This article reports on my experiences with the premium version of Grammarly, an AI-powered web service for grammar and spell checking. As this is going to be a very positive review, I feel the obligation to publicly disclose that I am not in any way affiliated with Grammarly Inc., the enterprise behind this product.
It was almost exactly one year ago in June 2018 when I learned the first time about Grammarly. I cannot remember anymore, why I stumbled over Grammarly. At first, I used it only with the free plan experimentally for some of my English writing on the web. I have to confess that I was very skeptical about the practical usefulness of this kind of app.
But after some tests, I was surprised about the quality of the suggestions. Grammarly was quite helpful as it gave me not only corrections for words spelled wrongly but also tips and ideas for a better style in English writing. At the same time, Grammarly told me not only how many improvements it has already suggested to me for a specific text passage, but also how many more suggestions would be in the premium version. Clearly enough, this was a sales gimmick, but a well-done one! I became curious about these other recommendations and signed finally up in August 2018 for the Premium version. At that time, it was still
US$ 62,98 for a year, but in the meantime, the price has more than doubled (
US$ 139,95) for the yearly subscription. I didn’t regret it!
Besides spell and grammar, Grammarly also helped me with style issues and even to find the right tone to address a particular audience. As a non-native speaker, it is difficult for me to judge any English improvements. But from reading much English literature, I’ve got the feeling that my English writing has improved tremendously.
I do not intend to write a tutorial for Grammarly, but I will give you some examples of use cases, illustrated by screenshots.
I took a lengthy article (about 2.500 words), which I had published two years ago. I copied the markdown formatted text directly into the web interface of Grammarly. This article has a somewhat philosophical flavor so that technical concepts, which Grammarly has not in its dictionary, didn’t play a role. I had the text already cleaned up form spelling errors using RStudio’s spell checker. Nevertheless, Grammarly came up with more than 125 suggestions for improvements. I didn’t think that my English is so bad. How embarrassing!
When I inspected the text in detail, it turned out, that 19 suggested “improvements” weren’t useful, as they addressed quotes from English books by famous people like Michael Polanyi or Ludwig Wittgenstein. Another four recommendations related to markdown formatted text, where corrections would have resulted in syntax errors. But still there remained about 100 helpful tips! Statistically, Grammarly advised me about possible improvements every 25 words. I was shocked, and even a little depressed!
Figure 1: Grammarly suggests and explains a possible improvement
You see on the right top of the screenshot the number of alerts or warnings (= 120). Grammarly suggests finding a more common synonym for “emphatically” and explains with examples why it is maybe not the best choice. As all recommendations didn’t quite fit for my writing intention, I decided to delete this “overly complex” word without a substitution.
I transcribed a German interview with Michael Rundel and ran the text through Google Translate. I believe,
Google Translate has already overcome its start-up difficulties. Nowadays, I think, its translation is pretty good. But the writing must still be reviewed by a human.
As you can see in the image below, Grammarly recommended after an unpolished Google Translation from German to English a slightly better rate of improvements per word: 1892 words (bottom-left) with 104 tips (top-right) which accounts for one suggestion every 18 words.
Figure 2: Grammarly alerts in a machine-translated text
If you subtract the high number of 37 tips for punctuation issues (third line in the alerts list) – which partly are markdown formatting requirements and partly are differences between American and English punctuation rules – then the ratio improves to 1 tip for every 28 words. Admittedly this calculation is done under the caveat that after Google Translate, one has more sentences to restructure or to reformulate completely. But you can use Grammarly to implement these changes fairly quickly.
This calculation startles. Instead of struggling to formulate an English text from scratch and then to polish it with Grammarly, it appears to be more efficient – at least for me – to use another workflow: Writing my thoughts in a German paper -> than to translate it with Google Translate -> and finally using Grammarly to polish it.
- Write the text in German
- Translate it with Google Translate
- Polish it with Grammarly
- Publish it with Bookdown /Blogdown
But this reasoning is not entirely correct: The first version of the English text could already be done with Grammarly and would save one complete phase of the mentioned workflows. At least, I believe, this is valid for technical writing, where writing in English is not so complicated grammatically and therefore faster. But for publications in the Humanities, the workflow with Google Translate would be perhaps the better choice.
To write text “live” in Grammarly has several advantages:
Figure 3: Grammarly explains every current alert briefly and succinctly
Figure 4: If required you can get form Grammarly a more profound explication with examples
Figure 5: Grammarly offers on some subjects short tutorials
Figure 6: Working with Grammarly on alerts type “Punctuation”
Figure 7: Grammarly window to choose from a suggested synonym
Figure 8: Screenshot of a Grammarly window with alert about a boring text passage
Figure 9: Grammarly varies its alerts according to your chosen writing style
Figure 10: My personal desktop in Grammarly
I prefer to work with the browser extension, as it always presents the same user interface. Besides, it unleashes the full power of Grammarly. All screenshots in this post show the Grammarly editor in the browser, Google Chrome, in my case. But there are also plugins for Firefox, Safari, and Edge. All these browser extensions are free, and you can use Grammarly with limited functionality at no charge as well.
Finally, I should add that during the research of this article, I noticed that there are a couple of web services with related functionality available. The high number of recent articles about grammar apps insinuates a big market for this kind of service:
All in all, I’m delighted with Grammarly. In my opinion, it is a beneficial tool for the non-native writer. It improves your writing for the web (e.g., posting in blogs or commenting in fora) but also for printed papers and books. It has many cute and even some outstanding features. Even with Grammarly, I am still not wholly comfortable to write in English, but at least I am stressed about it anymore.
I do not claim that Grammarly is the best product, as I do not know the other apps and have therefore no comparison. But in most of the reviews mentioned above, Grammarly is top ranked. It is undoubtedly the app with the biggest user base (over 10 Mio.).
Last, but not least, I would like to add that Grammarly is not idiot-proof. You have to make your choices, looking up other dictionaries to find better wording. (I am happy using all the time dict.cc). You have to be aware that even if Grammarly is AI driven, it does not understand your writing in the human sense. If you are writing a dumb and meaningless article, Grammarly cannot improve your reasoning and arguments. I noticed, for instance, that Grammarly sometimes had overlooked a missing word, an error a human would immediately see. And sometimes Grammarly is wrong with its suggestions as the last screenshot demonstrates. But these rare cases are easy to judge and correct.
Figure 11: Grammarly is not idiot-proof. Your own intelligent judgement is still required.
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