American Grammar Checkup: Grammarly vs. Humanly

Many readers know that I am a columnist with BIZCATALYST 360°, having been invited onto the platform by its founder and editor in chief, Dennis Pitocco. I love being part of the diversity of writers there, so thank you, Dennis!

Of course, as an editor / copyeditor myself, it’s been interesting (aka humbling) sending my articles to Dennis. What would he think of my efforts?

Well, so far so good. He’s rarely made any changes, except for the titles and the pictures, both of which are always far better than mine were.

So I was surprised to see a tiny change in a recently published article I wrote on ways to improve relationships by using specific words to help someone else still feel valued, even when that person has made an error that needs to be addressed.

I noticed a comma in a sentence I hadn’t put there, so I asked Dennis about it.

Yes. I really did. Yes. I’m that picky. I am a true PITA about such things.

He wrote back saying that the content editor – Grammarly – must have added it; he surely hadn’t.

Oh, boy. Had I missed something that Grammarly picked up?

Rereading the sentence, I realized that Grammarly made that choice based on a word – however – that often triggers a punctuation need but shouldn’t have here. I used it as the specific dictionary word that it is, even italicizing it so readers would understand.

Grammarly didn’t notice.

Of course:

  1. Grammarly is a software program created to help writers with basic punctuation rules and usage. It does not think; it reacts to specific words in places where a punctuation rule could come into play. Yes, it makes suggestions, but for a writer who is unfamiliar with the rules, there’s potential for agreeing / disagreeing with something out of ignorance.
  2. Grammarly is not a human, so it cannot converse with authors to learn the underlying reasons for constructions that may affect the choice of punctuation.
  3. Grammarly is a lot like spellcheck – useful where it is, but not for what it wasn’t programmed or hasn’t learned to do.

Here’s my original sentence:

(No, you may NOT use however; it’s nothing more than a bigger but.)

Here’s what Grammarly thought was correct:

(No, you may NOT use, however; it’s nothing more than a bigger but.)

There are several rules about using punctuation with words like however, but their sole focus is how the words function in a sentence, not their meaning.

The four usual functions are:

  1. An introductory word.

However, we normally do not use that word.

  1. A transitional expression linking two separate complete sentences.

That is something you should NOT use; however, if you must, remember that it’s nothing more than a bigger but.

  1. An afterthought.

No, you may NOT use that, however; it’s nothing more than a bigger but.

  1. An interrupter in a single sentence.

No, you may NOT use that, however, because it will change the meaning of your sentence.

And if you look at #3, you’ll see how close Grammarly came to being right; the sentence just needed one more word to allow for the comma: that.

So, Grammarly and other programs can help, but please remember that they’re limited by their programming and the suggestions the writer accepts or ignores. Of course, the writer has to know the rules first, right?

And I can hear you now: But, Susan! Human editors aren’t perfect either!

True. But at least we can think beyond the obvious, we can ask questions to find out what the author’s trying to say, we can check context, and we can suggest the proper punctuation to showcase the author’s thoughts, even occasionally allowing something that doesn’t follow proper grammar rules, just to make the right point.

All in all, I vote for human editors to be part of the equation.

What are your thoughts here? Have you used Grammarly or any other editing software? Have you ever worked with a human editor / copyeditor / proofreader? What were your experiences with them?


Susan Rooks
Susan Rooks
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented.

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  1. Wait – you mean software isn’t always right? Who knew 😉 this reminds me of something I found a while back. Will try to find it and publish it into NGage … if you are reading this and wondering what NGage is – ping me and I’ll let you know.

  2. I have another, very good friend who writes and edits for a living and she recommended Grammarly to me. However, (yes, pun intended) I refuse to use anything other than spellcheck because I don’t want to be unduly influenced. Also, if I publish a mistake, it will have a greater impact on my future writing.
    Admittedly, I do use Microsoft Word and quite frequently depend on Shift F7 (its thesaurus). I did feel guilty at one point but it helps me especially when there are subtle differences and I can’t immediately come up with the word.
    That said, I would never argue or protest anyone’s use of Grammarly; it’s just something I set up for myself.
    P.S, the online spellcheck saved me from misspelling Grammarly!

    • And you know I didn’t say not to use Grammarly, right, John? Just be realistic about its abilities! And, of course, your editor’s … 🙂