Smoke, Mirrors, and Grammar Software

Grammar software is like taking a photograph, clicking watercolor rendering in Adobe Photoshop, and calling it artwork. Never mind all those years of practice, study, endless sketching, classes, books, museums—and most of all the longing and passion to improve your art.

Grammar software will not make you a better writer because it doesn’t know how. It’s a robot. I recently tried to read a work of fiction by a self-published author but was so wearied I could not finish the book. No matter how intriguing the theme, four hundred pages of stilted excess that should have been two hundred pages will exhaust the reader. How many times does a writer have to say the same thing using slightly different wording in each sentence? And after the third or fourth “her and Steven hadn’t taken a movie in years…” I could take no more. It felt like homework.

How many times do you need to say “that”? I have changed names and words in the following example but have left the verbose structure. It is not my intent to single out any writer—lack of restraint is a common trend.

“He knew that the more hurtful that something was the more someone felt driven to act as though it wasn’t, but he had thought that Sarah might be different. He had always believed that his wife had arrived at some highly evolved approach to life which had made her immune to the usual humiliations of the world, but now he saw that the differences between them…”

How can software recognize bloat? Only the writer has the power to make his or her work interesting, and it’s done by editing.

I looked up a tutorial for a popular grammar software program called Whitesmoke. The video guides you through a sample text and explains why you really need these computer-generated revisions. Whitesmoke is a good name for this program, because that’s what it is—expensive smoke.

Useless grammar software example 1

The text in this tutorial reminds me of the poorly translated assembly instructions that come with your new TV cabinet made in China. The grammar software suggests inserting a comma after “air strip,” but completely misses much more obvious and urgent mistakes in the last sentence: “If you are not interest in flying, we’ll arrange for something else exciting for you.”

Useless grammar software example 2

Here the software is asking if the user wants to add the placenames to the spellcheck dictionary. Big woot. But look at the last sentence in the first paragraph, “This night is on your own in Marlborough.” The robot apparently has no way of knowing what a very bad sentence this is.

The second paragraph begins with “After breakfast, we’ll drive to Heathrow airport for those who need that.” Um, Mr. Robot, you don’t sense a problem here? First, Heathrow Airport should be capitalized, and second, “for those who need that” is just awful. Just about anything would be better. Whether you understand why isn’t as important as simply feeling it.

In the second paragraph, the robot suggests changing “Or we can take you to the train” to “Alternatively we can take you to the train.” Do writers think changing plain English to a longer word randomly selected from the robot’s thesaurus makes it better?

Algorithms cannot replace imagination, knowledge, experience, and intuition. Software will never be a substitute for learning how to construct a sentence.

I wonder what would happen if you ran Ernest Hemingway through grammar software. Would it “fix” it?

36 responses to “Smoke, Mirrors, and Grammar Software

  1. No but I suspect Hemingway would have fixed the grammar software. With a shotgun.

    This type of software takes the beauty out of writing. I compare it to painting by numbers. If you stand back it might look OK, never great, but up close it is fragmented and unwieldy to the eye.

    Very interesting post!

    • Hi Bill, thanks. I had to shut off the grammar checker that comes with Word 7. There wasn’t one instance where it was the right choice. Spellcheckers are helpful for basic words or double words (writing the word “the” twice or something) but it is often incorrect. I suspect this software will eventually homogenize writing if people continue to rely on it. I rarely see an understanding of “its” and “it’s” for example—unless the book has been edited by a real editor or proofreader (the human kind). Yet this is the most basic of spelling and something every writer should know. Read, read, and read some more. Read and learn.

      And yes, a shotgun would have been poor Ernest’s style. When I think of any great literature run through grammar software it makes me cringe.

  2. I like this post! Oh, you are a wise person. If there is no meat in the broth, then it is only hot water.

    I didn’t realize there was even software out there presenting itself as a full fledged Grammar Program. I know word processors are reliant and use certain grammar scripting gadgets to work properly. I doubt I would use Grammar software. I would never shell out a single penny, that’s for sure. Truthfully, my grammar sucks. Some flaws I can live with. I don’t require all which I write to be perfect. Without flaws I would have no character.

