Does Grammarly Live Up to the Hype?

The DHI recently received an email from a Press Relations Representative for the proofreading app Grammarly, the self-proclaimed “world’s most accurate grammar checker.” You might have seen ads for this service and wondered what it’s all about, and truthfully, we were wondering too. It claims to check your writing for over 250 rules of grammar and for plagiarism. Having just reviewed Hemingway, we thought it appropriate to see how this virtual editor lived up to the hype. We did as much digging as we could without actually purchasing a subscription, and this is what we found out:

Visiting the Grammarly website, you’ll be directed to download the web extension. Perched upon your bookmarks bar, the little green icon allows you to toggle its functionality towards various writing-related websites (Tumblr, WordPress, or Gmail for example). Note: the extension only functions as a spell checker. It doesn’t actually make any substantial corrections on grammar besides obvious cases of subject-verb agreement and misuse of homonyms. It’s hard to tell what makes this better than your computer’s built in spell-check (and makes it seem a little like a gimmick).

Downloading the extension also entails opening an account at Grammarly.com, where you can use an in-browser text editor to copy-and-paste or upload documents for proofreading. You also have the option to download the desktop app (which is difficult to justify since it does not work offline, and has the same interface and functionality as the browser editor). This free version suffers from the same limited tools as the extension. To its credit, the app does encourage active learning: when Grammarly recognizes an error, it will suggest an edit and give an explanation with further examples of the correction. If English is not your first language, this feature could potentially be helpful for recognizing common mistakes, although the issues it identifies are basic. The program probably couldn’t help you improve more nuanced grammatical problems like misplaced modifiers or redundancies.

What’s the deal with the premium subscription then? The subscription comes with “advanced” checks for sentence structure, writing style, and vocabulary suggestions which are not available for the free browser extension or desktop app. In addition, you can download a Microsoft Word add-on, that provides all these features within the word processor you’re probably already using. (Notably, this add-on does not work offline and is unavailable for Macs.) Of course having not paid the subscription, we can’t speak directly to its effectiveness. In my own limited use of Grammarly’s services, the browser extension lagged behind my typing and worked only intermittently. Sometimes it would override my computer’s spellcheck and refuse to work, and other times would make bizarre suggestions. For example, it suggested ending declarative sentences with question marks?

To fill in the gaps in our knowledge, we looked into what other users were thinking. There are few places that have negative reviews of the program, although there are some several years old (like this one, or this really bad one). To be fair, we shouldn’t hold out-dated reviews against software which changes and updates often. Still, product review sites, feedback companies, and blogs rave about Grammarly, consistently giving 5 stars or 9/10 scores.

Sitejabber might have the most honest feedback about Grammarly which, as a whole,  is not good. If the consensus on the product’s effectiveness is not certain, the comments on customer service are certainly scathing. Users complain of price, problems with refunds, lack of transparency, and–more than anything else–customer support. For some, Grammarly’s suggestions would be different even in the same draft with the same wording, and for others, the app never left a loading page. But almost all negative reviews complain that customer service doesn’t offer over-the-phone support, consistently failed to fix problems, and even ignored people’s service requests.

More broadly, the question arises as to how badly we need “automatic proofreading,” and how much it’s worth to us. Some say that you shouldn’t trust your spell check anyway–and paying 30 bucks a month isn’t going to change that. Grammarly boasts of services like “customized checks” for different kinds of writing and plagiarism checks (no surprise, people were disappointed with that too), but the issue ultimately boils down to your own literacy. If you were unsure of yourself in your knowledge of grammar (which is probably why you’d purchase something like Grammarly) you would be extremely confused by the bizarre and often incorrect suggestions it makes.

Of course, it would be remarkably difficult to design and execute a program that could pick up on all the subtleties and contradictions of the rules of the English language, and to expect someone to be able to is like believing in the power of magic beans. (Though what might be a testament to how badly we need a spell checker is that several Grammarly testimonials can’t seem to spell it.) Nothing, in the end, is better than a human eye for proofreading.

Last week we reviewed Hemingway app, which combs through your writing for complexity and denseness. Compared to Grammarly, Hemingway app serves as a kind of foil: at least Hemingway app doesn’t promise to correct your writing. It only makes you more aware of your style. A program or algorithm can’t standardize or correct something as human (and as chaotic) as language, and nor should we expect it to.