Sunday, January 25, 2015

Interview with Grammarly


I recently received an offer to try out the grammar correction program called Grammarly. On their website, Grammarly claims to make you a better writer by finding and correcting grammatical mistakes.

I downloaded the software and tried it out, but instead of reviewing it, I thought it would be interesting to interview a representative of the company by email. Mr. Mager, an online marketing analyst, agreed to my request. Before he sent his answers, he said he checked them with a colleague to verify that they were accurate.

JG: Would you briefly describe how Grammarly is different from other grammar-checking programs?

Grammarly offers automated grammar, spelling, and plagiarism checking. Its technology catches 10x more mistakes than Microsoft Word, while also offering unique features such as writing enhancement and citation suggestions. Grammarly regularly conducts tests to compare our algorithms against our competitors including Google. Our continuously improving machine learning algorithm always wins. A more recent defining element of Grammarly is its Chrome extension that will soon be available for Firefox and Safari later this year. The extension allows our users to have a grammar checker wherever they go on the internet from their emails to Facebook comments.

JG: Do you recommend a different prose style for print settings than you do for online settings?
Our linguists approach Grammarly with a classical, academic approach. We realize that context is vital to proper communication. A properly written sentence or paragraph can make the difference in receiving a passing or failing grade, job offer, or a good story. When writing with Grammarly, we offer seven categories and 32 different document types that range from short stories to business emails. With each document type, Grammarly applies different grammar rules and suggestions.

JG: How does the reading experience differ when we read text on a computer screen?
Last year, the Grammarly team ran a survey to get more information about this topic from our community of word nerds about their reading habits. We found that out of 6,744 responses, 79% preferred to read printed books versus e-books. Another survey showed that of 1,929 responses 39% would prefer their children read printed books while 11% preferred e-books and 34% of respondents simply wanted their kids to read! It is clear that there is a more positive experience with holding a paper book than looking at a screen.

JG: Should those differences change the way we think about writing for the computer?

The most important thing, about writing for the computer or print, is that we write with clarity and creativity. If readers can’t understand what we are writing, then our message is lost on them - no matter what we’re saying. What I have personally noticed is that writing in print is often more formal than online writing and written in long form. Online writing tends to be more succinct, with more paragraphs and bullets to break up thoughts. This is likely due to our shorter digital attention spans.


JG: I allowed Grammarly to evaluate the first paragraphs from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. According to Grammarly, each of them has issues with wordiness. Is that a false positive, a change in historical standards or a valid objection to their style?

Grammarly is not meant to critique works of art or classic literature. It is built around a powerful and an ever-evolving algorithm designed to provide students, professionals, and advanced language learners with an automated, cost-effective, accurate, and always-available online tool to help improve their written English skills. Through contextual guidance, users are empowered to make the final assessment of whether the feedback they’ve received fits the material being reviewed, enabling them to learn from their mistakes.

JG: How has using Grammarly changed your personal experience as a writer?
For me, Grammarly serves as an extra pair of eyes on my work. It keeps me aware of some common issues that I have with my writing and explains the grammar rules that I miss. This feedback has been helpful with the accuracy of my writing even when Grammarly isn’t available. I find when I write to my boss, family, or friends I can have more confidence and credibility behind my message.

JG: Given that you work at a web company that ferrets out mistakes in writing, do you find that your friends and family give you a hard time every time you make a mistake?
Yes! So much so, in fact, that one of us wrote a blog post about it: http://www.grammarly.com/blog/2014/email-presents-major-challenge/

I appreciate the challenge though. My writing wasn’t the best in school so as I pay more attention to how I speak and write, I see my communication improving every day.

JG: Forgive me, but you did make an error in your cover letter to me, saying, “stuck a chord” rather than “struck a chord.” That’s a hard one to catch given that you spelled each phrase correctly, and it was grammatical. Would Grammarly be able to find such a mistake if it used the kind of statistical algorithms that Google uses when it prompts alternate search phrasing?

Grammarly is able to pick up “stuck and struck” a chord and other contextual errors such as “there, their, they’re”, however we are still adding to the contexts that they can be found in. Our program is constantly learning, similar to the way Google uses its statistical algorithms, and while Grammarly is not yet perfect, we are still the leader in writing enhancement software.

JG: What thinking did you give to the manner in which Grammarly points out issues to the writer? I notice that it has a polite and helpful demeanor. If you had designed it differently, it might have appeared obnoxious or pedantic. What thinking went into that interface?

Grammar rules can be confusing to many people and are constantly evolving. Grammarly was created to provide an easy way for students, professionals, job seekers, and English language learners to become better, more accurate English language writers and help them learn and understand the rules of grammar. We’re not here as a grammar judge; rather, we want to be a resource. Our world-class designers and UX experts have played a big role in this as they obsess over every detail to create an easy, understandable interface for our users.

JG: What happens behind the scenes when the little Grammarly logo starts spinning around? Is the text being uploaded to your computers? Do you keep a copy of the writing? Do you ever share it with anyone else?

