Updated: Sep 21, 2022
The pros and cons of grammar checker applications and how they compare to a human editor.
At Social Motive, we love our grammar checker program (GC). On our team, we have talented copywriters with keen eyes for editing, but we don’t believe we are above good old human error. So, it is a rule that we run every piece of copy through our GC of choice, on top of the thorough proofreading done in-house.
Grammar checkers function as editing tools to aid the human editor. Each program has different strengths and weaknesses, focusing on varying corrections. Each program favours different grammatical rules. Grammar checkers are useful for correcting spelling, sentence length, tone, structure and all the things you may gloss over yourself. You should use them. But remember that a human editor can understand the contextual nuances of language better than any artificial intelligence currently available. The dual resources of a human editor and a GC application are best utilised in tandem, so your copy is as strong as can be.
Beware of grammar checker traps! Don’t just blindly accept suggestions; look over them with human eyes to ensure they’re the best fit for your copy. Take these examples of suggestions from Word, Pro Writing Aid free version (PWA) and Grammarly paid version, to explore their pros and cons and compare them to human editors.
Correct spelling, incorrect word
In this example, the word ‘ore’ is spelt correctly, but it is not the correct word for
the meaning of this sentence. Only PWA notices this as a possible confused word, which suggests PWA has a better sense of context than Word and Grammarly.
Active verbs are (generally) a more suitable choice. They are more direct as they
align the actor of the verb with the verb in a more immediate way. An active voice usually requires fewer words than a passive voice, which is helpful when your word count is limited.
Certain contexts, however, benefit from the use of passive voice. For example, as a stylistic choice in creative writing, or in academic essay writing which avoids the use of ‘I’. Word does not recognise this context, nor does PWA – even when set to ‘academic’ style.
All programs suggest the use of active voice, to varying degrees of helpfulness. PWA and Grammarly supply alternatives where Word does not. PWA also explains that passive verbs ‘make your writing less direct’ which is a more comprehensive correction than Word’s.
Talk about comprehensive! Check out Grammarly’s explanation:
The writer or editor should be the final word on the nuance of verb choice, but a reminder to carefully consider that the use of passive verbs is valuable.
Adverbs describe the way a verb is done; essentially an adjective for a verb. They usually end in ‘-ly’ such as ‘quickly’ or ‘easily’. As a rule of thumb, you should keep adverbs to a minimum. A strong verb can be much more effective on its own. PWA gives the following advice:
The overused function on PWA also points out the repetitive use of the -ly ending.
Neither Word nor Grammarly made corrections to the adverb used in this sentence. This demonstrates PWA has a better understanding of the stylistic application of adverbs.
Run-on sentences are sentences which could be more than one sentence but
instead they are written in a drawn-out manner and end up being far longer than is necessary. This is a run-on sentence Word has not picked up this sentence Pro Writing Aid didn’t pick up this run-on sentence either. Run-on sentences are an example of something which may be recognised as grammatically correct to an editing program but read as inappropriate by a human.
Grammarly provides several options to improve this run-on sentence:
A verb must agree with its subject in number as in the following example:
The teacher was strict, but the students were still noisy.
The singular verb was is paired with the singular subject of one teacher. The plural verb were is paired with the plural subject students. When written with incorrect subject-verb relations, Word corrected one, not both, of the mistakes:
Grammarly provided correction and explanation:
PWA detected no grammatical errors in this instance.
The following sentence has many opportunities for incorrect apostrophe usage:
Don’t touch the vase because it’s theirs.
We entered the sentence Don’t touch the vase because its there’s into the three GCs; they corrected different grammatical elements.
Word suggests avoiding contractions, though don’t may be appropriate for the required tone of the writing. This is something best left to human discretion.
Word offered alternatives to the misspelled theres. Once this was corrected to there’s, Word still did not recognise the incorrect homonym usage. If Word had suggested the correct use of theirs, it may have then realised the missing apostrophe from the contracted form of it is. This went unnoticed, leaving this sentence incorrect.
Grammarly also suggested changing the word ‘Don’t’, but in this instance, it was in order to achieve a more ‘diplomatic tone.’
PWA’s grammatical correction of this sentence was the following:
Due to the incorrect use of its as the possessive rather than the contraction, this sentence is missing the finite verb it is.
Once this was corrected, PWA still did not notice the misused homonym, deeming the sentence Don’t touch the vase because it’s there’s as grammatically correct. A human editor could have made the appropriate change to theirs.
A homonym is a word which sounds the same as another word but has a different meaning, such as Whether and Weather or To and Too.
In the above example, neither program successfully edited the frequently confused homonym of their and there. The example Dad always let me eat desert also went unnoticed by Word and PWA’s general grammar checkers. Grammarly provided a correction:
PWA has a dedicated homonym checker, which did supply the correct alternative of dessert. The homonym checker does not define each spelling, meaning a dictionary such as The Macquarie may need to be consulted.
The example I think your ridiculous shows the same results; grammar is deemed correct but Grammarly and PWA’s homonym checker does provide the alternative ‘you’re’.
The comma in the sentence We should eat, Grandma is important to the meaning. Without the comma, it sounds as though someone is suggesting that we should eat Grandma (rather than suggesting to grandma that we should eat).
We should eat Grandma is the grammatically correct way to suggest that Grandma should be eaten, so none of the GCs consider it incorrect. A human editor, however, would notice the dramatic change of meaning caused by the missing comma.