    “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

    • Hi Hudson, it’s not cheap—around $250, much better spent on a real editor, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a few grammar books. I’m not a storyteller, but I admire those who are. We all have our talents and we need stories. But if a storyteller doesn’t know how to make the story flow, can’t bear to part with repetitive verbiage, refuses to cut superfluous phrases, doesn’t want to learn the absolute basics (her and her husband???) then no software program is going to help.

      My absolute favorite modern fiction is the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. Lean, intense, unrelenting, powerful. Nowhere is there a spare word. I just finished 61 Hours, 14th in the series, and his dedication page reads: For my editor, the one and only Kate Miciak. So thank you Kate Miciak, whoever you are, and thank you Lee Child for giving her something brilliant to work with. I’m in awe of both of you.

      • Hi D.

        The Jack Reacher series is my favorite at this time. I’ve already read about 6 of them and am looking for more.

        Pleeeease don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m wondering how women would relate to the protagonist as a alpha male. I know as a male I identify myself as the hero when I read books like this…what or how does a women identify? I really mean it when I say don’t take this wrong I am not judging or being cynical, I am just looking for information…if you have time. 🙂

        • Oh my goodness women adore him! I would SO….

          Jack Reacher, above his size, strength, brains, history, lifestyle, and really cool personality—all that is gift wrap for his MORALS. That’s what he’s all about. Lee Child has given us the most moral antihero set in the classiest pulp fiction ever. Child’s knowledge and the enormous amount of research he does for each book amazes me. Gone Tomorrow, the one about Afghanistan, blew me away—I still think about it two years later. I can’t imagine any woman not falling instantly in love with Reacher—well maybe some twit who has a problem killing real bad guys. Me, I’m all for it.

  3. I could never figure out the purpose of this….are people so soulless now that they don’t even want to express themselves? I think it becomes obvious after seeing things like this that the software is written by non-native English speakers.
    I can mangle my own damn language, thank you very much – without any help from somebody who doesn’t know the difference between “lose” and “loose.” You see that all the time!

    • Hi Harry, I actually see “lose” spelled incorrectly more often than correctly.

      Loose ten pounds in one week! I just typed that into Word and instead of correcting the spelling, the spelling and grammar checker said: “fragment, consider revising.” So I typed in “I will loose ten pounds in one week.” It had no problem with that—so maybe it’s acceptable to loosen that fat, but not lose it!

      • In this case, I’d be reading “loose” in the sense of ‘release’, ‘eject’ or ‘fire’, as in the slightly old-fashioned “He loosed a shot”. In which context to “loose” fat sounds distinctly unpleasant!

        • It’s just plain sloppy. If a writer doesn’t know the difference between loose and lose, they need to look it up. What happens in cases like these is that so many people see it spelled wrong they no longer question it. This is the most basic English you learn in elementary school, and there’s absolutely nothing complicated about it.

  4. I find the grammar checker sometimes helps me get the tense right when I am writing fast and letting the words flow, and I miss the its and it’s about half the time when speeding along,other than that it bugs me. Sometimes the incorrect grammar sounds better when read aloud…it sounds more human because most of us don’t speak with perfect grammar.

    • Hi Bill, dialogue is different, it should match the character. We don’t expect characters to have perfect grammar. But when a writer is describing a scene, we deserve better. If you’re contacting a publisher, they will demand better.

  5. I love the dialogue/banter between any of Robert Parker (Spenser for Hire+) and Elmore Leonard’s (Get Shorty+) novel’s characters.

  6. Howdy Darlin –

    As others have suggested, I think typing on the internet is an expression of each person – incorrect grammar and all.
    Many times I will type (Y’all) intentionally because that’s the way the vocal version of “you all” sound to others when I say it.
    I think this applies to most people who dabble in blogs and forums since it’s so difficult to understand how a comment or statement is intended.
    The lack of proper grammar in blogs and forums may actually be more interesting to me because it helps describe the ‘tone’ the writing was typed in.

