Poetry and Prose, Computers and Code

Back in February, I analyzed WordPress’s automated grammar checker, After the Deadline, by running some famous and well-regarded pieces of prose through it. I found the program lacking. What I wrote was:

If you have understood this article so far, you already know more about writing than After the Deadline. It will not improve your writing. It will most likely make it worse. Contrary to what is claimed on its homepage, you will not write better and you will spend more time editing.

I think my test of After the Deadline proved its inefficiency, especially since I noticed that the program finds errors in its own suggestions. Talk about needing to heed your own advice…

A comment by one of the program’s developers, Raphael Mudge, however, got me thinking about what benefit (if any) automatic grammar checkers can offer. Mr. Mudge noted that the program was written for bloggers so running famous prose through it was not fair. He is right about that, but as I replied, the problem with automated grammar checkers really lies with the confidence and capability of writers who use them:

[The effect that computer grammar checkers could have on uncertain writers] is even more important when we think of running After the Deadline against a random sample of blog posts, as you suggest. While that would be more fair than what I did, it wouldn’t necessarily tell us anything. What’s needed is a second step of deciding which editing suggestions will be accepted. If we accept only the correct suggestions, we assume an extremely capable author who is therefore not in need of the program. As the threshold for our accepted suggestions lowers, however, we will begin to see a muddying of the waters – the more poorly written posts will be made better, but the more well written posts will be made worse. The question then becomes where do we draw the line on acceptions to ensure that the program is not doing more harm than good? That will decide the program’s worth, in my opinion.

As it turns out, after that review of After the Deadline, I was contacted by someone from Grammarly, another automated grammar checker. For some reason they wanted me to review their program. I said sure, I’d love to, and then I promptly did nothing. In truth, I was sidetracked by other things – kids, work, beer, school, the NHL playoffs, more beer, and recycling. So much for that.

Now R.L.G. over at the Economist’s Johnson blog has a post about these programs and a short discussion of Ben Yagoda’s review of Grammarly at Lingua Franca, a Chronicle of Higher Education blog. I want to quickly review these posts and add to my thoughts about these programs.

First, R.L.G. rightly points out that “computers can be very good at parsing natural language, finding determiners and noun phrases and verb phrases and organising them into trees.” I’m happy to agree with that. Part-of-speech taggers alone are amazing and they open up new ways of researching language. But, as he again rightly points out, “Online grammar coaches and style checkers will be snake oil for some time, precisely due to some of the things that separate formal and natural languages.”

Second, Mr. Yagoda’s review of Grammarly is spot on. (I’m impressed by how much he was able to do with only a five day trial. They gave me three months, Ben. Have your people call mine.) Not to take anything away from Mr. Yagoda, but reviewing these checkers is like shooting fish in a barrel because they’re pretty awful. A rudimentary understanding of writing is enough to protect you from their “corrections”. But it’s the lofty claims of these programs that makes testing them irresistible to people like Mr. Yagoda and myself.

So who uses automated grammar checkers and who could possibly benefit from them? The answer takes us back to the confidence of writers. Obviously, writers like RLG and Ben Yagoda are out of the question. As I noted in my comment to Mr. Mudge, the developer of After the Deadline, “a confident writer doesn’t need computer grammar checkers for a variety of reasons, so it’s the uncertain writers that matter. They may have perfect grammar, but be lead astray by a computer grammar checker.” It’s even worse if we take into account Mr. Yagoda’s point that “when it comes to computer programs evaluating prose, the cards never tell the truth.”

We do not have computers that can edit prose, not even close. What we have right now are inadequate grammar checkers that may be doing more harm than good since the suggestions they make are either useless or flat out wrong. They are also being peddled to writers who may not be able to recognize how bad they are. So there’s a danger that competent but insecure writers will follow the program’s misguided attempts to improve their prose.

It’s strange that Grammarly would ask Mr. Yagoda or myself to review their program since Mr. Yagoda is clearly immune to the program’s snake oil charm and I wasn’t exactly kind to After the Deadline. But such bad business decisions might prove helpful for everyone. Respected writers will point out the inadequacy of these automatic grammar checkers, which will hopefully influence people to not use them. At the same time, until these programs can really prove their worth – or at least not make their inadequacy so glaringly obvious – they will not receive any good press from those who know how to write (nor will they get any from lowly bloggers like myself). In this case, any press is not good press since anyone reading R.L.G. or Ben Yagoda’s discussion of automated grammar checkers is unlikely to use one, especially if they have to pay for it.

[Update – Aug. 9, 2012] R.L.G. at Johnson, the Economist’s language blog that I linked to above, heard from Grammarly’s chief executive about what the program was meant for (“to proofread mainstream text like student papers, cover letters and proposals”). So he decided to put Grammarly through some more tests. Want to guess how it did? Check it.

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The Problem with Computer Grammar Checkers [Updated]

When I moved this blog over to WordPress, I noticed that under the Users > Personal Settings page there is an option to turn on a computer proofreader. The program is from Automattic (the same people that make WordPress) and it’s called After the Deadline. While an automatic proofreader isn’t anything spectacular in itself, the grammar and style mistakes that this proofreader can supposedly prevent you from making are eye-popping:

bias language, cliches, complex phrases, diacritical marks, double negatives, hidden verbs, jargon, passive voice, phrases to avoid, and redundant phrases.

