I’ll be the first to admit it: my spelling acumen leaves something to be desired. As part of the generation who began writing via word processing at an early age, I learned I could always count on red squiggly lines to catch my misspellings. Things haven’t improved much as I’ve gotten older. In the connected smartphone era, adaptive and intelligent auto-correct usually fixes my mistakes before I even notice them. What’s next? An app lets me off the hook if I fail to form a grammatically sound sentence? As it turns out, yes.

I’ve been using Grammarly to help catch mistakes in emails and to give my academic and professional writing a second pair of (electronic) eyes for about four months.
Grammarly is available and most useful as a free browser extension. It can also be installed as a standalone Mac app and as an add-in to Microsoft Office in Windows. The free version checks for spelling and basic grammar issues. You can also subscribe to the Premium version, which is frankly pretty expensive but does add some extra functionality to the free apps. Either way, as you write Grammarly adds comments and suggested corrections to the margins of your work. An explanation of the grammatical principles involved and what you might do to improve are always available via a pop-out “card” that can be expanded with a click.

To give you an idea of the types of differences you might see, I ran an early draft of this post through both the free and paid versions. The free app caught all spelling errors and obvious grammatical issues such as incorrect conjugations. The paid version detects additional potential problem areas. In this case, Grammarly scolded my use of the passive voice, accused a paragraph of “excessive wordiness,” and reprimanded me for writing a sentence fragment.

In my use, I’ve found Grammarly to offer the greatest utility in semi-formal writing scenarios such as composing an email at work or writing in a forum in an online class, probably because the browser extension works online in the tools I tend to use for these purposes. In Gmail, Office 365 mail, on forums, and even when writing in the WordPress text editor, Grammarly rides shotgun and offers a helping hand in real time.

Where I tend to do more serious writing – in the Mac version of Word or Google Docs – Grammarly is not natively supported. So, I tend to write as I always have, revising and correcting as I go and proofing the document myself. Then I send the finished piece to Grammarly as if I’m submitting it to an editor.

This dual-use system seems to be working reasonably well. At work, the number of trivial but embarrassing mistakes left in my emails seems to be on the decline. When you’re always pressed for time and trying to keep many responsibilities balanced, it’s easy to overlook a typo, a repeated word, or a forgotten apostrophe. Grammarly lets me focus on crafting a message and getting my point across without worrying too much about looking unprofessional.

In my more involved writing, using Grammarly as a review tool keeps it from distracting me from the writing process. At best, by helping me catch repeated mistakes, it does offer useful feedback and an idea of bad habits to work on or misconceptions to correct.

I do wonder, though, if those worrying about the gradual erosion of foundational but mechanical writing skills are missing a bigger idea. Perhaps the need to learn fussy punctuation and syntax to the point of automaticity is becoming antiquated. There will probably always be people who enjoy preoccupying themselves with correct grammar, but there are people that enjoy horseback riding and churning their own butter, too.

In an ideal world, can the delegation of spelling and grammar to artificial copy-editors leave us free to devote our attention to the art of writing and the craft of meaning-making? Or does the endless march of automation mean that our ability to form a coherent thought without help from a computer is next on the chopping block? I don’t know, but as a harried grad student and technologist who feels like I’m typing all day, I’m willing to take one for the team and find out.