Woman vs machine

For months on end, I’ve been bombarded with ads from Grammarly, a computer program that promises to “instantly eliminate grammatical errors”. As you can imagine, it’s a slap in the face. No, I don’t want to pay NZ$41.16 every month for a robot that’s trying to make me redundant!

Still, in my weakest moments, I sometimes wonder. Are they right? Could this high-tech plug-in really do my job for me? Am I obsolete?

There’s only one way to find out: a proofreading battle. This morning, I found a quiz compiled by New York Times deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett, made up of 10 paragraphs that went to press in the Times but were later found to contain errors. First, I proofread the 10 excerpts myself. Next, I put Grammarly to the test. Finally – the moment of truth – I looked at the official quiz answers. Here’s how we did.

1.

Methodical and dispassionate, Mr. Obama aggravated powerful players in Congress and the unions that helped elect him, then moved to assuage them. He encouraged internal debate but was forced to head off tensions as his treasury secretary and White House economic adviser maneuvered for position. In the end, he struggled with the proper balance between government power and market forces, a theme that has defined his first months in office.

INDIA: The strict sense of aggravate is make worse, not annoy. 

GRAMMARLY: (1) him,: The comma may be separating the subject and verb in your sentence. Consider removing it. (2) was forced: This sentence appears to be written in the passive voice. Consider writing in the active voice. (3) Change balance between to balance of: It appears that between may not be the best preposition to use in this context.

NEW YORK TIMES: As the stylebook says, “aggravate” means “make worse, not anger or irritate.”

THE VERDICT: A win for me. Grammarly can’t tell when a comma is helpful for flow and clarity, nor can it recognise when the passive voice is appropriate. Balance between is fine and makes more sense in this context.  

2.

Democratic voters in Virginia selected a state Senator as their party’s nominee for Governor Tuesday, defeating the close Clinton confidante Terry McAuliffe in an unusually contentious, expensive and closely watched primary for governor. 

INDIA: Change confidante to confidant.

GRAMMARLY: Nothing.

NEW YORK TIMES: “Confidante” with an “e” is the feminine form — we meant “confidant.” And the final phrase “for governor” is redundant.

THE VERDICT: I did better than Grammarly, but I missed the redundancy. My bad. 

 3.

Commercial sales of turtle meat, which has long been a delicacy here, is restricted in Nicaragua because of declining populations of endangered green sea turtles — one of many cultural clashes that the people in this remote corner of Nicaragua, who have eaten turtle for generations, say have propelled them to create their own country, which they have dubbed the Communitarian Nation of Mosquitia.

INDIA: (1) Change is restricted to are restricted. (2) Change Mosquitia to Moskitia. (3) Sentence is too long.

GRAMMARLY: This sentence is very long. To improve readability, consider breaking this into multiple sentences.

NEW YORK TIMES: The plural subject “sales” needs a plural verb — “are restricted,” not “is.” Such an error isn’t surprising in a sentence as long and complex as this. Break it up!

THE VERDICT: Grammarly was underzealous; I was overzealous . . . or was I? The Mosquitia spelling gets only seven Google hits (including one from this very story in the Times), whereas Moskitia gets 431.    

 4.

But as they [prosecutors] began examining Mr. Bergrin’s legal work, they now say, they noticed what appeared to be a pattern; in at least four other cases, his clients had been cleared after witnesses were either killed or changed their stories.

INDIA: (1) Change semicolon to colon. (2) Change were either to either were.

GRAMMARLY: (1) Unclear antecendent: It may be unclear who or what they refers to. Consider rewriting the sentence to remove the unclear reference. (2) had been: This sentence appears to be written in the passive voice. Consider writing in the active voice.

NEW YORK TIMES: A parallelism problem. “Either” should come before “were”; otherwise, it suggests that “were” goes with both parts of the verb, which isn’t the case. Also, a colon might serve better than a semicolon after “pattern.”

THE VERDICT: Another triumph for womankind. Grammarly doesnt seem to understand how square brackets work.    

5.

Everyday, Americans help finance both sides of the Mexican drug war by purchasing illegal drugs and smuggling weapons.

INDIA: Change Everyday to Every day.

GRAMMARLY: The word Everyday may be used incorrectly.

NEW YORK TIMES: O.K., an easy one. So how did it get through all editions? As one word, “everyday” is an adjective; here, make it “every day.”

THE VERDICT: Everyones a winner.

6.

When British politicians go astray, one expects spies or sex. Yet the latest scandal to rock Westminster is about Parliament members — and their expense accounts. … Some members, the owner of the moat among them, have announced that they will not stand for re-election. Others, including one politician who expensed $200 for having light bulbs changed and several members who live near London but still used public funds to decorate their city pieds-á-terre, are clearly hoping the voters will lose interest.

INDIA: Change pieds-á-terre to pieds-à-terre.

