Is Grammarly Changing English Writing?
May 25, 2023 5:08 PM   Subscribe

Short question: Is Grammarly changing the way people write in English? Long question inside:

I recently got a new boss who is very detail oriented (in a mostly positive way), and he occasionally would note minor mistakes in my emails or reports and would stress accuracy. This is all fine, but I write a ton of emails and reports for my job, so occasional grammar or syntax errors sneak in. I installed Grammarly to help make sure that everything is correct, and it is overall pretty useful in this regard.

BUT! I notice that it has certain recommendations that are very specifically style related and don't actually improve the accuracy of the writing. It also recommends that I hyphenate tons of compound words, which I would generally not do if I were writing with my own voice (it wants me to hyphenate "style related" right now!).

Since Grammarly seems pretty ubiquitous, I was wondering if these recommendations had any effect on overall changes in the way English is written as a whole. I tried a Google search but it was filled with astroturfing blogs and no real information, so I tried Google Scholar, but all the information seemed focused on Grammarly and language acquisition. I'm more interested in if and how Grammarly is changing general written discourse.

Does anyone know of any studies on this, or have any information?
posted by Literaryhero to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I mean obviously it is literally changing the way people write.

When I taught I told students that nobody who needs grammarly should be using grammarly. Only people who do not need it should use it because it inserts lots of mistakes and only a person who knows enough to see when a suggestion is wrong should be using it. For example, I think its suggestion that you hyphenate "style related" in your sentence above is not just "not your style," it's wrong. I think "style related" should be hyphenated if the two words together are forming an adjective used to describe a noun that follows. So for example, if you had said "it makes style-related suggestions" I think that should be hyphenated. But as you wrote the sentence, I don't think it should. I don't think it's a style issue. I think it's wrong.

And teaching I would often see mistakes that I'm virtually certain were inserted at the suggestion of Grammarly. Usually they would be cases were subject and verb didn't agree because there was some noun just before the verb (as part of a phrase or something) and Grammarly took that to be the subject that went with the verb. So for example "The contributions made by Jim shows how valuable he is to the team.*" The subject is "contributions" so it should be "show" not "shows" but I would see "shows" in student writing. Obviously any native English speaker forming that sentence would say "show" but it seems "Jim" before the verb and seems to think Jim is the subject of the verb and wants to change it to "shows." So yes, it's changing that about writing, for sure. I never saw those errors before Grammarly became a thing.

As for whether it's changing people's writing when they're not using Grammarly? Like are people starting to hyphenate things of their own initiative because Grammarly told them to do it and now they think it's right? I don't know. Maybe. Witness all the people who (without the help of Grammarly) say "The dog game to the beach with Beth and I." or whatever. It's wrong, but someone taught them to say "[Name] and I" so now they do. Do you feel like you pre-emptively writing things in a certain style based on suggestions it's given you before?

Btw, not that Grammarly cannot make your writing more accurate because Grammarly doesn't know what the "truth" is. So if you write "The ball red" Grammarly can have you change that to "The ball is red," which is grammatically correct, but if the ball is blue then your sentence is no more accurate than it was and "The ball blue" would be grammatically incorrect but at least more accurate. Grammarly is not trying to improve the accuracy of your writing. It is trying to make it more correct and make the style more appropriate based on its understanding or what is appropriate (and your settings). If you got Grammarly to make your work writing more accurate, it's not going to do that because it's not meant to do that.

*Note: I have no idea if Grammarly would do that in that specific case. It's just an example of the kind of sentence where I'd see these errors in student writing.

p.s. I'm really curious if it's ubiquitous. I don't use it. I don't feel like I know anyone who does, but I guess I don't ask people about their writing tools.

p.p.s. I have been an extremely judgmental prescriptivist in this response, and thus I assume I have made at least 15 grammatical errors. I want you to know they're all mine and not the work of any over-zealous but poorly-programmed grammar checker.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:22 PM on May 25 [14 favorites]

Like last poster - I've never heard of anybody using it, so my take is that is not changing language much at all.
posted by sandmanwv at 8:58 PM on May 25 [2 favorites]

anecdotally, I've heard much of Grammarly's userbase is ESL speakers who use it for business emails (take this with a grain of salt please, I couldn't find a source with a quick google search) - so perhaps it is standardizing English discourse further but only in very standard settings.
posted by icosahedron at 9:44 PM on May 25

Yes, L2 English speakers use it a lot. Students use it all the time.
posted by Gotanda at 2:37 AM on May 26

Best answer: p.s. I'm really curious if it's ubiquitous. I don't use it. I don't feel like I know anyone who does, but I guess I don't ask people about their writing tools.

