Grammarly.com, or Why you shouldn’t rely on digital proofreaders

A few weeks ago I received an email advertisement from Grammarly.com, the new digital proofreading software that claims to “spare you the cost of hiring a proofreader.” Ironically, the email contained several errors (in bold for emphasis) that a skilled human copyeditor would have found. The email is as follows:

You know better than most that putting your writing “out there” takes a tremendous amount of courage; readers will find and comment on even the simplest mistakes. At Grammarly we know the feeling and we’ve made it our mission to improve writers’ confidence. Putting our money where our mouth is, we’d be honored to sponsor your next blog post with a $20 Amazon gift card.

In case you haven’t heard of us, Grammarly is an automated online proofreader that finds and explains those pesky grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes that are bound to find their way into your first draft. Think of us as a second pair of digital eyes that can spare you the cost of hiring a proofreader. If you’d like to join our 3 million users and try the premium version of our proofreader for free, let me know and I’ll make it happen!

Please send me the expected publishing date and topic of your next appropriate blog post (ideally something about writing) so I can give you all the details you need in time.

Let me explain the errors:

  1. In the first sentence, the semi-colon should be a colon: that readers will find and comment on mistakes explains why it takes a tremendous amount of courage to publish. Semi-colons are used to connect two related sentences; colons are used when what follows explains or elaborates on that which precedes the colon. (There are other uses for these punctuation marks as well, but for our purposes here we will restrict our commentary to the actual usage in the email.)
  2. In the second sentence the author has used a hyphen where there should be an en dash or em dash. (It appears here as an en dash due to WordPress’s auto-formatting.) The em dash would be more correct, and ideally would not be separated from the surrounding text by spaces, but recent trends in publishing have made the space–en dash–space format acceptable: placing spaces around dashes is believed to make the text easier to read on screen and easier for digital devices to justify text more effectively.
  3. “Writers’ confidence.” Writers’ is a plural possessive, yet writers as a group do not possess a collective confidence. The grammatically correct approach would be to write “to improve a writer’s confidence.” More effective still would be to personalize the pitch — “to improve your confidence as a writer” — since the ad is a call to action aimed at the individual recipient, not the group.
  4. One does not sponsor a blog post with a gift card: one sponsors the blog, period; the gift card is payment for the placement of the sponsor’s corporate logo or link. Alas, in trying to be more economical with his words, the writer has expressed nonsense. It would have been better to write: “We would be honored to sponsor your next blog post, and are offering you a $20.00 Amazon gift card as payment.”
  5. The phrase “grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes” is an example where a preceding word or words may be an adjective (or adjectival phrase) or may be an element or elements of a compound noun; writers need to be clear in their own minds what their intention is. For example, is print on demand publishing a compound noun, in which case print on demand is not hyphenated, or should you write print-on-demand publishing because print-on-demand is an adjective that modifies publishing? In The Global Indie Author I write “print on demand publishing” because I see it as a compound noun expressing a new business model, but I write “print-on-demand titles” because my intention there is that print-on-demand be clearly understood as an adjective modifying titles. In reading the Grammarly.com email I don’t interpret the author’s phrase as a compound noun, nor “grammar, spelling, and punctuation” as adjectives meant to modify “mistakes.” Why? Because if listed individually one would write “grammatical mistakes” (adjective), “spelling mistakes” (compound noun), and “mistakes in punctuation” (it is simply not common usage to say either “punctuation mistakes” or “punctuational mistakes”). Thus, the better writer would have written “those pesky errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.”
  6. The author throws in the word appropriate without explaining what kind of content would be appropriate, except to say that it should “ideally be something about writing.” As an editor I would advise my client to elaborate on the word appropriate to make it clear to the reader how appropriate is defined.
  7. Lastly, the email ends with an ambiguous reference: to what does “in time” refer? We likely understand it to mean “in time to enter into a sponsorship agreement and pay you your $20.00 gift card,” but the writer of the email simply refers to vague “details.” Does he mean the details we have likely inferred (as noted already), or does he mean the details of the sponsorship agreement itself and Grammarly’s expectations of what they will get for their money? (It is interesting to note that what Grammarly wants for their $20.00 is not clear.)

So, that is seven errors in seven sentences. Clearly their software is inadequate.

Not content with that, a follow-up email was sent out a few days ago (errors again highlighted in bold):

I hadn’t heard back from you since my email last month regarding your $20 Amazon gift card blog sponsorship.

If you’re still interested, let me know when you were thinking of publishing your next post so I can send you all the details you need in time.

The errors are:

  1. Verb confusion: the sentence should read “I have not heard from you since my email last month…” or, better still, “I did not hear from you after my email of last month…”. The use of the past perfect (“hadn’t”) places the act of not hearing (back from me) before the email was sent, which is contradicted by since.
  2. The phrase “$20 Amazon gift card blog sponsorship” is ambiguous: do they want to sponsor a blog about a $20 Amazon gift card, or do they want me to sponsor a blog about a $20 Amazon gift card? Either way, no one is sponsoring a blog and paying with a $20 Amazon gift card.
  3. The use of “still” suggests I had earlier expressed interest. Seeing as Grammarly admittedly didn’t hear back from me, it is clear I did not express any initial interest.
  4. Verb confusion again: the use of the past tense (“were”) is not correct. The first clause is conditional (“If you’re still interested”) and sets up a typical if/then subjunctive sentence structure, but the writer has mistakenly believed this means he needs the subjunctive verb in the “then” clause. But clauses operate independently, and the verb must agree with the subject and the intention of the clause; here, “were” is the past tense but the intention is to refer to a possible future event (if you are still interested and intend to post a relevant blog entry, let me know when that happens). Therefore the clause should read “let me know when you are thinking…”.
  5. There’s that ambiguous “in time” again.

So, that is five errors in two sentences, indicating either the author’s skills have degenerated between emails, or the software has been updated badly. Either way, Grammarly, I’m for hire.

P.S. Readers: a fellow writer put three software programmes, including Grammarly.com, to the test. His results are here. And for an even better evaluation with specifics, click here to read a post specific to Grammarly.com on the Grammarist.

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