So today, I’m trying something new on the blog (having just trialled the same thing in my newsletter). Instead of writing an article based on whatever’s going on in my life or business, I’m answering a question that someone’s asked me since the last issue.
NOTE: want me to answer a copywriting- or editing-related question for you? Send me an email and ask it – I’d love to help you out with an answer!
Last week, in one of my groups, someone commented that they weren’t good with grammar. They knew it was an issue, and wondered if they should use an automatic grammar checker to make up for that weakness.
(You know what I mean by a grammar checker, right? The kind of spelling and grammar checking software that comes built into MS Word – or maybe one of the newer online options like Grammarly.)
So, they asked me whether I thought that kind of grammar checker could be useful. Maybe it could even be a cheap alternative to hiring a professional proofreader.
My answer: It MIGHT be useful… but never take the software’s word as final!
I’ve long believed that software-based grammar checkers are severely limited in their ability to do what we trust them to do.
Why? Because while, yes, I grant you, the software is often smart, it’s never as smart as a human being. It can’t use context and inference to figure out exactly what you originally meant to say, and adjust its recommendations accordingly.
That’s why a grammar checker’s algorithm will sometimes tell you your punctuation is wrong – even though it’s actually fine from the perspective of what you’d intended to say.
Or it’ll tell you a word is correct, even though a human would – hopefully – tell you straight away that it made no sense in that context whatsoever.
OK, I’ll admit it… I’ve held this view about automatic checkers for quite some time now. But after being asked about them this week, I wondered whether the software might possibly have evolved a little since I first adopted my position.
So, because I’m me, I signed up for Grammarly – which bills itself as a cutting-edge, free service that comprehensively checks both spelling and grammar, so that you can “make sure everything you type is easy-to-read, effective and mistake-free“.
That’s a pretty freaking bold claim for a piece of software. So of course, I couldn’t leave it unchallenged.
To test it, I created a short piece of text – just six sentences – with at least 15 grammar, spelling, word order and punctuation issues in it. (I say “at least’ there because there may actually be more, depending on how you fix some of the existing problems.)
Here it is:
Well… ummm… not so well, actually.
As you can see, it DID pick up that my first sentence should have a question mark at the end. It also told me that I have four “advanced errors” that I need to “upgrade to premium” if I want it to highlight and fix them for me.
But the other nine (or more) errors that I’d deliberately seeded into the piece? Well, even if I was paying $US30/month for the premium version… apparently it wouldn’t have spotted them for me.
So I’m not actually convinced that the software’s worth paying for. And I’d only use the free version with a bunch of caveats.
OK, I wouldn’t go that far. I’m definitely not saying that you should NEVER use one.
For a start, the test I created above was somewhat biased, since I was actively trying to create issues that I didn’t think it would pick up. It’s possible that if I hadn’t stuffed the text quite as full of mistakes as I did, the software would have picked up a greater percentage of errors.
So I’m happy to acknowledge that a checker can be useful as a very rough, basic, initial test of your final copy BEFORE you get someone else to check it for you.
At the same time, this “test” has reinforced my view that you can’t ever rely 100% on a piece of software. I still recommend getting a real-life, flesh-and-blood friend (or, yes, a professional) with a good knowledge of English to check your copy. That hasn’t changed.
And if that person disagrees with the software on any points of grammar? Trust them rather than the software.
Every. Single. Time.
You don’t always HAVE to get a professional to proofread your copy for you. Sometimes, as I mentioned above, simply asking a friend – someone you know is pretty good with the English language – is honestly all you need.
Plus, the reality is that if you’re writing from your heart, the occasional typo in a blog post, newsletter or Facebook post isn’t actually that huge a deal. Most of your readers will miss it, and the ones that don’t will probably forgive it.
But if you have something important that absolutely, totally and completely HAS to be correct before it goes out?
That’s when you really want to call in a professional.
Like…. oh, say… ME! I offer proofreading services for both long and short documents.
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