    I do have scruples so as to speak – If I go to read a blog or forum and see a lot of abbreviations like “ur” for your or you’re, “r” for are, “u” for you and so forth – I let a out a little aaakkk and go on. Reading that kind of typing almost gives me a headache which is the same reason I tell people not to send me text messages. I don’t want to see those abbreviations.

    Nope – no grammar spelling software for me, at least the spell checker in Firefox just adds a little red line to let me know a word is misspelled. Most of the time, I intended the spelling to be a certain way which may also affect what I want to convey which may or may not have an effect on the subject of the typed material…….. 🙂

    • Hi Cowboy, what prompted this post was not bloggers who have a personal opinion to express, but writers trying to get published. Many of them accept and encourage the use of grammar software as a substitute for actually learning how to make a sentence. There’s a huge community of wannabe writers out there whose main goal is to be published, and my point is that grammar software will not make a person a better writer no matter how expensive the program. November is National Novel Writing Month (called NaNoWriMo), a contest that challenges participants to submit 50,000 words by the end of the month. The more I see of it online, the more references to grammar software I see, and it’s a trend I find alarming. I’m not talking about your own charming style…there’s nothing wrong with y’all.

  7. Well Darlin – that’s a whole other group of animal.
    I think part of the problem is wannabe writers – writers who aren’t really writers, but Mom, Dad, Aunt Peg or someone else told them they should write a book – get rich. Sooo…… when they realize they really don’t know anything about writing a book and not able to formulate a complete chapter, they may be looking at this grammar software as a kind of a cheat sheet. Of course, even if they do finish a book to publication, it will take years to sell 500 copies.

    • I admire people who have a story in them—I sure don’t. But if a great idea for a story is eclipsed by murky writing it’ll never get past an agent. That’s why self-publishing is so hot right now. It takes a lot of motivation and guts to accomplish this, but still, a writer with a computer and some software isn’t enough to make it a success. You need to allow your work to be critiqued by real readers, and have it looked at by an editor/proofreader, not just family and friends who’ll heap praise. I’m all for new authors, there’s a constant need for fresh ideas. I just don’t have time or interest (who does?) to read books where the author’s ego rather than the story is the main highlight. There really isn’t any cheat sheet, CliffsNotes, or software that is a substitute for a real, live, experienced, and unaffiliated reader.

  8. Nice post!
    I was keen to buy some grammar software, so to test each one I pasted some text, from writers I admire and enjoy, to be reviewed by said “checker”. The report was awful. I pondered and then concluded ditch the grammar checker idea, and go right back to basics.

  9. I’ve never used a software programme to deal with my grammar for the reasons you outline here. And ‘bloat’ is a disease that afflicts much fiction, most often novels which seems to be getting longer and longer; as always there are precious few examples of new novellas, though Denis Johnson’s ‘Train Dreams’ looks like being such a gem.

    • Hi JL, glad to hear it. I’m realizing more and more that it takes two people to produce a good book—a storyteller and an editor. An idea person and a communicator. Bloat is a natural tendency and needs a gentle but firm hand—that is, if you want your book to be a page-turner.

  10. If you want a real laugh, I’m sure there are examples of computer-“aided” translation that’ll have you rolling on the floor.

    • Hi expat, I wish I had some of the instructions at hand that come with products made overseas. If you really tried to follow them, your new computer table would be upside down! I find it very distressing that young writers think that computers can replace experience and knowledge. I recently edited a book by a young writer whose references to parts of American culture were incorrect. No computer can know that, it takes a human being who’s lived through it or reads and researches a great deal. And online publishers who say they’ll edit your book for free—do writers seriously believe it would be quality editing?

      Someday they’ll have software that will write the book for you—just feed it an idea and out will come a really bad book. And if young people don’t get off their video games, Facebook, and staring at their smartphones instead of the world around them (like the 19-year-old we had visiting over the summer) they’ll never know the difference.

  11. I’m fully in agreement with your post. Back when I had a Day Job, one of my tasks was to be technical editor of a very large instruction manual. When we switched to the Microsoft platform – so we’re talking fourteen or fifteen years ago – I tried out the grammar checker in the then-current version of Word and found that it actually reversed the meaning of some of the instructions in the manual.

