Grammarly Spell Checker: A Review

Let’s be honest. We’ve all written something in error—either accidentally or negligently. Spell checkers and autocorrecters have become integrated into our digital lives, and not always for the better.

grammarlyRecently, Nik Baron at Grammarly, a spell checker company, reached out to me and gave me a two-week paid subscription to Grammarly to test and review it.

My first order of business was to read other reviews. I wanted to see what others had to say and find some interesting features to look for. Unfortunately, I was not met with positive reviews by grammar sites: “Grammarly doesn’t do all it claims to do” (Grammarist) and “$140 will buy a lot of well-written and edited books. Caveat scriptor.” (The Economist).

Test One: Pre-written Paper
My first test was uploading a pre-written paper. It was one I wrote and submitted to a college class about 10 years ago. This paper was reviewed by me several times prior to submission for mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.); but since it was just a reflection piece on a project, it was not necessary to have pristine mechanics like one would have on a term paper. Nevertheless, prior to running it by Grammarly’s checker, I thought it was pretty good.

After running it through the checker, I’m embarrassed to say I turned it in! My paper had a score of 78/100, with 16 “critical issues”. Right off the bat, 9 of them were now (10 years and two degrees later) obvious mistakes. These were mostly comma or hyphenated word errors. Whoops.  But there were still 7 of them that I didn’t really agree on.

Some of these critical issues were instances in which I purposefully broke style convention to make a point or word choice. In the instances of word choice, the checker wanted to exchange “aforementioned items” to “items above” or “items mentioned earlier” or “items as mentioned above”. Personally, I think “aforementioned items” is less wordy. Perhaps it thought I used too many syllables? It also did not like the phrase “their own strange group” and wanted me to delete “own”. Perhaps in the phrase it sounds okay, “their strange group”, but it sounds odd to me in the full sentence, “I thought they were their strange group that did not fit anywhere.”

Despite having a few issues with the uploaded document, I still wanted to like Grammarly. It found many punctuation mistakes that Microsoft Word did not. Unfortunately, when I downloaded my edited version, it opened in Microsoft Word with a bunch of comment bubbles, some indicating what I deleted, others just indicating deletions that I didn’t make. It seems like a waste of time to edit a document and then have to go through again and accept all the comment bubbles.

Test Two: Plagiarism
One of the comments in the reviews I mentioned above was that the plagiarism checker did not catch plagiarized statements. Or, if they did, it was from a published book. So, for my second test, I tested the plagiarism checker by thinking like a tech-savvy student. I copy and pasted the first paragraph from the To Kill a Mockingbird Wikipedia page.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

The software detected that the work was “unoriginal” and gave me a link…to Wikispaces. I guess the Wikipedia page has some un-cited plagiarism. Grammarly also gave me the MLA, APA, and Chicago style citations that I could use instead of rewording the unoriginal work. Neat.

But you know, tech-savvy students aren’t dumb enough to just copy and paste word for word…they use synonyms! Unfortunately, this is still plagiarism. I ran the same sentence with a few word order changes and synonyms that either Microsoft Word recommended or the first synonym that came to mind. I did not change any punctuation or check for grammar. This was the new paragraph:

To Kill a Mockingbird is a book published by Harper Lee in 1960. It was instantaneously popular, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a standard in modern American literature. The story line and characters are roughly based on the author’s own observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an incident that transpired near her hometown in 1936, when she was ten years old.

Grammarly found the second half of the paragraph to be plagiarized from “The story line…” to “ten years old”. It did not, however, recognize the first half as being plagiarized, even though the YouTube source contained it.

Grammarly’s website claims that its plagiarism checker “finds unoriginal text by checking against a database of over 8 billion webpages.” Huh…only webpages? A few teachers do require book sources now and then.

I grabbed the nearest book, Origin by Jessica Khoury, and randomly opened to a page. I typed a few sentences into the checker from page 83.