GRAMMARLY: (1) Possibly confused word: moat. Did you mean meat? The word moat doesn’t seem to fit this context. Consider replacing it with a different one. (2) Yet may be not be the best choice here. Consider replacing it with another word or removing it entirely. (2) The ellipsis in your sentence may not be necessary. Consider removing it. (3) The word clearly is often overused. Consider using a more specific synonym to improve the sharpness of your writing, e.g. apparently.

NEW YORK TIMES: English poses trouble enough; with French, we’re really living dangerously. It’s pieds-à-terre, with a grave accent, not an acute (and it’s in the stylebook). And speaking of English — the “Labour” issue notwithstanding, we generally prefer the American version of the language. Let’s say “run” for re-election, not “stand.”

THE VERDICT: An endearing attempt from Grammarly (Did you mean meat?). Yet is definitely necessary for meaning. The ellipsis makes sense because it shows an omission in the article. And clearly doesn't mean the same thing as apparently. However, I didnt get a perfect score either – I had no idea Americans said run instead of stand.

7.

No matter which coalition of parties comes to power in voting that ended on Wednesday — none are expected to win a majority in Parliament — the next stage of Indian reforms will be deeply contentious.

INDIA: Change none are to none is.

GRAMMARLY: Nothing.

NEW YORK TIMES: A tricky one. Many readers insist that “none” should always be used with a singular verb, but our stylebook explains that in most cases, construing it as a plural (the equivalent of “not any”) makes more sense. Here’s an exception, though. It’s clear from the context that we mean “no single party” is expected to win a majority (hence the need for a coalition). So “none” here has a singular meaning, and the verb should be singular.

THE VERDICT: *smiles smugly*

8.

All but four states must have new budgets in place less than two weeks from now — by July 1, the start of their fiscal year. But most are already predicting shortfalls as tax collections shrink, unemployment rises and the stock market remains in turmoil.

INDIA: Nothing.

GRAMMARLY: rises,: It appears that you are missing a comma before the coordinating conjunction and in a compound sentence. Consider adding a comma.

NEW YORK TIMES: This one seemed fine to me. Anyone disagree?

THE VERDICT: Grammarly thinks the Oxford comma is non-negotiable. In reality, it’s seldom used in journalism.

9.

The rained-out Yankees-Athletics game on Monday night will be made up on Thursday, July 23, at 7:05 p.m. The date had been a mutual off day for both teams.

INDIA: Change hyphen to en dash in Yankee-Athletics.

GRAMMARLY: Nothing.

NEW YORK TIMES: “Mutual” and “for both teams” mean the same thing; using both is redundant.

THE VERDICT: Another redundancy fail for me (and for Grammarly). As far as my correction goes, I don't think it’s wrong, but the hyphen probably isn’t wrong either. They just carry slightly different shades of meaning: an en dash signifies that the game is between the two teams; a hyphen suggests joint ownership or a compound modifier.  

10.

Mr. Friedman added that they were also thinking about whom the human contestants should be and were considering inviting Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy!’’ contestant who won 74 consecutive times and collected $2.52 million in 2004.

INDIA: Change whom to who.

GRAMMARLY: (1) Pronoun-antecedent disagreement: It appears that the pronoun they does not agree with the antecedent Mr. Friedman. (2) The word contestant appears repeatedly in this text. Consider using a synonym in its place, e.g. player.

NEW YORK TIMES: What quiz would be complete without a who/whom problem? Make it “who the human contestants should be.”

THE VERDICT: Smh, Grammarly. It’s obvious (to human eyes) that they refers to the bigwigs at Jeopardy! And, in this context, using the same word twice isn’t too repetitive. In fact, using too many synonyms looks amateurish and can be confusing. In this case, if Grammarly had its way, the reader might mistakenly assume that a contestant and a player were two different things.      

There you have it. Humans rule; robots drool. I didn’t do a perfect job – I let a couple of redundancies and an un-American word slip through – but, nevertheless, I hope this exercise convinces you that a living, breathing editor is worth more than any machine.   

Not the most relevant of pictures, but I like to think of Grammarly as a permanently befuddled C3PO type (and of myself as an ultra-competent Leia type, obviously).

Not the most relevant of pictures, but I like to think of Grammarly as a permanently befuddled C3PO type (and of myself as an ultra-competent Leia type, obviously).

(N.B.: For brevity’s sake, I decided to ignore questions of house style. If I were proofreading this text in real life, I would have to refer to the Times style guide with dozens of questions: Do they use honorifics? If so, is it Mr or Mr.? Do they capitalise treasury secretary, economic adviser, senator and governor? Do they write advisor or adviser, reelection or re-election, light bulbs or lightbulbs, stockmarket or stock market? Do they place full stops next to ellipses? How do they format dates and times? Do they use en or em dashes, with or without spaces on either side? Do they italicise TV show names or put them in quotation marks? Do they abbreviate million to m in currency? Unsurprisingly, Grammarly didn’t flag any of these potential issues. The closest it got was uniformly changing “Mr.” to “Mr” – which happens to go against Times house style.)