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…
Text copyright Graham Wright 2018