What Grammarly overlooks

In my last post, I discussed how Grammarly’s feedback mostly targets individual words and phrases–with the exception of its knee-jerk rejection of passive voice. This means that Grammarly mostly overlooks sentence-level revision tools–i.e., the sorts of tools that Catherine and I address in Europe in the Modern World.

One of these tools is passive voice. Compare:

Despite these harsh conditions, the settlement with the Nazis relieved most French men and women.

and

Despite these harsh conditions, most French men and women were relieved by the settlement with the Nazis.

In the second sentence “the settlement with the Nazis”, moved by passive voice to sentence-final position, receives more emphasis than it did in the original.

Choosing appropriate end-focus involves considerations of sentence meaning and communicative intent that are beyond today’s AI. The same goes for another key element of good writing: sentence cohesion.

Compare:

Despite these harsh conditions, the settlement with the Nazis relieved most French men and women. The agreement seemed to assure, among other things, that no more blood would be spilled on French soil.

and

Despite these harsh conditions, most French men and women were relieved by the settlement with the Nazis. The agreement seemed to assure, among other things, that no more blood would be spilled on French soil.

Shifting “the settlement with the Nazis” to the end of the first sentence results in tighter cohesion with the second sentence, which begins with reference to that settlement.

Cohesion and end-focus are beyond Grammarly’s AI. Nor does Grammarly recognize other sentence-level revision tools–tools like clefting, extraposition, or heavy-NP shift. These, like passive voice, are powerful tools for cohesion and end-focus, and, so, for overall readability and flow.

Also beyond Grammarly’s natural language processing capabilities are the many cases of wordiness and repetition that go beyond repeated words and wordy phrases.

Compare this, from Grammarly’s blog:

Tone reveals the author’s attitude about a subject or topic to their reader. It can be delivered in different ways, like through word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure. 

It’s similar to when you’re engaging with someone in person. Your facial expression, vocal pitch, and body language might convey a certain tone that informs the language you use in conversation.

By using the right tone in your writing, your readers can better understand your emotions regarding a topic. It’s a signal to your reader about how your writing should make them feel. Your tone might be delightful or sarcastic, lighthearted or aggressive, among other types of tones, all through your writing.

https://www.grammarly.com/blog/tone/

To this revision, proposed by yours truly:

Tone in writing is analogous to tone in speech: whether delightful or sarcastic, lighthearted or aggressive, tone reveals a person’s attitude towards their chosen topic, and, potentially, signals how their audience should feel too. But while speakers can convey tone through facial expression, vocal pitch, and body language, tone in writing depends on word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure. 

One might argue, of course, that it’s all a matter of tone and taste, and that my revision has sacrificed chattiness for terse formality. But does Grammarly itself, as opposed to its human bloggers, even know the difference?

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