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.
A few weeks ago, I started a subscription to Grammarly. As I sometimes churn out my writing work quickly, especially blog posts, it’s a useful tool to pick up any spelling or grammar errors that creep in.
There’s already a proprietary checker in Microsoft Word, and it’s possible to download browser extensions that perform a similar function. But Grammarly software is consistent in Word, in your browser, and anywhere else you type on your computer. It doesn’t, however, seem to be available for mobile devices.
Every week, I’m sent a summary of how well or badly I’ve performed in my spelling and grammar. Here are selected stats from 06 February to 12 February.
You wrote more words than 96% of Grammarly users did.
You were more accurate than 82% of Grammarly users.
You have a larger vocabulary than 97% of Grammarly users.
So far, I feel like a latter-day Shakespeare. However, it’s not all happy news:
Top 3 grammar mistakes
1. Missing comma in compound sentence: 44 mistakes.
2. Incorrect use of comma: 15 mistakes
3. Missing comma(s) with interrupter: 10 mistakes
Grammarly and I can’t seem to come to an agreement on this issue.
Sometimes it allows the use of the Oxford comma in a list, but sometimes I’m told to take it out. Similarly, I’m often shouted at for placing a comma before and in a sentence, but it’s occasionally required to stay in.
I’ve also discovered a problem with the verb form in the following sentence:
The audience here tends to be corporations.
I’m advised this isn’t correct:
So I duly drop the final letter to make the verb agree with the plural subject corporations. Then I’m told:
Now the verb form is incorrect because it doesn’t agree with the singular audience. And so we go around in a loop. There is a facility to add custom spellings or to ignore a suggestion, but no way to let the software learn your writing style or to flag up false positives.
Ultimately, the writer has to determine whether the words that are written, or the way in which they’re written, are suitable for the intended purpose. Grammarly is a tool that uses algorithms to apply the conventional rules of English; it’s not a textbook that must be followed precisely.
Anyone who’s attempted to learn English as a foreign tongue can tell you how weirdly different it is from other languages. I’d like to focus on just a few of these absurdities, prompted by the recent decision of the American Dialect Society to award their Word of the Year to the singular they.
To refer to yourself, you use I; to refer to a group you’re part of, it’s we. The English language has this sorted. However, a third party group is given the pronoun they, while a third party that’s not part of a group is given he, she or it. These latter three pronouns are often fine to use, but there can be problems.
Supposing you’ve received an anonymous letter. How would you refer to the author? It would be inappropriate to say it because it wasn’t written by an animal nor an inanimate object. Similarly, it’s unwieldy to keep saying he or she. So like a trooper, they steps up to the challenge.
To compound matters, there are people who are not necessarily transgender but who identify as a mixture of both genders or as neither, and therefore it would be incorrect to write he, she or it. Again, they volunteers for duty.
So on the whole, they fills the gender-neutral gap in our language, and it has done for hundreds of years. Yet it falls foul of another uniquely English grammar quirk.
Let’s use the verb to run. Substituting the to for a pronoun gives us: I run, you run, we run, but he, she or it runs. So when we use they as a singular, it ought to be correct to say they runs, but it sounds wrong.
If you’re unsure about word usage, you could do worse than follow Hannah McCall. She’s a qualified proofreader who writes about the trickier points of English in her blog, yet in an accessible manner. I’m also aware she can probably find a dozen holes in this entry alone.
One of these is serendipity, when you make a beneficial or pleasing find by chance. Another biggie is trade-off, which won an award a few years ago as it’s so difficult to translate. It’s not a mere compromise, but where you exchange one quality for another, while understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each.