June 8, 2017

Did you spell that word right? Is that an independent clause? That’s not a dangling participle, is it? This week, we explore a tool that can help you catch those grammar mistakes.

Hare: Hey! So, what’s our tool this week?

LaForme: I want to do something a little different this week, in that I’m going to share a tool that I really like and ask readers if they use something that they like better. Because I think there have to be good alternatives out there.

So the tool I’m going to share has saved me from looking like a total dummy a whole bunch of times, which is a pretty big feat. It’s Grammarly, a tool that checks your grammar and spelling on things like online posts, emails and other stuff you do in your browser.

Hare: Finds story on The New York Times cutting editors. Yeah, I think a lot of us could use this right now. How does it work?

LaForme: Right? I’m lucky enough to have a couple of smart people looking over my posts when I write for Poynter.org, but nobody looks over my tweets or Facebook posts or emails, and that’s where I make a lot of first impressions.

So Grammarly is both a plugin and a desktop application. I’ve never used the desktop application because the plugin works great. You just install it and type away, and Grammarly throws out red lines under your text when you spell something wrong or use wonky grammar. It’s a lot like what Word does, but I’ve found that it’s a lot smarter than Word.

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Hare: So, as you’re writing a story, Grammarly is there in the background clearing its throat and whispering “whom” and “it’s?” How does it work as part of your workflow?

LaForme: I usually type away and let Grammarly sort of monitor me in the background. There’s a little green icon that appears in the bottom left of most text windows to show it’s working — which, I should say, they restrict from working on certain sites like Google Docs. Then, when I’m done, I just go back through and make any corrections Grammarly suggests.

It usually offers some type of justification for its suggestions, too. So it won’t just say, “did you mean to spell this word this way?” It’ll say, “did you mean to spell this word?” Then it will offer a definition. Or, if you do something wrong with grammar, it’ll explain why it’s flagging it and what the problem is. So, you’re learning as you’re being corrected.

Hare: Well that’s helpful and smart. It doesn’t work on Google Docs, though? Boo. Any other things you don’t like about it?

LaForme: Oh, yes. That’s why I’m asking for reader input. You can teach it new words like, for instance, my name. But I hate, hate, hate that I can’t tell it to ignore my lack of Oxford commas. It flags each and every one, even though I’ve told it to ignore them about a hundred times.

There’s a premium version, and I’m not sure if that’s something you can specify there, but at $30 a month (or $12 or so if you pay annually) it’s too pricey for my budget.

Also, isn’t it sort of silly to restrict its usage on Google Docs? I could just copy and paste from Google Docs into their editor, but who wants to do that all the time?

Hare: Those are valid gripes. So you want people to share any online grammar tools they like more?

LaForme: Yes! I know there are alternatives. I’ve heard people talk about something called Hemingway, though I will admit that I don’t quite understand its interface. If people have used the premium version of Grammarly and found it more helpful, that’d be great to hear, too. I just really want to avoid seeing any more Oxford comma suggestions.

Hare: OK! Send Ren your suggestions! Ren, do you have any mistakes that you make over and over? I swear, I have to look up affect and effect every single time I write one of those two words. So embarrassing.

LaForme: I can’t spell receipt. I spell it wrong every time. I finally learned to spell bureau a few months ago.

But, oh! That’s another cool thing about Grammarly. It emails you once a week with a report on your spelling and grammar. Last week, I forgot articles 76 times, didn’t use an Oxford comma 67 times and confused a preposition 61 times. It also tells me how often I make mistakes compared to the average user. Pretty cool stuff.

Hare: That is cool! How do you compare?

LaForme: It says I wrote more last week than 98 percent of users and was more accurate than 85 percent of users, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Hare: I joked that this is great for beleaguered reporters. Can/should editors use this, too?

LaForme: Absolutely. I know that the premium version checks copy against just about every web page there is, so I suspect an editor would catch a plagiarist pretty fast. The best way to do that without Grammarly is to copy and paste writers’ copy into some sort of paid plagiarism checker, so this would actually be a workflow improvement for people who are regularly doing that and might save some money.

Hare: That seems more important than ever these days. OK, well we’ll see what we hear back from people and follow up with more suggestions soon, right?

LaForme: We’ll be back next week for sure. I’m testing a new timeline tool right now that has a lot of potential. Fingers crossed!

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles that highlight digital tools for journalists. You can read the others here. Got a tool we should talk about? Let Ren know!

Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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