Grammarly: The Robin to your Batman

J.R.McCulloch
6 min readFeb 6, 2022

Anyone who works with words knows that no one has time to read your stuff. Whether you’re a journalist, novelist or a copywriter trying to push a punch line for your client’s crispy cereal, what you’re offering is essentially a chore.

Maybe your stuff will get read — when it’s time to hit send, and everyone knows this is the one going in front of the client.

But that’s just the nature of writing. Do you want to know why client events aren’t held in libraries but art galleries? You can’t schmooze over the sound of someone reciting War and Peace.

Yet, nothing is as direct as written language. It communicates well, and it’s visually static — remaining on the page to return to again and again. It holds the post of being the official source of truth.

So while video attracts more eyeballs, written content remains relevant.

Why reading is such a chore

Reading is the interpretation of abstract symbols into understood concepts. We do it so automatically that we are not even aware of it half the time. This process happens at three (or four) levels;

> Letters

> Words

> Sentences

> Paragraphs

We interpret an abstract symbol as belonging to (in English) one of 26 letter characters — excluding other fun symbols for punctuating grammar or expressing our point!

S

When those letters run together, we convey our first idea — the word. In some instances, a single word with varying hand gestures is enough.

Soup

The sentence then gives our word context, positioning it in time and in relation to ourselves and the rest of the world.

I want some soup, please.

The paragraph then continues on that train of thought until it reaches its logical conclusion.

That’s a lot of work just for some soup!

Luckily, most of us understand these rules implicitly, even if we can’t vocalise why. Linguists such as Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct (1994) argue it’s because we have developed an instinct for it over the course of 1000’s of years. Our complex reasoning brains, needing to pass on information to others, instinctively ‘pick up’ language early on in our development.

Thriving on instinct

However, reading and writing are far from a perfect system. There’s a lot of potential ambiguity in creating meaningful exchanges which is exhausting for readers to interpret.

We’re energy-efficient. If our brains can take advantage of conveying meaning to someone else, who cares how we got there?

This is why people don’t want to read our stuff. Its labour intensive, forming all the necessary connections for language to work first. You then want people to point out and explain why they feel strongly about your Oxford comma? Not going to happen.

Where it gets better

Some of us wake up just to read and will read the ingredients on a tomato sauce packet if nothing else is around.

That’s because successfully interpreting abstract meaning creates a pleasing effect in the brain — you just understood something, well done you. Here are some endorphins.

Reading in that regard is like exercise. It hurts until it feels good.

Good writers are those who make their readers enjoy the exercise.

Getting to the point

Creating engaging content is very human. Few machines can understand what we want. So if you’re afraid that using a writing tool makes you look bad — get over it. You wouldn’t make fun of a carpenter using a spirit level because you think they should see straight. It’s just a tool — and like any tool, it’s about who uses it. You’ve got to understand the reasoning behind why Grammarly suggests a particular word or phrasing.

Think about it. Jarvis doesn’t control the Ironman suit — Tony Stark does. Jarvis is just a fancy, British sounding GPS.

Language is scientific

The rules behind grammar are pretty uniform, even if they’re often lost to the midst of time. We can learn them and apply them with effort. On the other hand, machines are great with rules — it’s kind of their thing.

We can input rules-language into machines because it’s rules-based. They have an absolute field day pointing out every instance where their programming said you should have done a thing and you didn’t.

What they can’t do is tell you what you meant. Intention is a very human drive, one we can’t pass on to any AI yet.

So, sentences = scientific.

Meaning = not so scientific.

Is Grammarly Canva for copywriters?

Heck no.

Canva is an excellent service for offering templates and quick designs for those who don’t have the time or budget to design their own work. If Canva were like Grammarly all it’d do is point out alignment issues in your design, unusual colour pairings or mismatching fonts.

It’s an assistant, like Robin. You’re still Batman here. Don’t forget you’re the decision-maker.

What does Grammarly do well?

Removes redundancies in sentences, picks up on tone and passive language, and restructures sentences to make the theme more apparent.

You’ve still got to steer it through. It has no clue what you’re driving at; AI’s aren’t that great yet. If you’re talking about a vendor named Chuck who sells hot dog on the moon, the only thing Grammarly will notice is that you’re missing an ’s’.

In conclusion

I like Grammarly, I think it’s a great piece of software, good for pointing out errors and inconsistencies. But it’s not to be trusted completely — you’ve still got to know what you’re doing.

My advice is to treat Grammarly like the company car. Get it, but only let the people who know how to drive the thing use it. It’s just another pair of eyes for when you’ve been looking at the screen far too long. And it saves you from making enemies out of everyone in the office by asking for ‘rigorous proofreading’.

P.S. I’m copyrighting Designerly, the tool that tells designers when the margins are off on their brochures.

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J.R.McCulloch

A literary student by nature (and training), with a splash of ad experience, I’m setting out to make passion my career — reading, writing and SF.