I’m a long-term user of Grammarly. This is a program that adds spelling and grammar functionality to other programs, including your browser.
Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company, summarising how many mistakes have been detected and how productive I’ve been compared to other users. But that’s not the full story.
When I give a time, for instance, I’ll write ‘8pm’. Grammarly, by contrast, thinks this should be ‘8 pm’; there appears to be no way – even in the premium version – to permanently ignore this check. There are other occasions where I’m prompted to add or change ‘a’ or ‘the’. In one instance, the program would accept neither ‘the audience is’ nor ‘the audience are’ as correct, telling me to change one to the other.
As such, there is no substitute for checking your work manually. A spelling check will recognise both ‘from’ and ‘form’ as valid words, even the writer meant the other one. A grammar check is unlikely to pick up whether ‘rowing on the lake’ refers to controlling the boat or having an argument.
A good way to do a robust check is to leave the piece aside for a while – I suggest one minute per word – then to read it out loud, which highlights any errors more clearly. If the piece is particularly important, consider asking someone else to read it. There’s no guarantee these steps will eliminate every error, but they will reduce the chances of one cropping up.
A couple of friends have recently asked me to look over pieces they’ve written. At one time, it would have been difficult for me to do this as I didn’t like to give negative feedback. Having received honest critiques of my own work, I now feel comfortable about identifying areas of improvement in others’ work and making suggestions for improvement.
Firstly, I received an 11-line poem. Among other suggestions: I could see that each line began with a capital letter even in run-on sentences, which is unconventional in modern poetry; I swapped around a couple of clauses to create a stronger image; and I broke up the poem into three stanzas instead of one. These suggestions are partly personal preferences, but they’re informed by reading a lot of poetry and considering what works well and not so well.
The other piece I looked over was an application for a university course, and I had help from a friend who has experience in this field. In this instance, I didn’t know all the specialist terminology or concepts, but there were aspects common to most writing styles that I could point out: using shorter paragraphs to create more negative space, which is easier on the eye; thoroughly checking spelling and grammar, for which I suggested reading the piece out loud while alone; and moving a certain project nearer the top of the application as it stood out among the others.
Ultimately, the writer has the final call on how to present their own piece. As such, I made it clear that the corrections were merely suggestions.
There is always a risk that the other party will react badly or become disheartened, particularly if you don’t know each other very well. It’s impossible to police another person’s feelings, but there are ways to make an unfavourable outcome feel less harsh. A classic is the Bad News Sandwich: a positive greeting, the negative result, a positive next step. Here’s a rejection e-mail I received last year:
Thank you for entering the August 50 Word Fiction Competition.
Unfortunately, your story was not selected as the winner this month. It was another very busy month and very difficult decision for our judges.
If you’d like to enter again, we’d love to see your words.
So when I close that message, I don’t think What an arrogant bunch, I think, I’ll up my game for September.
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.
Around three weeks ago, I was pleased to report that I’ve had a third short story accepted for publication. Strange Musings Press of New York will be printing Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse, subject to raising enough funds through their Kickstarter page.
There’s still around a week left to raise the $1,100 required for it to go ahead. You can donate at several different levels from $1 to $150, each of which buys you into the project with increasing levels of reward, including electronic and/or paper copies, autographs, and your name in the Contributors’ section.
My story is called Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse, and it’s about a man who wants to rid the world of badly-constructed acronyms. Although I’m Scottish, my dialect is British English so that’s how most of my stories are written, including this one.
If I’m sending to an American publisher, I often change the grammar and spelling to suit; at least, I have a decent stab at it. In one case, I even wrote the whole story in US English because the character was so strong in my head: a cross between Jason Gideon from Criminal Minds, and Adrian Monk. In Amending…, I took the decision to keep it in my natural dialect as there are a number of references to British places and companies, and I felt it would look odd if I, “translated” it.
A couple of weeks ago, I began reading The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks. The narrative is written with a curious mix of dialects. For instance, the title is spelt with two Ls and there’s a reference to a pub, but the colour gray and an SUV appear in other parts. The SUV would be known as a 4-by-4 in Britain. The story is set in several countries so I expect it’s difficult to settle on one standard spelling, yet it’s not a distraction here, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the story.
Conversely, my mentor Zöe Venditozzi released her debut novel Anywhere’s Better Than Here in 2012. When a US edition hit the shelves, she told me there were no spelling changes made. When you buy a copy, watch out for the character whose initials match mine.
So is it important to adapt your dialect depending on which side of the Atlantic you’ll be published? I expect most Internet users will be accustomed to reading both, but at the same time, people will still write in whichever they feel comes most naturally.
Perhaps one day in the future, the two will merge and we’ll have one way of spelling each word, one form of grammar for all. It would be more practical, but probably rather dull.
I hadn’t written a response blog for years, and now this is my second in a fortnight. But this time, it was requested.
Scott Graham runs Suited Sorted on Blogspot, where he has recently re-focused on Android technology, although he has back entries discussing music, television, holidays, and weight loss. He has asked for some constructive criticism about the page, and with ten years’ blogging experience, I reckon I’m qualified to pass on some tips.
