Arrant Pedantry

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Fifty Shades of Bad Grammar Advice

A few weeks ago, the folks at the grammar-checking website Grammarly wrote a piece about supposed grammar mistakes in Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite being a runaway hit, the book has frequently been criticized for its terrible prose, and Grammarly apparently saw an opportunity to fix some of the book’s problems (and probably sell its grammar-checking services along the way).

The first problem, of course, is that most of the errors Grammarly identified have nothing to do with grammar. The second is that most of their edits not only fail to fix the clunky prose but actually make it worse.

Mark Allen already took Grammarly to task in a post on the Copyediting blog, saying that their edits “lack restraint”, that “the list is full of style choices and non-errors”, and that “it fails to make a case for the value of proofreading, and, by association, . . . reflects poorly on the craft of copyediting.” I agreed and thought at the time that nothing more needed to be said.

But then Grammarly decided to go even further. In this infographic, they claim to have found “similar gaffes” in the works of authors ranging from Nicholas Sparks to Shakespeare.

The first edit suggests that Nicholas Sparks needs a comma in the sentence “I am a common man with common thoughts and I’ve led a common life.” It’s true that this is a compound sentence, and such sentences typically require a comma between the two independent clauses. But The Chicago Manual of Style says that the comma can be omitted when the clauses are short and closely related. This isn’t an error so much as a style choice.

Incidentally, Grammarly says that “E. L. James is not the first author to include a comma in her work when a semi-colon would be more appropriate, or vice versa.” But the supposed error here isn’t that James used a comma when she should have used a semicolon; it’s that she didn’t use a comma at all. (Also note that “semicolon” is not spelled with a hyphen and that the comma before “or vice versa” is not necessary.)

Error number 2 is comma misuse (which is somehow different from error number 1, which is also comma misuse). Grammarly says, “Many writers forget to include a comma when one is necessary, or include a comma when it is not necessary.” (By the way, the comma before “or include a comma when it is not necessary” is not necessary.) The supposed offender here is Hemingway, who wrote, “We would be together and have our books and at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” Grammarly suggests putting a comma after “at night”, but that would be a mistake.

The sentence has a compound predicate with three verb phrases strung together with ands. Hemingway says that “We would (1) be together and (2) have our books and (3) at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” You don’t need a comma between the parts of a compound predicate, and if you want to set off the phrase “at night”, then you need commas on both sides: “We would be together and have our books and, at night, be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” But that destroys the rhythm of the sentence and interferes with Hemingway’s signature style.

Error number 3 is wordiness, and the offender is Edith Wharton, who wrote, “Each time you happen to me all over again.” Grammarly suggests axing “all over”, leaving “Each time you happen to me again”. But this edit doesn’t fix a wordy sentence so much as it kills its emphasis. This is dialogue; shouldn’t dialogue sound like the way people talk?

Error number 4, colloquialisms, is not even an error by Grammarly’s own admission—it’s a stylistic choice. And choosing to use colloquialisms—more particularly, contractions—is a perfectly valid stylistic choice in fiction, especially in dialogue. Changing “doesn’t sound very exciting” to “it does not sound very exciting” is probably fine if you’re editing dialogue for Data from Star Trek, but it just isn’t how normal people talk.

The next error, commonly confused words, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Here Grammarly fingers F. Scott Fitzgerald for writing “to-night” rather than “tonight”. But this has nothing to do with confused words, because they’re the same word. To-night was the more common spelling until the 1930s, when the unhyphenated tonight surpassed it. This is not an error at all, let alone an error involving commonly confused words.

The sixth error, sentence fragments, is again debatable, and Grammarly even acknowledges that using fragments “is one way to emphasize an idea.” Once again, Grammarly says that it’s a style choice that for some reason you should never make. The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, rightly acknowledges that the proscription against sentence fragments has “no historical or grammatical foundation.”

