Do Automated Grammar Checkers Spell Doom for Copy Editors?


Not long ago, I turned the car radio to a local NPR station and caught the second half of a story about computers writing poetry. The expert they quoted, whose name I didn’t catch, said he believed that he will live to see a computer become a top poet.

I had just seen the movie “Her,” in which a man falls in love with a highly sophisticated operating system. Its premise didn’t seem so implausible to me. With that movie fresh in my mind, neither did the idea of a computer that crafts words into art expressing the human experience.

And that’s when it hit me: My skill set will expire. If computers can write poetry, surely they’ll be able to do everything a copy editor does, probably better.

I had never worried about this much. Microsoft Word’s grammar checker certainly doesn’t make me feel threatened. The technology is weak and the information it's been fed is even weaker. For example, when I run the grammar checker on a document with the sentence “She is the oldest of the two,” the software flags it with the warning “Comparative use,” presumably because whoever programmed it was victim to the myth that superlatives like “oldest” can’t be used for groups of just two; for comparisons between two, the myth goes, you need the comparative “older.” That’s not true. But don’t tell grammar checker that.

I’ve seen a lot of ads lately for Grammarly, a program that claims to be much better at fixing your grammar. Because that company is trying to sell itself as, well, worth buying, it seems better positioned to someday put copy editors like me in the unemployment line.

But has that someday arrived? To find out, I entered some text in the Try Grammarly Now box on its website, which was supposed to show how well the program can fix whatever writing you paste into the box. I wanted to know how good Grammarly was at assessing not grammar errors per se, but poor writing choices. So I entered the sentence:

“While Joe attended Harvard, he never went on to a successful career.”

The word “while” is a good example of why copy editors have value. It can mean either “during the time that” or “although.” But it creates problems because people often use it in the “although” sense not realizing it could be misread to mean “during the time that.”

So in this sentence, “While Joe attended Harvard” momentarily sounds like we’re going to talk about something that happened when Joe was a student. But the second of half of the sentence describes what happened after he graduated. So that “while” could lead some writers down the wrong path and is exactly the type of thing I would fix.

Would Grammarly catch it? I pasted the whole sentence into the box and hit “Check your text.”

Here’s Grammarly’s analysis: “This text is too short. Grammarly needs more context to accurately detect mistakes.”

Looks like I won’t be applying for that greeter job at Walmart just yet.

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One Response to “Do Automated Grammar Checkers Spell Doom for Copy Editors?”

  1. Nice to hear, Vicki!