Writing Assistants

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Pretty much every time I go online, I get ads for Grammarly. It’s actually one of the few targeted ads that I get that makes sense. I write a lot and I’ve been teaching others how to write for over a decade. But I find that the ads have the wrong effect on me. Every time I see one, I get more and more hostile. Grammarly is the destination (or at least trying to be the destination) on a misguided journey we started a long time ago. I’d like to see us redirect, but I’m afraid it is too late.

Why do I hate Grammarly so much? I did use the word hostile, and I used it on purpose. It’s not annoyance, frustration, anger, bemusement, or anything else. It is hostility. I feel attacked by Grammarly, but not in the sense you might think. It has nothing to do with Grammarly making me (a writer, editor, and tutor) obsolete. It’s nowhere near that good and my obsolescence might actually be a good thing. My hostility stems from the fact that Grammarly is making us all drown in an ocean of really, really, really horrifically bad writing.

This take is probably confusing for some. The whole point of Grammarly is to improve people’s writing. At least, that’s what the ads say. It tries to do this by catching grammar and spelling “errors,” suggesting alternative word choices, making the writing more concise, helping with formatting and punctuation, and other such things. This winds up hurting people’s writing, and the written word in general, in at least three ways.

Before getting to that, I do want to point out that I’m only singling out Grammarly because they are the most famous at pretending to make writing better while undermining the whole enterprise. Google, Microsoft, and Apple all do it, too, with their autocorrect and autofill and predictive text features. (How many times have people made the joke, “I never mean duck?”) Even old technologies like spell-check, dictionaries, and thesauruses do this to some extent, but they are far less dangerous because they are far less pushy. (This is a brilliant bit about what’s wrong with Google.)

The first, and most obvious, way Grammarly is ruining writing is by making everyone sound the same. Grammarly writing has no personality. It all sounds like it came from Grammarly. Without personality, writing is not interesting. When writing is not interesting, people don’t like to read. No one would like it if we all dressed the same way or decorated our houses the same way or cooked the same way. That’ll be pretty obvious to mostly everyone. Why should writing be different?

The second way Grammarly is ruining writing is perpetuating (reinforcing?) the mistaken idea that there is one correct way to write. This is part of a much larger societal problem which probably deserves its own book or three, but almost nothing in life can only be done one correct way. Even math, which is supposedly the most stringent of disciplines, allows many ways of approaching and expressing any given problem. Grammarly (or its math equivalent) would try to tell you that “4/1” would be better expressed as “4” which is more concise. But neither is wrong. You could also say “2+2” or “√16”. There’re literally infinite possibilities. I would say which you use depends on why you are using it. Concise is not a virtue in itself. I know that “must” is more concise than “have to,” Grammarly and I don’t care. “Must” is connotatively quite different. Pushing the “correct” way of writing is making our writing less communicative than it used to be.

The third way Grammarly is ruining writing is probably the least obvious but most important. Grammarly misses the point of writing altogether. They want us to think that writing is nothing more than data; the point of it is to move information. That can, and sometimes does, happen with writing, but it’s not the point. It is an incidental feature of writing. Writing is ultimately about sharing. We write so we can share our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideas, desires, needs, dreams, and on and on. To put it more simply (concisely?) writing is one of the most important ways that we share ourselves with others. Grammarly takes our selves out of it which is disastrous. I don’t know why you’d want to share the ramblings of an AI with me, but I’m not interested.

I will grant that there are some instances where interesting, original, individual, and good writing will be detrimental. Think of resumes and cover letters and college essays and such. In these cases, it’s probably OK to use Grammarly. In fact, knock yourself out. It’s probably better to let an AI handle tedious chores like that. Go nuts.

For everything else, though, please, I beg of you, please, if possible, kindly, please do not use Grammarly and its ilk. I don’t care what Grammarly has to say about anything. Neither should you. I care very much what you have to say. I really mean that. I want what you say to be interesting and yours. I don’t care if your prepositions take an object, you use the Oxford comma, split infinitives, change tenses, or anything else. The point is getting to know you. You’re the only one who can tell me. And I’m sick to death of reading the same garbage over and over again.

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