Our policy agreement provides detailed information about how Grammarly stores text, but I can tell you that we never share any writer's text publically. Behind the scenes, Grammarly's learning algorithms are constantly reviewing whether our tool is being applied in the right context or not -- that is how we can make continuous improvements.

[Note from JG: The Policy Agreement states: "By uploading or entering any User Content, you give Grammarly (and those it works with) a nonexclusive, worldwide, royalty-free and fully-paid, transferable and sublicensable, perpetual, and irrevocable license to copy, store and use your User Content in connection with the provision of the Software and the Services and to improve the algorithms underlying the Software and the Services."]

JG: Do you worry that the reliance on machine-based spell-check or grammar-check programs will blunt the attention that you devote to your writing or that it might sand off the corners of your personal style? (Grammarly didn't like me using the word "sand".)

Nice imagery. No, the great thing about Grammarly is that it was developed alongside English professors to be a passive learning tool. For each potential issue flagged by Grammarly’s algorithms, users receive a detailed explanation so they can make an informed decision about how, and whether, to correct the mistake. Our positive reviews from professional writers really speak for itself.

JG: How would you envision Grammarly five years from now? Please describe the kind of writing partner you’d like to see it become.

Grammarly’s core mission is improving lives by improving communication, and there is a lot in store over the next few years. One part of this is improving Grammarly’s algorithms to the level of a human proofreader. Every day, we get a little closer to that goal. The other part is integrating Grammarly more into people’s lives. This new plugin we recently launched for Chrome, and soon other browsers, is a big step to bringing our advanced grammar checker to where a majority of the world writes most. It is an exciting time to be here!
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Grammarly official website

10 comments:

Steve said...

Oh. I don't have a good feeling about this.

Since this activity is inherently about nit-picking, here are three sentences from Mr. Mager that, to my eyes, contain nits:

The most important thing, about writing for the computer or print, is that we write with clarity and creativity.

Wouldn't that sentence read with better tempo without the commas? Superfluous pauses undermine fluency.

Then there's this:

This new plugin we recently launched for Chrome, and soon other browsers, is a big step to bringing our advanced grammar checker to where a majority of the world writes most.

Seems to me the word following "step" should be "toward."

Finally, this:

It is built around a powerful and an ever-evolving algorithm designed to provide students....

The "an" prior to "ever-evolving" should go.

There were other examples, but we all know how nit-pickers are regarded by others.

Lindsay said...

This seems like a great invention for people with dyslexia, and others who have issues with grammar. I don't have dyslexia but I'm going to seriously consider getting this. I think there's a huge advantage to writing clearly.

Smurfswacker said...

So the payment for letting this program check your grammar is "worldwide, royalty-free and fully-paid, transferable and sublicensable, perpetual, and irrevocable license to copy, store and use" everything you write? It's as if a human copy editor, instead of charging you so much per hour or per page, demanded you assign him co-ownership of everything he proofreads. This is insane.

Chris Tozer said...

*publicly

Roberto Quintana said...

@ Smurfswacker … Well, That’s the ‘Deal’ isn’t it. Pretty much anything any of us posts online anywhere is up for grabs… Facebook, Google, Yahoo. Read the Policy agreements to almost any thing you do online. We are one huge ‘Sold Out’ society. -RQ

Steve said...

Indeed, "publically" was another nit.

David J Teter said...

I'll nit-pick the nit-picker just for fun ; )

@Steve
"The "an" prior to "ever-evolving" should go."

Should go where?
I didn't know words could go anywhere.

And Roberto is right, if we don't agree we can't do much online.

Roberto Quintana said...

Don't start nit-picken' my posts, or you won't get anything done;p -RQ

Jessica Yang said...

James, you may be interested in the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr if you have not already read it. Its title and subtitle ("What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains") make clear the overall thesis (although perhaps not in the way you would expect - a central theme is neuroplasticity and how our brains are literally rewiring for the internet age). The author has done a good deal of research into the cognitive science of reading and attention, and explored the ways in which the ways we read and write (and think!) are changed by the tools we use. Not a lengthy read, and certainly very interesting.

Personal thoughts on the "Grammarly" software: seldom a good idea. It reminds me of the automated essay-grading software that was announced with great fanfare and criticism many years ago, or actually of some of the digital art aids I'm reading about in my computer graphics class - tools designed to help that may become used as crutches that inadvertently stifle the creative evolution of ideas.

More generally, I am also hesitant about accepting the propagation of implicit cultural biases that always accompany such prescriptive tools. Programmers have immense influence over the very way we think and create in the digital world, but most of us - users and software developers - barely notice it. As a programmer myself, it's honestly sort of frightening to think about sometimes.

Lady Bird said...

I don't like those programs... Each author has his or her own style of writing which can be ruined by some "Grammarly"... I think this program can be perfect for some science work, diploma work, graduation project, but it should never be used by writers...