Error number 7 is another puzzler. They say that determiners “help writers to be specific about what they are talking about.” Then they say that Boris Pasternak should have written “sent down to the earth” rather than “sent down to earth” in Doctor Zhivago. Where on the earth did they get that idea? Not only is “down to earth” far more common in writing, but there’s nothing unclear about it. Adding the “the” doesn’t solve any problem because there is no problem here. Incidentally, they say the error has to do with determiners, but they’re really talking about articles—a, an, and the. Articles are simply one type of determiner, which also includes possessive determiners, demonstratives, and quantifiers.

I’ll skip error number 8 for the moment and go to number 9, the passive voice. Again they note the passive voice is a stylistic choice and not a grammatical error, and then they edit it out anyway. In place of Mr. Darcy’s “My feelings will not be repressed” we now have “I will not repress my feelings.” Grammarly claims that the passive can cause “a lack of clarity in your writing”, but what is unclear about this line? Is anyone confused about it in the slightest? Instead of added clarity, we get a ham-fisted edit that shifts the focus from where it should be—the feelings—onto Mr. Darcy himself. This is exactly the sort of sentence that calls for the passive voice.

The eighth error is probably the most infuriating because it gets so many things wrong. Here they take Shakespeare himself to task over his supposed preposition misuse. They say that in The Tempest, Shakespeare should have written “such stuff on which dreams are made on” rather than “such stuff as dreams are made on”. The first problem with Grammarly’s correction is that it doubles the preposition “on”, creating a grammatical problem rather than fixing it.

The second problem with this correction is that which can’t be used as a relative pronoun referring to such—only as can do that. Their fix is not just awkward but doubly ungrammatical.

The third is that it simply ruins the meter of the line. Remember that Shakespeare often wrote in a meter called iambic pentameter, which means that each foot contains two syllables with stress on the second syllable and that there are five feet per line. Here’s the sentence from The Tempest:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(Note that these aren’t full lines because I’m omitting the text from surrounding sentences that make up part of the first and third lines.) Pay attention to the rhythm of those lines.

we ARE such STUFF
as DREAMS are MADE on AND our LITTle LIFE
is ROUNDed WITH a SLEEP

Now compare Grammarly’s fix:

we ARE such STUFF
on WHICH dreams ARE made ON and OUR littLE life
is ROUNDed WITH a SLEEP

The second line has too many syllables, and the stresses have all shifted. Shakespeare’s line puts most of the stresses on nouns and verbs, while Grammarly’s fix puts it mostly on function words—pronouns, prepositions, determiners—and, maybe worst of all, on the second syllable of “little”. They have taken lines from one of the greatest writers in all of English history and turned them into ungrammatical doggerel. It takes some nerve to edit the Bard; it apparently takes sheer blinkered idiocy to edit him so badly.

So, just to recap, that’s nine supposed grammatical errors that Grammarly says will ruin your prose, most of which are not errors and have nothing to do with grammar. Their suggested fixes, on the other hand, sometimes introduce grammatical errors and always worsen the writing. The takeaway from all of this is not, as Grammarly says, that loves conquers all, but rather that Grammarly doesn’t know the first thing about grammar, let alone good writing.

Addendum: I decided to stop giving Grammarly such a bad time and help them out by editing their infographic pro bono.

14 Responses to Fifty Shades of Bad Grammar Advice

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I once shilled for Grammarly. They offered me an Amazon gift card for writing a post on how to write better and linking to their site. In a moment of weakness, I accepted, even though I felt a little dirty doing so. I never would have done it had I realized just how terrible they are.

  2. Ryan Dunlop says:

    Regarding the edited infographic, you’re arguably being unnecessarily pedantic when you order Grammarly to “[r]emove misused comma”. New Harts’ Rules allows the subject to be implied (suppressed) after a coordinating conjunction (_The New Oxford Style Manual_ 4.3.2, p. 69). Its example is on the same page: “I like swimming very much, and go to the pool every week.”

    Don’t follow Grammarly’s mistakes by over-correcting what is indeed only a style choice (one that many UK style guides allow).

