I am human, therefore I write like one.
Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Grammarly. But here on Medium, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a reference to the writing improvement app (author’s note: I would never swing a dead cat. How did that even become a saying? Was there ever a craze for swinging dead cats? Was it a fad, like fidget spinners? Did everybody carry around a dead cat, casually swinging it as they went about their day, wishing they had more room to really wind up and give it a good spin without always hitting something?).
But I digress. According to Wikipedia:
Grammarly is an app that automatically detects potential grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, and style mistakes in writing, following common linguistic prescription. Grammarly’s algorithms flag potential issues in the text and suggest context-specific corrections for grammar, spelling, wordiness, style, punctuation, and plagiarism.
Every time I see the word algorithm, something deep down in my lizard brain goes on high alert. Algorithm is a robot word. It is cold, it is hard. Algorithms have no feelings. An algorithm will not hold you while you cry. Instead, it will stare at you with its unblinking electronic eye and decide — rationally, without emotion — whether you are exhibiting signs of system failure and should therefore be terminated.
Grammarly is an automated editor. It is the wash cycle of writing. It will take your words, spin them around, and clean them up. It was created in response to the internet’s insatiable need for clean, generic, undemanding copy. And if that’s what you do for a living — churn out loaf after loaf of tasteless Wonder Bread-style articles for mass consumption — more power to you.
But as far as I’m concerned, Grammarly can eat my shorts.
It’s bad enough that spell check has rendered entire swaths of my childhood obsolete. I look back at those countless hours spent sweating over spelling tests, and I could just cri. (I’m trying to be funny, spell check. Get a life.)
Now, unless you’re one of those lovable but clearly insane children competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, you do not need to know how to spell. You just need to be in the general vicinity of a word on a screen and then make an educated guess based on the choices that spell check offers up like a well-meaning but slightly befuddled friend trying to help you build an IKEA bookshelf (Maybe this? No? What about this. I bet this will fit.)
Admittedly, the Grammarly app is a boon to those who have great ideas that they want to share, but maybe not such a great gift with words, or punctuation, or grammar, or proofreading, or… you know, writer things. If there was an app that could suddenly make me ski without looking like an idiot, I’d probably be all for it.
Grammarly was created in response to the internet’s insatiable need for clean, generic, undemanding copy.
But what I’m most concerned about is the obvious next step. If an algorithm can decide the best sentence structure, how long before it doesn’t really need a human at all? Maybe in the future, you’ll just feed a vague idea into a program, and a polished article, complete with citations and context-specific images, will come out the other end.
Maxwell Perkins didn’t whip Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe into shape using an editing app. Their words and thoughts remained very particularly their own. Perkins didn’t try to make them all sound alike, nor did he bow to conventional wisdom as to what, at the time, made for a best-selling novel.
Good editing is ineffable. Hallelujah.
I don’t like reading mass-produced text. I don’t like reading stuff that reads like everything else I’ve read that day. I want to read something that sounds like it was written by a real person. Maybe (certainly) an imperfect person, but still, a human being.
Not an algorithm.