I watch his every move with fascination. Questions surge to my lips, batter at my teeth. I want to know everything about him. Where does he sleep? What does he eat? Has he been to a city? Does he have friends? But I feel unusually shy and don’t know what to say.

What do you know…Grammarly didn’t catch it. It just recommends changing “his” to “him”. Umm, no. A possessive pronoun is correct here, not an object pronoun.

Test one: FAIL. Test two: FAIL. I see no reason to continue testing, based upon my results corroborating The Economist and Grammarist reviews. If you’ve installed the browser add-on or the Microsoft Word plugin for Grammarly and would like to leave a review in the comments, please do so.

Unfortunately, Grammarly’s checker isn’t fool-proof. You still need to know what you’re doing and be ready to defy yet another spelling/grammar checker. It may be helpful for students and teachers, but I do not see the value of paying for Grammarly’s spell checker when Google and Microsoft are free and are already decent spell checkers.

Guest Post: Technology Replaces Spelling and Grammar Lessons In The 21st Century

Guest Post By: Chassie Lee 

A spellchecker will usually help you communicate. It will identify or even autocorrect any misspellings and typos you make – but it’s not perfect, and without oversight mistakes will still slip through. However, as the applications get smarter, we’ve come to rely on them more and more.

Does that mean technology can adequately make up for our lack of linguistic skills? Do we no longer need to learn spelling and grammar given technology will always have our back?

Linguistic competency never goes out of style.

Our dependence on technology often makes acquiring literacy skills seem not as urgent or important. If software and other AI technologies can intuitively correct our mistakes, then the logical conclusion would be that we should focus on learning technological skills rather than spelling and grammar.

This argument is flawed, however. It’s still important for everyone to have thorough mastery of their native tongue, in all aspects of that language. Making young students dependent on technologies and hand-held devices to do the thinking for them is something that will have severe implications on their ability to communicate accurately throughout their lives.

By teaching spelling and grammar and by pointing out technology’s ancillary role in how we communicate, we remind young children that language is a cognitive skill that everyone needs to master early on.

Technology is not always reliable or available, and it still lacks the complex linguistic competency humans have. By constantly relying on technology to think on our behalf, we let our cognitive skills rust when we should be sharpening them. We need to competently express ourselves correctly in written form without needing an autocorrect tool to pinpoint our typos and grammar mistakes.

For independent, competent future generations, spelling and grammar are basic linguistic skills that need to be learned and used. Otherwise, the people of tomorrow will be helpless without a hand-held device flagging their mistakes.

Technology is not harmful; what’s potentially harmful is how we choose to use it. Technologies like educational software, learning apps and the recent explosion of online education in MOOCs reveal the progress potential of technology. It eventually boils down to how we choose to use technologies, to advance or to get lazy.


About the Author: Chassie Lee is the Content Expert for eReflect – creator of Ultimate Vocabulary and Ultimate Spelling which is currently being used by tens of thousands of happy customers in over 110 countries.

Owed to a Spell Chequer

I halve a spelling chequer

It came with my pea sea

It plane lee marques four my revue

Miss steaks aye ken knot sea

Eye ran this poem threw it

Your sure reel glad two no

It’s vary polished in it’s weigh

My chequer tolled me sew

A chequer is a bless sing

It freeze yew lodes of thyme

It helps me awl stiles two reed

And aides mi when aye rime

To rite with care is quite a feet

Of witch won should be proud

And wee mussed dew the best wee can

Sew flaws are knot aloud

And now bee cause my spelling

Is checked with such grate flare

Their are know faults with in my cite

Of nun eye am a wear

Each frays come posed up on my screen

Eye trussed to be a joule

The chequer poured o’er every word

To cheque sum spelling rule

That’s why aye brake in two averse

My righting wants too pleas

Sow now ewe sea wye aye dew prays

Such soft wear for pea seas


Author: Joe Tenn, faculty member at Sonoma State University, adapted from Eric Bear Albrecht (with apologies to Percy Dovetonsils.