The Grammar Spammer

Every week, Grammarly sends me an e-mail, showering me with praise about how well I’ve written that week. I’ve been using the software for more than four years; it even works in addition to the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Firefox. As such, the company has collected a lot of data about how I type.

In yesterday’s bulletin, it was noted that I was: more productive than 94% of other users. more accurate than 83%, and using more unique words than 92% of folks.

It also notes my top three mistakes, which are usually minor matters involving punctuation. For example, Grammarly doesn’t favour an Oxford comma as much as I do; conversely, I don’t like the software’s style of writing ‘3 PM’ rather than ‘3pm’.

Which brings me to an important point that software can miss certain errors. Depending on the construction of the sentence, ‘from’ might be interchangeable with ‘form’, when only one is correct.

My best advice on the matter, which I repeat often, is to read out loud what you’ve written to see whether it flows and makes sense. If you don’t have the privacy to do that, a decent substitute is to find text-to-speech software and listen through headphones. If it detects a word out of place, it’ll be obvious when it’s read out.

Either way, spelling and grammar checkers should be used as a safety net rather than an authority, however much praise they heap onto their users.

The Benefit of Experience

Last week, a friend sent me a poem she’d written about a recent bereavement, asking for some suggestions. I immediately agreed. I copied the piece into Microsoft Word and switched on Tracked Changes, then looked through the piece line by line.

The first thing I did was check whether she’d followed generally accepted conventions, such as placing a lowercase letter where the start of a line isn’t a new sentence, and making sure a significant word ends each line.

When you read poetry a lot, you begin to build up a template in your head of what you like and don’t like, and what looks ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. So aside from the conventions outlined above, I considered how the piece sounded overall, and omitted or added words accordingly.

I made it clear than anything I wrote was merely a suggestion and could be ignored if she felt it didn’t work. Indeed, the poem was great to begin with, but someone else could easily come along and make different suggestions in accordance with their experience.

I don’t know yet whether this friend took my suggestions on board, but if she does, I believe it would improve the piece.

Giving The Finger.

As writers, we should all protect our most valuable tools of the trade: our fingers. Lately, I seem to have been using them a little too much. I’ve taken leave for a week, and I’ve seen a physiotherapist. So this post is brought to you by Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software.

This type of technology has improved enormously since Stephen Hawking was kitted out with a synthesiser. Only today, I found a CD-ROM containing ViaVoice 98. That was a nightmare to use. You. Had. To. Speak. Each. Word. Individually. Nowadays, you can speak in your everyday voice.

Dragon is actually relatively accurate, even though I have a Scottish accent. That said, it reset itself for no obvious reason as I was about to type this entry so I’ll need to recalibrate it. I don’t mind because the calibration text is excellent, including excerpts from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dogbert’s Management Handbook.

Just as handwriting can produce different results from typing, so can dictation. By speaking the words out loud, you can hear the cadence as you go along, or if you have a new idea while writing, you can record it before it’s forgotten.

One word of caution, though: it’s not cheap. Dragon for individuals starts at £79.99. Happily, if you own Microsoft Word, you already have this feature. Have a look at the Help menu to find it.

EDIT: Since writing this entry, I’ve been advised that the facility is not available in Office 2010 on XP.