    In later years, I found the MS-Word grammar checker to be almost completely illiterate; colleagues got quite used to me shouting at my computer on a point of grammar. The one that really used to irritate me was that whoever wrote that piece of – software – did not know that certain nouns could be either single or plural depending on context. It was when it tried to render the word “staff” (as in “the people who work in an organisation”) as “staffs” that I really used to lose (as opposed to”loose”!) my rag….

    And if a huge corporation like Microsoft, with the resources to go out and hire the best, can only come up with a piece of junk like that, then what chance is there that a piece of third-party software put together by someone in a back room somewhere whose expertise (such as it is) is in software coding rather than writing prose is going to be any better?

    As with all creative endeavour, the only way to get good at this sort of thing is practice, practice, and more practice. Then take a break to read – books, magazines, newspapers – and then practice some more. After a few years, you begin to get some idea of How it Works. That’s how I learnt my creative photography, and it’s the same with writing. There are no short cuts.

  12. Hi Robert, well as you can see by the screen shots, they haven’t made the software useful, just more expensive. I have even been asked what grammar software I use—as if knowledge and experience are not even options.

    It’s sad and I think the art of writing is only going to get worse. I’m as dependent upon computers as anybody—that’s the machine where you do your research, then type in the correct usage in your text. Very handy. I understand that grammar is complicated to many people, that’s why we have that other handy tool—human editors.

    Great comments, thank you.

  13. I also turned off my grammar check in Word. All it did was annoy me. It wanted to fix my intentional sentence fragments and has no right brain hemisphere whatsoever. I think it was programmed mostly for business writing. However, I do run my whole manuscript through it at least once, just to find the few tiny things I overlooked, but mostly it’s me sitting there clicking “Ignore once” six thousand times.

    We all make mistakes. I always have to think about it when I need to use “chose” or “choose”. I know the difference, but it’s so easy to type the wrong one. “Its” and “it’s” are also easy to mistype even though you know the difference. Writers and editors have a symbiotic relationship.

    Yes, it takes two people to write a book. I might say even more. If you’re a woman and you write a male point of view, you need a man to read it, and vice versa. If your character is an elementary school teacher, you need a teacher to read it. If your character is a mother, you need a mother to read it. Where does it end? Never. That’s why publishers make deadlines. Otherwise the editing and the proofreading would go on forever.

    Bad grammar and abbreviations in text messages and email makes me crazy. Everyone I know has a full keyboard on their phone now. No excuses. And if you’re too busy to type out “Are you”, then maybe you should wait and text me later.

  14. Hi Kay, I sometimes type the same preposition twice, and it will catch that. Also simple typos. But mostly it tries to tell me my carefully planned sentences are wrong for ridiculous reasons. Lacking right brain hemisphere is an excellent metaphor.

    I totally agree about how many humans it takes, or should take, to create a good book. Sometimes nuances of research are simply not available online or in books—you need to bring in “specialists.” (Lexicographers use them all the time—you can’t define some arcane physics term without expert counsel).

    Vivid descriptions of places and people often require more than research, they need visits and interviews. The more you know, the more effortless your writing will appear. Only by knowing all you possibly can about a subject will you be aware of what can be cut or kept.

    Arrgghh, don’t get me started on texting…

  15. What if the grammarware is right, and our intuituitions are wrong!

  16. Fasciminating! So…
    if the grammarware is right
    and our intuituitions are wrong
    then I am in the wrong business.

    There must be a hidden premise in that argument.
    I can’t see how the conclusion follows from what’s been stated.

    One of the great things I noticed about the Whitesmoke program is that if it doesn’t think your spelling is right, but you know it is, then you can add it to the Whitesmoke dictionary and it won’t try to pick you up on it again.

  17. Then why not just use a spellchecker. The screenshots of the examples above are fuzzy, but if you click on them you’ll easily see how the software did not improve this text. Neither the software nor the writer’s intuition endowed this copy with anything suitable for publication. The writer should have given it to an editor. Better yet, he should stick to driving the tour bus.

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