  3. Grammarly certainly started digging its own grave with this one when they decided to apply _modern_ grammar and usage to works written long ago. The outrage comes, I think, not from running these classics through the Grammarly engine and pointing out what it finds, but from calling all those findings “errors.” As any thoughtful writer or editor knows, “grammatical writing” is not the same as “good writing,” and vice versa. I’m willing to bet that the people at Grammarly (at least the word-oriented people) know this, but, advertising being what it is, they aren’t wont to bring their product’s shortcomings to the fore.

    Still, the statement “Grammarly is the world’s most accurate grammar checker” might still be accurate; they all suck. Of course, by “grammar checker” I assume they mean “automated grammar checker.” Any of the hundreds of thousands of professional and budding editors will work better (though not faster) than Grammarly.

    I do think Grammarly can help a person become a _better_ writer, assuming one avoids the “Accept All changes” option and instead thinks about each of the “errors” it finds and makes a conscious choice. But Grammarly can’t help a person become a _good_ writer. Worlds of difference.

  4. Oh…and about the results. I’m surprised Grammarly suggested adding “the” before “earth” instead of just capitalizing “Earth.”

  5. Q. Pheevr says:

    So, let me get this straight. They think there should be a definite article in “down to earth,” and they’re blaming Pasternak for not putting one in?

    Quite apart from the fact that there’s no need for a definite article there in English, are they aware that Pasternak wrote in Russian? Even if they don’t happen to know that Russian doesn’t have articles, they should still have known that the “blame” for this so-called error belongs to the translators.

  6. Ryan Dunlop: I was not aware that that was a style choice in the UK. None of the American style guides that I know allow it, and most expressly forbid it (even though I see it in unedited writing all the time). Grammarly is based in the US and seems to follow American style elsewhere, so I don’t think it’s overly pedantic to hold them to that. But I do appreciate you pointing that out.

    Andy: I’m sure that Grammarly’s checker has some utility, but like you said, there’s a problem when you start calling all of these things mistakes or rules when they’re often style choices. The people who rely most on automated checkers are usually the ones who don’t know enough to tell when to ignore the checker’s advice. I wholeheartedly agree with this, though:

    Any of the hundreds of thousands of professional and budding editors will work better (though not faster) than Grammarly.

    Q. Pheever:: Excellent point.

  7. Warsaw Will says:

    I (BrE) usually have only one simple rule whether to use a comma or not (with a very few exceptions): if you’d pause in speech, put in a comma, otherwise don’t. Personally, I’d pause between ‘when one is necessary’ and ‘or include a comma when it is not necessary’, so I’d probably put a comma there (and have written ‘one’ instead of the second ‘comma’, perhaps).

    On the matter of ‘UK style guides’ though, we (thankfully) have nothing that I know of with such a long arm as the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Style Guide (but I’m not a copywriter; perhaps they do). So we probably have a bit more leeway.

    Funnily enough, even the much-maligned Lynne Truss in fact takes a pretty broad-minded approach when she finally gets round to the actual mechanics of punctuation; it’s her first chapter full of peeving that’s the real problem.

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  11. Jeanne Smith says:

    To be fair, I suspect that Grammarly’s “correction” of Shakespeare’s use of prepositions was inadvertently clouded with the old chestnut about not ending a sentence with one — I think they meant to say that it should be “such stuff on which dreams are made,” not “on which dreams are made on,” as the former would be a perfectly appropriate phrase in most other instances. Perhaps they were too amused by the illustration to read the whole revised sentence one last time?!

    My daughter’s 9th-grade honors English teacher made her remove all uses of “to be” verbs from her essays, resulting in some very awkward sentences. (He would also have made Jane Austen use the active voice in Mr. Darcy’s line today. I’m not sure what he would do with “To be or not to be”.)

  12. ejdalise says:

    Interesting. I use Grammarly for guidance, but since I write fiction (unpublished fiction) I’m often at odds with their suggestions (I hit ignore a lot). Unfortunately, my understanding and application of grammar are less technical and more heuristic insomuch that I go with what sounds right, be it right or not.

    Overall, I think Grammarly does help me, but I’ll listen only to the extent their suggestions don’t change my “voice”.

    Thanks for the informative article. I look forward to more.

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