Colons and semicolons
Colons and semicolons serve different grammatical purposes but are often confused. A colon is a marker of relationship and sequence. A semicolon, alternatively, supplies a link between two related ideas which could otherwise be separate sentences.
In the case of listing items preceded by the phrase the following or as follows, a colon should be used. A semicolon would be incorrect in the following sentence: I need you to help me study for the following subjects; Japanese, English and History. None of the editing software suggests a colon in place of the misused semicolon, though any professional editor should pick up this error.
The free version of Pro Writing Aid does not allow Australian-specific-English. This means that anyone editing in Australian English would not be prompted to change mistakes such as color, favorite or skillful. Word and Grammarly do offer Australian English corrections. PWA free version could be cross-referenced with the Macquarie Dictionary so to ensure Australian spelling when necessary.
Cliches are often so overdone that they take away from your message.
Word offers the choice to select clichés as part of its grammar checker.
PWA has a dedicated cliché checker which runs along the top bar of the program.
We ran the following examples through each program:
Don’t worry about it, it will be right as rain.
That meal was cheap as chips!
She was on him like white on rice.
She was a diamond in the rough. He got there just in the nick of time.
PWA recognised the underlined examples as ‘potential cliché’:
Word only recognised two clichés from five. While this is a lower recognition rate, Word does provide alternative phrases.
Grammarly made no suggestions.
We would argue that PWA is more dependable when it comes to avoiding cliché usage. The writer should be capable of replacing the cliché with something more original once it is pointed out, rendering Word’s suggestions less helpful than PWA’s reliability.
A lower case letter should be used when attributing a pronoun to dialogue. This may be counterintuitive because end punctuation will finish the sentence which is inside the quotation marks. For example:
‘Don’t eat Grandma!’ He cried. (incorrect)
‘Don’t eat Grandma!’ he cried. (correct)
The incorrect capitalisation of He is read as correct by all three programs.
Sentences and sentence fragments
The minimum requirements of a sentence are a subject and a finite verb. A series of words without either of these things is a sentence fragment. Take, for example, the following sentence:
I went to university on the train.
The subject here is I and the finite verb is went.
A sentence fragment could occur in writing as follows:
‘How did you get to university?’ she asked.
‘On the train.’ he answered.
Neither Word nor PWA corrects the sentence fragment. It is, however, logical for sentence fragments to occur in dialogue as in the above example. To further test the editing software’s treatment of sentence fragments, we entered the above example without quotation marks or dialogue tags. Neither program addressed the sentence fragment on the train. As seen in the apostrophe section of this essay, PWA does have a correction for sentence fragments. Some fragments can evidently still go unnoticed.
Grammarly does pick up on the sentence fragment, though a human editor would be the best judge of out-of-place sentence fragments.
Double-check, triple-check, check four times
Sometimes, a GC will simply miss the mark when they’re just trying to help:
<<< Nope, just talking about copy!
Definitely not wrong, but also not right:
… Not quite!
… Still not quite!
Let’s evaluate the quality of readability statistics provided by each program. We typed a paragraph from ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote into both programs and found PWA’s assessment to be more comprehensive than Word’s. The excerpt reads as follows:
Word’s readability statistics are presented in terms of basic count statistics, averages and Flesch Reading Ease.
PWA’s basic statistics are similar to Word’s and also display character count with and without spaces.
PWA’s Flesch-Kincaid summary is more helpful than Word’s due to the explanation of how the score applies to the writing. It also offers three other Grade Level measures which Word does not. The programs’ respective Flesch Reading Ease grade of the exact same paragraph is, interestingly, different.
PWA’s summary function gives a deeper analysis than Word. The most productive of these is the sticky sentences feature. This feature counts ‘glue words’ – the 200 most common words – which often delay the reader understanding the meaning of a sentence. The more distracting ‘glue words’ there are in a sentence, the more difficult it becomes to read. This feature is very valuable because it prompts the writer to re-evaluate the importance of each word.
Another useful function of PWA’s summary is the visual graph of sentence lengths. This puts sentence length into a form which can be seen rather than read, enabling the writer to develop a better picture of the reader’s experience of rhythm and engagement.
Users would interact with Word and PWA in quite different ways. Word provides
checkboxes for various grammar and style refinements. Once the user selects which elements they wish Word to apply, the program draws attention to each misgiving with a generally brief summary of the mistake. PWA is made up of several checkers targeted to varying grammatical or stylistic elements. The user chooses one element at a time through which to analyse their writing.
Grammarly provides scores over the main areas of ‘good’ writing. It does not delve as deeply into statistics of readability, though it does prompt the user to make the changes in order to reach a high readability score, which may be more suitable to those writing ad copy or blogs, as opposed to novels.
Humans know best
PWA allows a more controlled and targeted editing process than that offered by
Word, and Grammarly a perhaps more comprehensive approach than both. While there are strengths and weaknesses of each program, the exploration within this article has generally positioned PWA and Grammarly as the more catch-all editing options. Some examples, however, have seen each program missing the subtleties of grammar or the nuance of creative expression. Humans are the best-equipped editors to understand the acceptable exceptions to grammatical rules. Software is based on algorithms. While all GC programs are useful for providing consistency and guidance for writers, no program is yet intelligent enough to replace a well-educated, experienced and flexible human editor.
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