Friday, February 13, 2015

Sorry, Grammarly, You Got It Wrong

I've been aware of a website called but had never checked it out. When I did, I found it provides a platform for writers to vet their compositions for grammatical errors. It's a great resource for writers unsure of their knowledge of the rules of grammar. It advertises: "Instantly find and correct over 250 types of grammatical mistakes." My attention was drawn to the website after receiving an email from Grammarly's Nikolas Baron offering an article titled "Fifty Shades of Grammar (It's Not as Bad as You Think)." Here's the link.

According to the blog, the Grammarly team reviewed E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey "for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, and learned that — although there were some mistakes — the errors were in alignment with similar gaffes in celebrated romances." They detailed nine Fifty Shades' mistakes that were also found in several classic novels (or plays) by such authors as Hemingway, Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Boris Pasternak. I agreed with about a third of them, such as leaving out a comma in a compound sentence. But the rest I would term nitpicking.

While these may have been grammatically incorrect, strictly speaking, I saw them as stylistic or deliberately expressive use of language. One in particular that falls into this category was sentence fragments. I use them often for emphasis or to highlight a dramatic moment. I studied under a strict English teacher in high school and served some time as a copy editor during my newspaper days. I think I have a pretty good grounding in the rules of grammar, and when I have doubts, I check reliable sources such as Strunk and White.

But I do not believe fiction writing is a place to get overly concerned with the strict application of grammar rules. Regarding comma misuse, Grammarly said many writers forget to use a comma where one is necessary, or include a comma when it is not necessary. I sometimes use commas to show readers how I would like them to read a sentence. A comma means to pause your thought. I put in a comma to show where I want you to pause, even it's not technically required.

Another "mistake" cited was use of colloquialisms. "Although it is largely stylistic, the choice to use informal language -- including contractions -- can diminish the perception of your writing" was the comment. Their examples included changing "don't blush" to "do not blush" and using "it does not sound" instead of "doesn't sound."

My comment: Ridiculous!

Except for people who speak in strictly formal terms, everybody uses common contractions in conversation as well as in mental musings, otherwise known as introspection. Saying it might diminish the perception of your writing in a modern novel is hogwash. Maybe that term diminished your perception of my writing?

Another subject for Grammarly's ire is "Prepositions." They say prepositions help to show where (or when) one thing is in relation to another. Correctly using prepositions helps readers to better visualize what is happening in your writing. The "error" they cited was from Shakespeare's The Tempest. The Bard wrote: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep." To which Grammarly says delete "as" and insert "on which."

Change The Tempest to "We are such stuff on which dreams are made on?" I can see old Will stomp his foot and shout, "Out, damned spot!"

One last diatribe. (Sorry, Grammarly, that's a sentence fragment.) Mistake No. 7 is "Determiners," which is explained as words such as "a," "an," and "the" help writers to be specific about what they are talking about. This "mistake" was attributed to Pasternak in an example from Doctor Zhivago. Here's the quote:

"You and I, it's as though we've been taught to kiss in heaven and sent down to earth together, to see if we know what we were taught." Grammarly says Pasternak should have inserted "the" before "earth." How many earths do we have here? Would adding "the" make it any more specific? Why not add "the" before "heaven?" The sentence reads perfectly well and understandably specific just as Pasternak wrote it.

I have had a few people write reviews on Amazon and complain of the grammar in one of my books. Now I know who they are—disciples of Grammarly.