‘You’re never going to meet my standards, little boy.’
First, a confession: in order to write this review, Grammarly Inc. provided me with a free upgrade to a premium account. However, I remain unbiased for three reasons:
- When I attempted to use Grammarly Premium over a year ago to help proofread my novel, I gave up on it. I’m only now revisiting the software and it has a lot to prove.
- I’m not the kind of person that can be bought with a freebie.
- It’s taken me so long to get around to this review, my year’s free upgrade ended halfway through writing it. Luckily, I finished the Premium testing last week, but this review has only been checked by Grammarly Basic. (After reading my prose, you may decide Grammarly Premium is an essential purchase after all.)
As one of its most established players, Grammarly is the Old Dear of the automated grammar checking business and is used by students, legal eagles, and writers. I wanted to find out whether it was impossible to teach the premium edition to suck eggs or whether she’s an awkward ol’baggage only fit to bury.
Ye Olde Grammarly (the one with wrinkles and warts)
The previous version of Grammarly (circa 2013) was clunky and difficult to use. The Word plug-in was simplistic compared to the online version and most of its suggestions were unhelpful or just downright ungrammatical. The online version was useful, but cut and pasting an entire novel bit by bit to a webpage, losing the formatting, doing the corrections, cut and pasting it back into Word, and then reformatting everything was too soul destroying a process to contemplate.
Disappointed, I buried Grammarly and left her to be consumed by the bookworms. Her epitaph: ‘May she never see the light of day again.’
Grammarly V2—Mostly Reanimated?
The novel’s completion and a new computer meant a reinstallation of Grammarly to write this. I was pleasantly surprised. Gone was the smell of stale mothballs and this time she was independently mobile.
Installation and Design
Her Word plug-in installed without a problem. The design is cleaner, meaner, and looks like it means business. Integration with Word’s ribbon format is seamless, Grammarly being able to put her feet up on her very own tab. Poking her awake for the first time, you are greeted with an account login screen and a clear information about the functionality available—easy enough for your dog to follow.
The first selection to make is document ‘Type’. Over the years, Grammarly has seen a thing or two and she offers over thirty writing style templates, divided between General, Academic, Business, Technical, Medical, Creative (which includes General, Novel, Script, Short Story, non-fiction), and Casual. The choice genuinely seems to make a difference. Loading up a rough draft and changing the selection from the General (default) to Creative->Novel reduced the number of flagged errors by two thirds, allowing for the more varied styles encountered in long-form fiction writing. Selecting Casual reduced the count by another third. This is a useful option and allows the software to be tailored to different productivity needs.
Results with the core functions of Contextual Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation, Sentence Structure, Style, Vocabulary Enhancement, and Plagiarism were a mixed bag. Cantankerous, Grammarly does what she does and brooks no argument. She picked up many errors correctly, but there were plenty of mistakes. Some were introduced because of context—something Grammarly’s linear thinking isn’t always up to compared to the ability of a genuine human being. However, this is a common problem with using software and isn’t limited to Grammarly alone. Other ‘errors’ detected were not, in fact, errors and some suggestions introduced errors. And she missed stuff too, ‘your’ vs. ‘you’re’ being a favourite.
Overall, consulting the wisdom, oft-times wizdum, of Grammarly was like being offered Bertie Bott’s Many-Flavoured Jelly Beans—you never know what you’re going to get. Vague in her dotage as she is, is she helpful? Somewhat… it was like having a beta-reader with an intermediate level of expertise. If your English is awful, Grammarly will almost certainly improve it. If your English is good-to-excellent, incorporating every suggestion will land you with some cringeworthy wordage.
A Note on Style
Grammarly is a traditional, strict disciplinarian. If you are attempting a more formal style of writing, she will hold you to its conventions, which is a good thing for grades, promotions, and intimidating the neighbour who plays his stereo through the wall at 3am with a heavy-duty letter threatening legal action.
However, (or but) if you are writing more creatively/casually, follow her advice too closely and you risk your outflow lacking any freshness or zing. Like a fusty music mistress’ cane beating time on your knuckles along with the metronome, Grammarly may leave you wondering why you’re putting yourself through this and paying quite so much for the privilege.
Ease of Use and Speed
A major omission is a ‘jump to next error’ function—Grammarly’s not helpful like that and wants to put you through the rigours of scrolling through every page in your document. Why? Maybe it’s character building.
