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Always wanting to help writers reduce their costs, I look for efficient editing tools to include in this blog. Most people know how Word’s spellchecker can wrongly correct a misspelling in auto mode, and two examples show Word’s unreliability regarding grammar:

First, in this sentence from my last post, Word said “it’s” is wrong, and suggested “its”:
“<<Because simple just works better>> is not correct grammar but it’s short, clear, memorable, and can’t be misunderstood.”
Clicking the spellchecker’s Explain button (just below Change) gave me this contradictory example:
“Instead of: Its a long way to the station, consider: It’s a long way to the station.”

Second, Word labeled this sentence as a fragment, not a sentence:
“If you break the rules of grammar too much, or too often, you risk being misunderstood.”
*I used the first comma to make the reader a pause, to emphasize the phrase “or too often.” Completely credible, in my humble opinion, but Word was satisfied when I deleted it.

So I intended to compare a few online tools this week. Like most web researching, it got deeper than I anticipated, but eventually I struck gold.

Grammarly topped Google’s results for “online grammar check.” In second position was Whitesmoke. Both were in the advertised results. Grammarly not only pays for top position in Google’s results, it advertises widely on the web. Its front page makes big claims, such as “Find and correct over 250 types of grammatical mistakes, 10x as many as your word processor,” and “Improve word choice with context-optimized vocabulary suggestions.”

Like the other fee-based grammar checkers (online or download), it offered me a free trial. For seven days’ free access, I had to register. Was this a credibility warning? I also had to provide my credit card details (warning number two?).

I tested my last post. Grammarly did indeed flag things in my text that Word missed. It caught refinements such as unnecessary commas and ambiguous antecedents. Like Word’s spellchecker, Grammarly has levels of explanation, but its alternatives and explanations were not all credible.   Examples:

  • I used a serial comma in the sentence, “Avoid clutter, like buzz phrases (brackets with stuff that should be in a separate sentence), dashes, and made-up words (unless you’re writing fiction or humour). “
    Word didn’t flag it.
    Grammarly said I should delete the comma in “…dashes, and…”
    Instead, I should make it read “…dashes and…”
    Problem; the serial comma after “dashes” is almost a North American standard.
  • I wrote: “Sentences that flow like a lazy bike-ride will hold attention, if they’re loaded with just enough information to keep them rolling.”
    Word flagged “rolling,” and offered these alternatives: roll, are rolling, were rolling. Its explanation: “Subject-Verb Agreement: The verb of a sentence must agree with the subject in number and in person.” But, “sentences” is plural, and so is “keep them rolling.” There’s nothing about the comma. Word approved “rolling” when I removed the comma!
    Grammarly says the comma is unnecessary in a complex sentence.
    “It appears that you have an unnecessary comma before the dependent clause marker if. Consider removing the comma.”
    *I inserted the comma to break up a long sentence for easier reading.

[At the bottom of this post I’ve listed everything that Grammarly flagged in my last post, with explanations.]

I decided to look for reviews. Grammarly got top marks (9.35/10) on this site’s comparison of five grammar checkers: http://online-grammar-check-review.toptenreviews.com/

Isn’t it strange that all five are subscription based? Another credibility warning? Looking for more clues about credibility I scrolled down for the author. Clicking Noel Case’s name took me to his Google page,  that told me he works for TechMedia Network. Searching for this company’s name brought me news of the company and its namechange to Purch. Paragraph two raises a red flag about impartiality – and therefore credibility:

“In addition to operating numerous news sites, like TopTenReviews and Tom’s Hardware, Purch operates a platform that matches up content, advertising, and product recommendations within news and review publications. The platform’s goal is to increased engagement from readers, who may then purchase products or services based on that experience.”

Companies pay Purch to review their products. Consumers read the reviews and will likely purchase (Purch–get it?) one of the products reviewed. Like auto magazines, there’s nothing new here. No car manufacturer will give a journalist a test drive, if the magazine might publish a negative review.

