t value the oath. He was kept out of the house until the situation was resolved in 1886. He had to swear the oath  to get in, but was instrumental in the 1888 Oaths Act, which gave all MPs the right to affirm, rather than swear a religious oath. Religious people often say that atheism is a negative (because it denies the existence of a deity without necessarily offering an alternative answer to the great question of life, the universe, and, erm… everything). Bradlaugh argued that theism is a negative, and that atheism is therefore a positive, because a negative of a negative is a positive.

After the lecture, there was a Q & A session with the speakers, and the president and executive director. Some of the questions highlighted the confusion over the difference between atheism and secularism, something the panel were keen to clear up. Though many of its members are atheists, the NSS is not an atheist organisation. It campaigns for freedom from religion, but also for freedom of religion. It wants to take away religious privilege (such as the right of bishops to sit, unelected, in the house of lords) but not freedom of belief. Some NSS members are religious- the president said he knows of at least one vicar who’s a member – and in fact the organisation sometimes campaigns alongside religious groups, where there’s a shared interest.

Charles Bradlaugh may have been a little known figure up until now. But in addition to persuading the Manchester Art Gallery to display the Sickert painting,  the NSS recently commissioned a bust of Bradlaugh, and this is now on permanent display in parliament. So perhaps at last Bradlaugh’s name will take its rightful place in history, among those who were so influential in fighting for the rights and freedoms that we can all enjoy in today’s Britain.

Text & photos copyright © Graham Wright 2017

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England is Mine

The Smiths were my era, and while they weren’t one of my favourite bands, they were one of the few pop bands whose music I had time for. So when I heard there was a film about their singer, Steven  Morrissey (a biopic, in the jargon of the film industry), I was interested to see it. The film title – England is Mine – is taken from the Smiths song, ‘Still Ill’ (England is Mine, and it owes me a living).
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Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last – Book Review

The Heart Goes Last is set in an almost contemporary America where the distribution of wealth has become so unequal that large numbers of people are falling out of society.

The book follows a couple who, without steady jobs and a home, are living out of their car and at constant threat from thieves, druggies and mad people. They’re trapped in a downward spiral that’s almost certainly going to end badly. So when they see a television advert recruiting people for a newly formed utopian society sealed off from the rest of the world, they ignore the rumours and sign up, believing that it can’t be any worse than the life they are living. After a promising start, of course things begin to go bad.
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Independent Bookshops

On Saturday, Mrs Literarylad and I went for a long walk along the Beacons Way which, as the name suggests, is in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Our walk started in Crickhowell, described on the information centre website as a ‘picturesque town nestling in the beautiful Usk valley, to the south of the Black Mountains’. I don’t think they’re overselling the place. We saw this independent bookshop, called Book-ish’ and couldn’t resist going in for a browse. The signage and window displays were so enticing it would have been difficult for us to walk past without going in, but when we saw it had a cafe downstairs, that settled the matter.

I find all bookshops a draw, but the independents are generally the most interesting, and have more focussed selections of books than the chains, which tend to cram in the standard range of three-for-two’s that are thrown at them by the big publishers.

Book-ish is a lovely shop, with a great selection of books. They focus on their location on the edge of the Brecon Becons by stocking a good range of walking books (that’s books about walking – the books themselves don’t walk) and maps, as well as some tasteful Crickhowell themed merchandise, like bookmarks and mugs. I dream about one day having the time to browse for as long as I like, to buy books, to start reading them, over one, then maybe another coffee, to browse some more and finally come out with an armful of books. And then to have the time to read them. One day. When I’m retired. The Spanish for ‘retired’ is ‘jubilado’, which is a fabulous word, describing retirement as a time to celebrate. I love the idea of joyously embracing retirement as a time of endless possibilities (reading being one of them).

The coffee was pretty good too, and set us up for a long, tiring but ultimately enjoyable walk through some lovely countryside. Books, coffee, a good walk, and some beautiful, scenery, all in the same day. I needed a sit down after that!

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