Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Futility of Relying Upon AI Grammar Checkers

As American schools have done a poorer and poorer job of educating students about the finer points of speaking, reading and writing the English language properly, correct grammar and spelling have gone the way of the dinosaurs. It’s relatively rare to meet a member of one of the younger generations who feels any assurance in their mastery of basic English.

Of course, texting comes in for its share of the blame as well. If you can convey your meaning by typing the single character, “U,” why waste the time or energy required to tap out “you” on the tiny keys of your cell phone?

However, what is tolerated or even welcomed in the world of texts, live chats, and gaming is still not acceptable in the hallowed halls of advanced academia. If you want to earn a college degree or have a prayer of achieving a Master’s or a Ph.D., you need to get your grammar and spelling on point. But is it practical to believe that students who’ve spent their lives misspelling words, using emojis instead of words to express themselves, can suddenly become proficient in such skills just because they’ve started college? My contention is that is not realistic.

We’re talking about two or three entire generations of people who cannot correctly pair a single subject with a single verb or explain exactly what subject-verb agreement is. They cannot identify a dangling participle or misplaced modifier and furthermore, they don’t care that they can’t. They simply don’t think it’s important.

At least, not until they have to leave school for the real world and go find a job to support themselves. If they thought their professors were tough on bad grammar and spelling, they’re stunned when they discover the white-collar workplace is absolutely unforgiving. Poor language skills are so crippling in the boardroom that they can keep someone from getting a promotion, or even get them fired.

Enter the digital grammar correction tool based upon artificial intelligence or AI. Microsoft Word had an early iteration of a grammar checker that was laughably bad. We all hoped it would improve but it never did. Even the most recent versions are pretty wretched and regularly claim writers have made mistakes when they have not, or suggest changes so ludicrous they’d make great skits on any comedy show.

I installed Grammarly on my computer mainly to catch my typos. I didn’t know the app would send me breathless weekly reports praising me for using more unique words than 99 percent of its users and being more productive than the other 95 percent, but telling me, a professional editor, that about 75 percent of Americans understand grammar better than I do. Really?

This is because when Grammarly tells me I should change my subject-verb agreement so that I have a singular noun paired with a plural verb, I ignore it. In fact, Grammarly’s suggestions for “improvements” in my writing have become the single biggest source of amusement in my daily life. Sorry, Stephen Colbert.

So why is this so? Why are grammar checkers based upon AI so bad? We can go to Bill Gates himself for the answer. Of all the tasks computers can be programmed to do, Mr. Gates says it is still impossible to program them with human judgment. And in many cases, human judgment based upon deep knowledge and extensive experience is exactly what is needed to make language flow correctly and seamlessly. And no AI can do that job for us.

What is the solution? I believe we need to go a bit backward here. Our primary schools should be teaching students how to diagram sentences, and drilling them on the nuances of proper grammar, spelling and language usage. It’s going to take us a few generations to recover from the level of general language ignorance now afflicting our younger generations, but in the meantime, please don’t believe anything any grammar checker tells you. If you’re not sure of a particular construction, just type the entire sentence into the Google search bar and you’ll find dozens of links to truly solid blogs run by professional grammarians who will quickly help you get your words in order.

Here are a few more screenshots showing some typical grammatical "corrections" suggested to me by Grammarly and Microsoft Word.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.


  1. I hear you, Pat. I have the spell check underline turned on in Word (and end up adding a lot of words and names to the dictionary) but I've turned the grammar check off. It's far too irritating to write with.

  2. Your post reminded me of the Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on first," which, when written, exemplifies the importance of a question mark versus a period.

    C.P. Snow posited, perhaps in The Two Cultures, the futility of knowledge without the literacy to communicate that knowledge to others. Teachers would have to subscribe to that view and would need both knowledge and literacy.

  3. Yes! To use your phrase, Pat, you're right on point. Back in the eighties, the school district where I lived began a 5-year program to help overwhelmed teachers wade through all the papers they had to grade. Officially, we were not grading, but the teachers often relied heavily on our corrections and comments on the assigned material to determine a student's grade. One middle school teacher asked her students to write a paper requiring proper use of a particular grammar skill. Every one of them failed miserably. When I returned the papers to her, I asked why she didn't teach the youngsters to diagram sentences because it was apparent they lacked the skills necessary to construct a well-written paper. Her reply: "They can't understand the concept." Excuse me? I spoke before considering my response: "That's funny. We understood it when I was in school." In fact, we did it over and over until structure and parts of speech, among other grammatical necessities, became second nature to us. You are so right about the dumbing down of our educational system, which at this point is almost criminal. Failure to instill in students the basics of writing and speaking intelligently affects them for a lifetime. In my opinion, this has had a profound impact on the reasoning and comprehension abilities of many people today, as well as limiting their future income possibilities. Grammarly will never replace teachers who actually teach grammar skills or editors who inspire writers to use language properly and effectively in creating their works. This is a powerful article, Pat. So timely and very well done!

  4. This is a great post. I think many of us of a certain age remember when grammar was taught in schools. We diagrammed sentences until writing it correctly became second nature. Now, not so much.

  5. And language changes, so what we were taught sometimes has become obsolete. I shudder sometimes when very young people hand out their editing shingles. There FB texting alone tells me they have serious issues with spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Oy.

  6. I know a few writers who use those editing tools but I've resisted so far. I agree that learning to diagram sentences in grade school was not that difficult. I think any teacher who says that students can't grasp the concept is really saying that today's teachers didn't learn the art in school and can't grasp it now.

  7. I can't see AI learning the intricacies of human idioms, jargon, and other rhetorical devices. I touch on basics in Story Building Blocks The Revision Layers, but I recommend everyone serious about writing should take basic grammar. I also highly recommend a Great Course called Building Great Sentences.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-DNwoZmstA


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