Credibility breaks when reviews are written for pay. And grammar checkers that ask you to pay and make bigger claims than they can deliver may not be worth the money. There are plenty of free grammar checkers, and users shuold not rely on their results. See this blog’s list.

These  the following three have credibility for me, not only by name, their business, or who owns the site, but by their thoroughness:

http://grammarist.com/articles/grammarly-review/
Conclusion: Grammarly doesn’t work.

http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/08/01/these-cards-always-lie/
Blogger and English professor Ben Yagoda disagreed with Grammarly on ten “errors” that it found in a paragraph from his forthcoming book on writing. His conclusion: not worth the money.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/08/grammar-software
A staff blogger with the Economist’s “Johnson” blog also tested some text. The results are worth reading. He also spoke with Brad Hoover, Grammarly’s chief executive (an indication of the credibility of The Economist). Hoover was much more modest in claims about Grammarly than the site’s front page, but maintained that their customer satisfaction survey showed that 60% of respondents were more confident in their writing after using Grammarly.

Like the three writers above, I cancelled my free trial of Grammarly when I was done. Like them, I think that online grammar checkers are a long way from reliable, and reading well-edited books is the best guide to improved language.

[All sites above were visited on Friday, August 15, 2014.]

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Here’s the full list of what Grammarly caught in my last post, Writing Easily is Writing Slowly. Users can choose three levels of explanation for errors. I thought the explanations were easy to understand, although I didn’t always agree that I’d made errors.

  1. I wrote: “Writing easily is writing slowly.”
    Grammarly says “easily” is a squinting modifier.
    “A squinting modifier is a word or phrase that may be modifying what precedes or follows it. This causes confusion, as the sentence could mean two different things. Moving the modifier usually restores clarity to the sentence.”
  2. I used a serial comma in the sentence, “Avoid clutter, like buzz phrases (brackets with stuff that should be in a separate sentence), dashes, and made-up words (unless you’re writing fiction or humour). “
    Grammarly says I should delete the comma in “…dashes, and…”
    Instead, I should make it read “…dashes and…”
  3. I wrote: “Use lots of paragraphs, and limit them to three or four sentences. “
    Grammarly says there’s a missing hyphen.
    It advised I should make it read “…three- or four sentences.”
  4. I wrote: “Connect each sentence with the previous. This will ensure you keep to one topic per paragraph.”
    Grammarly says that the antecedent of “This” is unclear.
    “Though the preceding sentence may seem to indicate what this refers to, avoid using this as a pronoun subject of a sentence for formal writing. Often, the antecedent is not as clear to the reader as the writer intended. In addition to possible loss of clarity, using this as a subject invites overly simplified or wordy writing.”
  5. I wrote: “English can be written very tersely. This saves space, but then readers might have to stop and think.”
    Grammarly says that the antecedent of “This” is unclear.
    “Though the preceding sentence may seem to indicate what this refers to, avoid using this as a pronoun subject of a sentence for formal writing. Often, the antecedent is not as clear to the reader as the writer intended. In addition to possible loss of clarity, using this as a subject invites overly simplified or wordy writing.”
  6. I wrote: “Sentences that flow like a lazy bike-ride will hold attention, if they’re loaded with just enough information to keep them rolling.”
    Grammarly says the comma is unnecessary in a complex sentence.
    “It appears that you have an unnecessary comma before the dependent clause marker if. Consider removing the comma.”
  7. I wrote: “<<Because simple just works better>> is not correct grammar but it’s short, clear, memorable, and can’t be misunderstood.”
    Grammarly advises against the passive voice.
    “This sentence appears to be written in the passive voice. Consider writing in the active voice. Passive voice is not a grammatical error, but a style choice. In general, active voice is the preferred style of most readers. With the active voice, the subject performs the action. This style can provide more clarity, brevity, responsibility, or certainty than passive voice. If the active voice makes sense, use it.“
  8. I wrote: “If you edit while proof reading, you’ll need to repeat the process.”
    Grammarly says “proof reading” might possibly be confused.
    “Did you mean proofreading? Words “proof reading” and “proofreading” are often confused. Please review this sentence for the proper use of the word “proof reading”.”