To check or not to check — should you use a grammar checker?

Earnsy Liu | December 5, 2023

You want to make sure your important report is error-free, but how do you check for errors? Should you use a grammar checker?

Typically, grammar checkers give prompt feedback on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They highlight possible issues but don’t aim to teach grammar. If they find errors, they may explain the relevant grammar rule and suggest a correction.

Sometimes they also check style. For example, they may point out passive voice and overused words (description adapted from Cavaleri and Dianati). Examples include Grammarly and the one built into Microsoft Word.

How good are grammar checkers really? We dived into a few journal articles to see what some recent research says. The speed of change these days means we can’t be sure all findings still apply, but we think they’ll still be helpful overall.

Two men discussing something on a laptop screen.

Grammar checkers can be helpful, but they have limitations. Being able to assess their feedback is important, as is the human touch. Image by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash licence

Grammar checkers can be helpful

Grammar checkers:

Go ahead and use a grammar checker if you find it useful, but you need to know they have weaknesses, and none of them are perfect.

They don’t always find the right mistakes

Several studies commented on accuracy. Grammar checkers certainly don’t find all errors. That means not only would errors remain, but users might repeat those errors.

One study found that only 4 in 5 ‘errors’ were really errors — 1 in 5 was fine! That could mean users ‘fix’ things that don’t need fixing. The three grammar checkers in the study missed between 1 in 20 and 3 in 10 of the errors. (In case you’re wondering, the grammar checkers found different errors — they weren’t all good at finding some errors and bad at finding others.)

Download John and Woll’s study from ResearchGate (PDF, 500KB)

They don’t always give the right advice

In the study above, grammar checkers gave wrong advice between 1 in 20 times and roughly 3 in 10 times. (Yes, those are the same numbers as above).

If you’ve grown up with a language and someone gives you language advice, you’ll probably have an inkling of whether their advice is right. However, as researchers John and Woll put it, second-language users ‘…are more or less at the mercy of the software. Arguably, they are thus more susceptible to being misled, which may result in confusion, frustration and, paradoxically, more error.’

They can overwhelm

Grammar checkers point out mistakes. But, unlike people, they can’t decide to minimise feedback if there’s too much, or if comments are repetitive. One study found the software made more than twice as many comments as the average human reviewer (though two people made even more comments in one case).

Too much feedback can discourage and overwhelm. Remember those times in school when you got an essay back covered in comments?

Complexity can be an issue too. The program used technical terms like impersonal pronoun, run-on squinting modifier, comma splice, and more. Sheesh. How many people know what those are?

Download Dembsey’s study from The Online Writing Centers Association (PDF, 950KB)

Adding the human touch might be the answer

Grammar checkers aren’t all bad, but being able to discuss feedback with someone can be more helpful. In one study, staff helping students with writing described the program as a ‘starting point’. The staff improved the feedback by removing inaccurate or unnecessary suggestions, and by filling in gaps.

Read O’Neill and Russell’s study in the Journal of Academic Language and Learning

We know that in-person feedback isn’t always possible or realistic, so you may want to use a grammar checker to do some of the work for you. Improving your grasp of the language would make it easier for you to understand the advice you’re getting, and give you a better feel for what advice is right.

Get that human touch

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Read the full article

If you’d like more details, here’s our original article.

Do grammar checkers improve writing? — TechCommNZ

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