Otherwise, Grammarly is unashamed about her selective dementia and resulting monomania. A focus on one trick and a clean design means that it’s easy to get her to do what you want. All the menu options are laid out across a short run of labelled icons. From here, you can enable and disable the Word plug-in. Grammarly likes a little tipple and quickly becomes the life and soul of the party: small animated ‘waiting’ dots dance across one side of the screen as she starts counting. As her inebriation increases, she gets increasingly cantankerous, relishing keeping a bright-red running tally of all your mistakes. Putting her to sleep while you get on with the writing bit maintains the peaceful ambiance necessary for creativity.
It’s true Grammarly has been reanimated, but 10,000 volts and a bolt through the neck doesn’t an Olympic sprinter make. With zimmer frame rolling at full tilt, she managed to fully scan a document of 418 pages and 118,000 words about 2 ½ minutes. Not too bad you may think, but being a little senile she does this again every time the document loads. However, this was a quirk I could live with: make a drink while she has a think…
The real problem comes when the wheels fall off the zimmer. Short documents of a few thousand words or less are usually dentured through in a few seconds, which is lovely, but not always. Bafflingly, when confronted with a single A4 page of 490 words Grammarly sometimes refused to return any results until I logged out and back in again. After that, chastisements on grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, style, and plagiarism were near-instantaneous. Was this a one off? Unfortunately, no. We’ve already covered her dementia, and Grammarly needs to phone her family over that new-fangled internet thingy to access her store of knowledge. On several occasions, they were either out to lunch or the phone company was repairing the line, or something. Disabling and re-enabling Grammarly and logging in and out of the account had no effect; there were still no results after over 15 minutes. Instead a ‘Connecting…’ label (for some reason splashed in an even more distracting orange) displayed every minute or so. At other times she was doddery and struggled to catch up, the dancing waiting dots scrolling for several minutes after relatively minor additions/alterations to a document. I can only assume her lumbago fluctuated with the pressure on the barometer. One minute, everything was sunny and moving along nicely and it would stay like that for quite a while. Then, without explanation, the clouds would roll in, her mood turn sour, and that was it: all communication would cease, and with it any feedback.
Was she entirely to blame? I don’t know for sure but I took Grammarly out for a spin in a fairly nippy horseless carriage: a PC with a 4 core, hyper-threaded, 4 GHz CPU and 8 GB of RAM rolling along a newly tarmacked 30 Mb/s cabled internet connection that multi-device HD video streams perfectly happily on*. Due to differences in your transportation and local road conditions, your mileage may vary, but for me this was a major shortcoming. In-Word functionality comes from paying for a premium subscription and yet Grammarly frequently didn’t deliver on time. If you’re rushing that last-minute essay or report then using the website is likely to give quicker and more reliable results.
* Note: everyone else was out of the house during testing. Grammarly had a net fat-pipe to hog all to herself. It didn’t help.
Pricing and Overall Impressions
Should you take the time and spend the cash to get to know Grammarly? It depends on who you are and what you need. For formal writing, she’s most helpful, joyfully holding you to rigid form and function. But. She won’t always give you the right answers, so you need to check her reasoning which is given in quite technical terminology. If you understand it, you probably already know how to do the correction. If not, you’ll have to go and do your homework to be sure Grammarly knows what she’s talking about for each particular ‘error’ detected. For informal work, treat her as an inexpert proofreader who will find some problems with your MS. She may spot things you missed on your eighth read-through—just don’t take her advice as gospel.
Grammarly Premium would get a 3 star rating, BUT, and it’s a massive but, the connectivity issues with the server meant that correcting even short documents was sometimes impossible; not want you want with a deadline or a heavy workload. Grammarly’s ‘cheapest’ premium service isn’t cheap at nearly $12 (£7.50) a month**, and for me premium should not mean try again tomorrow. Compare that to Microsoft offering its entire Office suite for 5 PCs at under £7 a month** and Grammarly should be doing what it does brilliantly. It doesn’t. For that reason, I can only give the Word plug-in 2 stars.
** (Based on annual subscription rates, as of Oct 2014.)
The web-based version gets 3 stars, but long documents or those with extensive formatting are a real pain due to the repeated copy and pasting and reformatting in Word that’s needed.
Now my freemium period is over, I won’t be going premium. A shame really, as it would have been nice to get on with the creative part of writing and leave the minutiae to a friendly old lady with machine-like precision. But, too often, she just clutches her handbag tightly to her bosom and juts her chin in a clear show of ‘Shan’t!’
Looks like it’s back to the grind of crossing my Is and dotting my Ts and hoping human review will clear up any mess I leave behind.
Note: After finishing this, I checked it with Grammarly’s free ‘Basic’ online option and corrected three mistakes; another seven were contextual and were left alone… The free option does a fair, if limited, job and is worth adding to your writing arsenal.
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