Mr Grammarly writes a novel

Mr Grammarly, the Grammarly family parrot (a New Zealand Kea). Renowned for its literary abilities and loathing of the passive voice.

Grammarly is a web-based service to support writers. I use it a lot but worry that Grammarly will homogenise the literary voice until we all sound like the Grammarly family’s pet—a parrot named “Mr Grammarly”. 

Grammarly provides advice on correcting punctuation, word use, and reducing the use of the passive voice (a challenge for anyone taught academic writing before 2005). It can also score clarity, engagement, and tone of delivery.

I find it incredibly useful, and I recommend it to my graduate students and staff. When it works, it’s fabulous, and as a native English speaker, the probability of horrible failure is low. I am not obliged to take all of Grammarly’s suggestions, and I have enough of a sense of the language to know when I can break a rule or when Grammarly is wrong. Non-native English speakers may not have the same advantage and need to work harder to make those decisions. Is the suggestion for a change in word good or bad, is the rephrased sentence clearer?

I became so sick of reading poorly written student drafts with basic spelling and grammatical mistakes that I began telling my students if they had not checked the text against Grammarly, I was not interested in reading it. And then, I started to receive drafts with bizarre word choices and ill-phrased sentences. I ran the drafts through Grammarly, and they came through with no suggested corrections.

Lesson number one, use Grammarly but use it with care.

I still had had this nagging concern about the homogenisation of the voice, and I decided to test Grammarly against great literature. My guess (let’s call it a hypothesis) was that Grammarly would reduce poetry to blancmange. As a well trained dust-bowl empiricist, I decided to test it. 

I cut-and-pasted the first page of three novels into Grammarly.

F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s, The Great Gatsby received an overall score of 86. There were six hard to read sentences, one suggested rephrasing, and a handful of suggested corrections. The “hard to read sentences” were the most significant challenge because (in the absence of a suggested rephrasing) I needed to keep Fitzgerald’s voice but rewrite. It was easier than I anticipated. Most of the “hard to read sentences” are “hard to read” because they are long—a series of full-stop separable clauses that Fitzgerald separated with semicolons. Grammarly and I could get Fitzgerald up to an overall score of 99, and the literary world rejoiced.

Ernest Hemingway‘s, The Old Man and the Sea received a very creditable overall score of 92. I thought that his short, terse sentences would give him an edge over Fitzgerald, and I was right. His use of commas, however, needed work. By accepting every change and a minimal loss of poetry (those island boys needed to learn to speak better Grammarly English), I could bring Hemingway up to a perfect score.

Finally, I Grammarly checked Douglas Stuart‘s Shuggie BainBooker Prize-winning novel for 2020. Straight out of the gate, he had an overall score of 99. It was the phrase “leaving him with the thankless task of running his deli counter and her rotisserie stand all alone” that denied him a perfect score. I didn’t think I could do better—sorry, Mr Stuart. If only Fitzgerald and Hemingway had Grammarly!

Grammarly does have an in-built preference for a particular style of punctuation, the active voice, and short sentences. These three preferences make sense. Grammarly supports readability, and literature is not necessarily about readability. Ask James Joyce! Short sentences are cognitively more straightforward than are long sentences with embedded clauses. The active voice makes it more transparent who did what to whom. Consistent, rule-based punctuation also reduces the cognitive load.

Nonetheless, beyond the use of active sentences and a preference for short sentences, Grammarly is remarkably good at leaving the authorial voice untouched. That was lesson two. We were not all going to sound like the family parrot.

You will be pleased to know that this 666-word piece has a perfect score. I wrote it clearly, the delivery was “just right”, and you found it engaging. I hope the Man Booker Committee will appreciate my 2022 novel written in short, active, well-punctuated sentences.