Lately, I’ve been thinking about what makes a great piece of work. How do you convey an idea so that it captivates an audience? Are we more concerned with brevity than we are artistic merit? Can we even put a value on fiction?
As an experiment, I thought I’d try an impartial bystander on some of my favourite classics, authors that are heralded as masters of the language. Written before the invention of the modern WordPress, the only resource they had to hand was a trusty Oxford Dictionary and possibly a second pair of eyes. So what will Grammarly, the ‘better way to write’ make of these established names in a central hellbent on clean, effective communication? Will their prose still stand up when put through the machine?
Word of caution
I tried to have as little involvement in editing these texts as possible. I was often forced to interpret Grammarly’s suggestions significantly when rewriting long or passively worded sentences. Grammarly also struggled with a few stylistic things, including the approbation of ‘Mr’ with a full stop and the ending of dates with ‘-’ to indicate an uncertain date. Lastly, I changed everything to one rigid grammatical rule, standard English spelling.
So, here are a select six from a bunch of authors reviewed. I’ve put the original and the new version side by side for review.
More descriptions were reduced in this passage, including the pinion loft. Conjoined words were discouraged, and passivity, particularly around the five coaches, had to be rewritten.
This piece has a lot of technical language and names in it, but with that aside, the most common mistake was with correctness, altering terms and language features to fit.
Overall, nine critical mistakes were noted and sixteen mistakes in total.
I was surprised just how much was cut out of this — Grammarly seems to have a lot against long descriptions in basic mode. The repetition of the sun returning also shows that the software can’t spot every repetition.
Aside from the massive cuts to paragraphs two and four and the rewording of some of the language surrounding the wolf in paragraph one, a lot remains unchanged. Grammarly suggested seven critical mistakes and twenty-three mistakes in total, with some being American spellings. It also corrects the name McGurry.
Clarity was the main issue, with long descriptive passages that Grammarly thought could use more unique adjectives.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This is quite possibly one of the terrifying stories I have read on a purely psychological level and deserves its own article. I was surprised to see that engagement was down for this story, possibly because the speaker is uncertain and timid by nature, so there are a few more stops and starts. However, Grammarly can’t match stylistic choices, so it demands the same confident tone of voice for all sentences.
Overall, says Grammarly, Charlotte suffers from three critical mistakes and fourteen mistakes in total.
Not much difference, but you can see where Grammarly has forced Charlotte to be more direct or has reordered her words.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Clarity is the issue at hand (supposedly) with Stevenson. Grammarly, in particular, objected to his passive sentences, especially in the first paragraph, which meant much rewriting. Long sentences were also broken into two. The effect is that it’s still Stevenson, but a bit more awkward for trying to avoid being passive constantly.
Gendered language terms were, of course, removed.
Stevenson made eight critical mistakes and thirty-seven overall, with clarity being an issue.
How could I neglect Wells, the socialite of his time! According to Grammarly, though, he suffers the most from correctness issues. His prose is too wordy and unprecise, and his language too passive.
Reading back over the altered passage, though, I can’t find much wrong with it, and it still reads very much like Wells. The main difference is the passive third paragraph, which I had to fix by awkwardly bringing it into the present tense.
Overall, Wells had ten critical mistakes and thirty-one mistakes in total — but that’s also due to the slightly larger size of his paragraphs in this extract.
Charles Dickens — Great Expectations
How could you not include this man, even if he does predate the others by many decades? Despite this, I expected Dickens to perform the best — he writes tight sentences when not playing with stylistic features.
Still, Dicken’s sentences were too long, with some getting shortened and turned into two separated points. The first sentence of the second paragraph had to be broken down, passages rephrased, and heavy content words removed, a problem also with Stevenson and Wells.
Clarity is Dicken’s most significant issue because of the duel ideas included in one sentence. Still, he’s hardly as wordy as Stevenson, four critical mistakes were noted and twenty-three mistakes in total.
I’m surprised just how well these authors have held up. The edited texts are still notably theirs, and entire sentences go on without the need for editing. Clearly, language isn’t an issue.
What was far more difficult for me was the program's constant insistence on using the active voice and keeping sentences down to a minimum. The software also fails to pick up that ‘this’, directly following a sentence explaining what ‘this’ is, is fine. Working around these stringent rules leads to some clumsy attempts at keeping to the author’s original intent.
Some word choices are also unusual, but I don’t entirely object to the adjectives swapped out in London’s passage about the wolf.
This experiment has taught me that it’s nearly impossible to stick to those strict language guides that Grammarly insists keep readers engaged. It’s also not always desirable — sometimes the passive voice is needed, or a content word brings life to a dull sentence.
But nice try, Grammarly.