Tone, spelling, and grammar
Scott wonders if he’s a little too conversational. There’s a certain style that many bloggers go for, whether they mean to or not. The closest off-line equivalent is an opinion column in a newspaper. You’re telling the reader your view on a particular matter, but using everyday spoken words. For instance, you’ll say asked for rather than requested, or use contractions like can’t instead of cannot.
But this isn’t a licence to spell words any old way, or leave out punctuation where it’s needed. Almost every piece of blogging software has a spellchecker. Spelling extensions are available for Firefox and Chrome, most mobile phones have the facility built-in, and the latest edition of Microsoft Word even lets you post to WordPress directly. If the reader doesn’t have to decode what you’re trying to tell them, your message will come across much stronger.
Scott, you’re doing fine on that front.
Newspapers and magazines learnt early on that long articles do not translate well to the Web. When you’re reading a three-page printed interview, your neck automatically moves downwards as your eyes follow the text, where scrolling down with your hands requires more conscious effort. A normal screen – not an e-ink display – is also brighter than a page, so it’s harder to read from.
That’s why I restrict my paragraphs to about three to six lines, and leave a clear line between each one. A lot of people will give up reading a wall of text, if they attempt it at all.
Your paragraphs can be quite long, Scott, but certainly not the dreaded wall.
Using the site analytics tools on WordPress, I’ve found that my posts attract more attention and reaction if I post them between around 6pm and 10pm Monday to Friday. Entries made at any time on Saturday or Sunday simply don’t seem to be noticed. Certain tags also seem to generate interest, while others have no effect.
For years, I posted with LiveJournal and tagged my entries. I very much accepted that hardly anyone except my friends read the page, as they were the only ones to comment. But when I moved to WordPress, I realised I’d been missing out on this vital piece of analysis. Everyone will be different, and some will find that daytime or weekend posts work for them.
So keep tagging your entries, Scott, and have a look at Blogspot’s analysis tools to find out exactly when people are reading you. I hope you’ve found this critique helpful.
To everyone else, I’ll be pleased if any of my suggestions help you with your own blogging.
Every so often, some newspaper or another carries a report on the declining literacy standards of young people, usually focussing the blame on text message speak. I’m not worried about this happening. To illustrate my point, let’s have a look at how txt spk originated. The first SMS was sent on 3 December 1992 by Neil Papworth, who used a PC to send the message Merry Christmas to Richard Jarvis from Vodafone. The message didn’t receive a reply because no phone was capable of it.
But that problem was solved the following year using a method that already existed. Certainly in the UK, phone number pads were already marked with letters as an aide mémoire when calling other towns and cities, and it’s very similar to the layout of a modern mobile. Codes are no longer assigned like this, yet if you remove the 01 from many modern area codes, you can often guess the original mnemonic. Perth is 01738, equating to 01-PET; while Hastings is 01424, probably resolving to 01-HAI. It’s an efficient system when encoding a very short message such as the codename of a city, however it becomes more cumbersome with a more complex message.
A simple question such as Where are you, John? could become a nightmare to tap out, as you would need to press extra buttons to write a capital W and J, while the first two letters of you need three presses each. That’s not even mentioning the comma or question mark, both of which could be buried in a sub-menu. No wonder people would write whr r ujohn, reducing button pushes to 22, assuming one press of the 0 or 1 key acts as the space-bar. That’s just over the 20 required to spell the full message on a standard keyboard.
The boffins have improved mobile input since then, at first with T9 predictive text, and now with touch-screen QWERTY keyboards. So too with text messages. By habit, people still shorten messages and miss out punctuation for brevity. Sometimes it can be a challenge to read, but the brain is particularly good at filling in blanks. In fact, the creators of Teeline shorthand knew this back in 1968, and their system removes the internal vowels from most words.
It’s worth noting that the QWERTY layout is a historical hangover too: a deliberately inefficient design intended to slow down typists and stop the first typewriters from jamming. Yet it still endures even although jams were eventually almost eliminated, and other layouts made available, such as Dvorak, which I generally use. So if QWERTY is still around, why am I not worried about txt spk being with us for the long term? Because we’ve been here before, and it wasn’t even within living memory.
When the telegraph was introduced in the mid-1850s, its pricing model was pay-per-word, so people naturally wanted to communicate as cheaply as possible. Businesses quickly learnt to abbreviate sentences into single words, and enterprising authors also wrote code books for the general public. Here is a wonderful example of where a sender has encoded the important points of a shipping accident into just five words. I’ll bet that in the latter half of the 19th century, people thought all communication would end up being that way. For instance, there is a novel from 1880 called Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes [CONTAINS SPOILERS] about a couple who meet via telegraph. And yet, despite the subject matter, the description is rich and colourful, just like the majority of documents from the period.
In short, so to speak, text messages are still brief because of old technology, and telegraph messages were brief for cost reasons. But proper English as a whole was not greatly affected by telegraphy in the late 1800s, despite its popularity, and that’s why I doubt it’ll be killed off by cellular telephony in this era, the early 2000s.