Why Grammarly is not the answer

Grammarly was designed mostly to be used in business rather than academic contexts, proving its service as a colonial project targeted to the teleology of late-stage capitalism.

Writing’s not that easy, but Grammarly can help. This sentence is grammatically correct, but it deviates in style, so it’s hard to read. The cultural jargon undermines the tone and the word choice is not standardised. Grammarly’s cutting-edge technology helps you craft sterile sentences that are perfect for a business environment under late-stage capitalism. Much better. 

As one of the University of Sydney’s many cost-cutting initiatives, the Writing Studies faculty will soon unceremoniously merge with the English department. The Writing Studies department’s offerings were inimitable – namely, courses that taught students how to write in a university setting. 2021 also saw the heavily-mourned death of the University of Sydney Learning Centre, a bolthole for students who relied upon essay-writing and academic writing style resources otherwise inaccessible to them. 

It’s fairly easy to journey through all of high school without ever learning how to write an essay, arriving at the front doorstep of university unsure how to skillfully string words together. This is especially the case for students who are first in their family to attend university, or for whom English is their second language. The Australian curriculum neglects instruction on writing, often leaving students to their own devices; teachers encourage formulaic exam-driven exercises such as rote memorisation of essay templates, worsening our relationship with writing practice.

A horde of students hungry for fundamental teaching at their doorstep is never a welcome sight for University management. Fortunately, academics aloft in the ivory tower stumbled upon a glimmering solution – to encourage usage of the automated written corrective feedback software, Grammarly. Grammarly’s advertisements portray a utopia where the software is a kind and perceptive friend, removing clunky adjectives and inverting syntax so the writer can achieve acclaim. But Grammarly is a poor replacement of writing facilities – it does not teach writing, it corrects. Surely university teaching staff know better than anyone that skills cannot be gained by having them done for you, rather than learning them yourself and making them your own. But that is at its best – and there are countless examples of Grammarly providing plainly incorrect suggestions due to the limitations of its technological code and inability to read context. 

I spoke to Toyah Webb, an English tutor at the University of Sydney. She explained the dichotomy of “descriptive” versus “prescriptive” grammar: linguists focus on ‘descriptive’ grammar, the study of the origins of language and its standard and nonstandard varieties. The latter approach formulates a set of grammatical norms and rules that is applied to writing to evaluate its accuracy. Where the ‘descriptive’ approach is observational, ‘prescriptive’ is imposing.  Grammarly relies upon prescription as a linguistic approach. Webb explains this is “at odds with how language works”, given linguistic evolution shapes language development, an understanding which is fundamentally different between descriptive and prescriptive approaches. To set strict rules governing language is to suffocate it, and to stunt its growth in the most harmful of ways.   

These correction methods also promote the conception of ‘good writing’. We uphold a binary of ‘good writing’ and ‘bad writing’ in literary discourse, despite there being no existence of a standardised English. This is distinct from other languages such as Arabic, wherein there is a formalised, standardised language consistent through extensive periods of history. Whereas, there have only ever been “Englishes” due to English’s use as a lingua franca; its beauty is that inherent to English is a constant evolution, a reflection of the people and communities which it occupies. Aspects of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writing are thus subjective, and unsurprisingly run on racial and class lines.

Asian-American writer Amy Tan broaches the concept of standardised English in her work, Mother Tongue, centering the concept of ‘broken’ English. The adjective ‘broken’ insinuates the existence of ‘whole’ English, furthering the fallacy of a standardised English, a concept which, unsurprisingly, most often comes up when it is being used as an oppressive tool. Connotations of damage contribute to the perception of correct and incorrect English, instilling shame in linguistic diversity. 

The imposition of linguistic prescription harmonises with imperialism, as the English dialect spoken by the powerful is the one that prevails. As language controls us and governs how we think, linguistic hegemony is one of the strongest ways to maintain power. The subjugation of linguistic minorities is achieved through the manufacture of a mass belief in the correctness of a dominant English, even if this belief is unfounded. The dominant form of English is also well-suited for the propagation of capitalism: the subject-verb-object structure establishes the primacy of the subject, often I, promoting individualism; perhaps this is best proven through the success rate of American political campaigns using the structure.

In a world afraid of ‘bad writing’, Grammarly polices linguistic experimentation and prevents play. Play is radical, especially when in the hands of marginalised communities for whom traditional literary institutions are inaccessible. In order to observe how Grammarly would interact with undeniably well-written works of literature, I inserted fragments into Grammarly Premium, which claims to cleverly comment on tone and voice.

For excerpts of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, Grammarly mostly takes issue with Vuong’s use of truncated syntax, as he omits verbs for a poetic descriptive flow. Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King is criticised for her sparse use of commas, an intentional structural choice to toy with time and movement. Grammarly suggests to Salman Rushdie that he should cut some of his grand sentences in Midnight’s Children in half, and advises Jonathan Safran Foer to remove some conjunctions in his depiction of overwhelming 9/11 trauma for clarity in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Obviously, Grammarly is unfit to edit creative works – but more broadly, Grammarly was designed mostly to be used in business rather than academic contexts, proving its service as a colonial project targeted to the teleology of late-stage capitalism. 

I pasted the contents of my article into Grammarly for good measure. I’ve used the passive voice; I’ve used wordy phrasing. I’ve split some infinitives. Whether this is to rebelliously diverge from the constrained concept of ‘good writing’, or is just pure laziness and bad prose, I’ll let you decide.