There are ~1.5B English speakers in the world, and Grammarly has 30 million users.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:04 AM on May 26 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Anne Curzan has done some work on the role of Microsoft Word's grammar checker and language change; specifically some changes in formal written British English vs. American English due to what gets flagged depending on which version you're using. So it's not out of the question, but it would need to be a critical mass of people using it.
posted by damayanti at 4:49 AM on May 26 [6 favorites]

I run a cross-disciplinary writing program at a Research I institution. My tests of Grammarly have indicated that its suggested "corrections" are often unnecessary or flat-out wrong. It also seems to miss a fair amount of what we'd commonly call "error." Lots of false positives and false negatives. So my guess is that, if it's being used extensively, any changes it is causing in writers' behavior are pretty random and not causing a specific pattern of change in their grammar.

What it might be doing, if used extensively, is training people to distrust their own sense of whether they/a reader can understand the meaning of a sentence, and encouraging them to instead rely on a random pattern of approval/disapproval from a shoddy algorithm.

The people in Grammarly's marketing department are much better at their jobs than the people in Grammarly's grammar department.
posted by helpthebear at 9:21 AM on May 26 [4 favorites]

I know a lot of college students use it (I teach at the college level), whereas I don't know any peers who use it, so anecdotally my impression is that use varies greatly by age. That said, more than Grammarly, I'd say AI is and will be changing writing - whether it's predictive text in Gmail or now ChatGPT.
posted by coffeecat at 9:43 AM on May 26

I'm not aware of any studies on this. It'd be hard to isolate the influence of Grammarly vs other factors, I think. You'd want to isolate recommendations specific to Grammarly and see if they take root with its users and then spread beyond Grammarly, which would be really hard to measure well, I think.

I think autocorrect, etc., are having a lot more impact on the way people write in English than Grammarly. One thing I've observed a lot in the past 10-ish years is that transposing "then" for "than" is increasingly common, and I think this is because autocorrect errors have escaped into the wild as presumed correct usage.

That is - I see a lot of people writing "more then" instead of "more than" and I think that has to do with autocorrect recommending "then" in place of "than" and then people reading the improper usage all over forums and so forth. (I'd like to blame people's inability to correctly use "its" and "it's" but I've observed that a lot longer than autocorrect has been around.)
posted by jzb at 10:31 AM on May 26

fwiw, “style-related” with a hyphen is technically correct in formal English — adjectival phrases are supposed to be hyphenated, generally speaking.

(but of course, “correctness” in language is a loaded concept and ultimately depends on common usage more than prescriptive rules.)
posted by mekily at 11:12 AM on May 26 [4 favorites]

For what it's worth, it is really common to perceive linguistic changes as recent even when they aren't. In linguistics it's called the recency illusion. Sometimes it means your awareness of grammar and style has gone up. Sometimes it means the change is wearing on your nerves more than it used to. "I swear people didn't used to say/write X, and now they do" is the sort of thing it's worth getting data on if you're trying to settle a factual question.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:51 AM on May 26 [1 favorite]

I have used both Grammarly and ProWritingAid in professional and academic writing. I'm a librarian who has degrees in history and library science and I STRUGGLE with passive voice. Both of these tools help me write more clearly and avoid passive voice. I migrated away from Grammarly to ProWritingAid because the latter tells you grade level of your writing in addition to grammar mistakes and so forth. It has helped me write more clearly and concisely. That said, I haven't really used either in the last few years because I've gotten more comfortable.
posted by teleri025 at 12:46 PM on May 26

Response by poster: I think that the answer to my question best came from NotMyselfRightNow and damayanti.

Thanks everyone! :)
posted by Literaryhero at 5:24 AM on May 27

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