It’s an impressive looking list, but anyone with even mediocre writing skills and experience with computer proofreaders is likely to be wary. How often has Microsoft Word mistakenly underlined some of your text? How many times has your smartphone autocorrected you into incomprehension?

The thing is, when presented with such a list, even a confident writer couldn’t be blamed for being curious. Are you unwittingly making grammar mistakes in your carefully crafted prose? Have you been straying outside the accepted limits of complex and redundant phrases? Are there verbs hiding in your text? And holy shit, what the hell are diacritical marks?

Let’s put those ridiculous questions aside for a moment. Many people have pointed out what’s wrong with automatic spelling and grammar checkers. What I want to do here is show you why there are problems with these programs by using some highly regarded prose.

Let’s fire up the incinerator.

"To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf*

At the first green line, After the Deadline suggests, “Did you mean… ‘its fine tomorrow?’” Things are not off to a good start. The three other green lines warn me (or Ms. Woolf) about the Dreaded Passive Voice™. The blue line suggests that “Complex Expression” be changed to “plans.”But perhaps the worst suggestion is given by clicking on the red line – “Did you mean… ‘sense,’ ‘cents,’ ‘scents?’” Moving on…

"Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen

The blue line is another “Complex Expression,” which After the Deadline suggests be changed to “way.” That’s not so bad. The green line, however, is (according to the proofreader) an example of a “Hidden Verb.” What’s a hidden verb, you ask? As the After the Deadline explains, “A hidden verb (aka nominalization) is a verb made into a noun. They often need extra words to make sense. Strong verbs are easier to read and use less words.” But this doesn’t make any sense. Constant had not been nominalized, while had is one of the most common (and easiest to read) verbs in English. I’m told to “revise ‘had a constant’ to bring out the verb,” but I don’t know what that means. Alert readers will begin to see the problem here. So will everyone else.

"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

Here’s the Dreaded Passive Voice™ again. Geoffrey Pullum would have a fit with this program (comments are open, Geoff! Let us know how you really feel!). I guess the proofreader wants me to change the sentence to something like, “So I called myself Pip, and people called me Pip?” It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair

All I really need to say here is that the second green line says “Hyphen Required” and suggests I change the phrase to “out-of-the-way.” Really? Yes, really.

To be sure, I ran some other styles of writing through After the Deadline, such as Pulitzer Prize winners, and got the same results. You’re welcome to run anything you want through there, but I got $20 bucks saying you’re going to get the same nonsense I did.

Getting back to those ridiculous questions, the answers are all irrelevant. If you have understood this article so far, you already know more about writing than After the Deadline. It will not improve your writing. It will most likely make it worse. Contrary to what is claimed on its homepage, you will not write better and you will spend more time editing.

I can’t believe anyone except the most inexperienced writers would be fooled by After the Deadline’s “corrections.” This isn’t exactly surprising when it comes to grammar checkers because they are at best useless and at worst harmful. But the way in which we rely on technology threatens to undermine our own writing. Insecure writers might be tricked into believing that After the Deadline’s suggestions are legit. And that is the real problem with these programs. Their potential to do more harm than good is a ratio approaching one since it’s almost impossible for them to do good.

Finally, I’d just like to add that when I used After the Deadline on this post, two terms were underlined in the explanation of hidden verbs:

“A hidden verb (aka nominalization) is a verb made into a noun. They often need extra words to make sense. Strong verbs are easier to read and use less words.”

The program says that nominalization isn’t a word and that I should write “fewer words” instead of “less words.” But that is a quote from the program itself! If even the makers of After the Deadline can’t (or won’t) follow their own guidelines, why should you?

And so I have decided to destroy the machine. Feeding this next piece of prose into your grammar checker is equivalent to setting its controls for the heart of the sun.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

 

[Update – Feb. 28, 2011] It’s always nice when someone with first-hand knowledge weighs in on the discussion. In this case, former After the Deadline developer Raphael Mudge was kind enough to stop by and leave his thoughts, to which I responded below.

[Update – Mar. 16, 2012] I heard from the WordPress staff about why they chose to incorporate After the Deadline into their software. Actually, I was directed to the post on the WordPress.com blog about the incorporation. I’m a bit disappointed in this, however. First, although the WordPress staff tells me that “There are many reasons to explain why we chose this service to help WordPress.com users with their writing, but you can read our announcement post for the full details,” their post is not full of “details.” Second, neither the email I got nor the WordPress blog post addresses any of the problems with automatic grammar or spell checkers. Oh well.

But most importantly, I don’t think the author of the post is serious when he says he “was blown away” by After the Deadline. Did he run his own post through there? What the hell did it look like before he did? And why didn’t he accept all of the suggestions? And judging by the comments on the post, when will a psychologist do a study with an automatic grammar checker with incorrect suggestions just to see how blindly people will obey their master?

By the way, running this update through AtD underlines “incorporate,” “was directed,” and “all of the.” Feel free to guess why if you really have nothing better to do.

 

 

 

*So much for only using said to carry dialogue, amIright, Elmore? Way to go, Virginia, you dope.