Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Grammarly, WhiteSmoke

A student mentioned today that someone had recommended using Grammarly or WhiteSmoke to help with writing problems. I just looked at these online services. Grammarly costs $29.95 a month, $139.95 a year; WhiteSmoke, $79.95 a year.

There’s no way to try WhiteSmoke without signing up [see below], but I pasted into Grammarly’s demo the text of a review that I just wrote. My score: 71 of 100, “adequate, can benefit from revision.” The service alleged many problems: seven grammar errors, three spelling errors, two punctuation errors, two problems with “style and word choice,” and plagiarism. I would have to sign up to learn just where the alleged problems lie. But I already know where they lie: in the algorithms that found nonexistent problems.

I then tried a long excerpt from William Zinsser’s essay “Writing English as a Second Language.” Grammarly again alleged many problems. The overall score: 52 of 100. "Weak, needs revision," Grammarly said. But then I remembered: Zinsser’s essay has sentences and passages of dull, lifeless writing to illustrate cumbersome phrasing, inappropriate use of the passive voice, and so on. I went back and deleted those passages. The score went up to a 54.

Feeling sneaky, I tried a passage from the Grammarly website. Grammarly is slick: if you try to check text from its site, you’re told that “You cannot improve on perfection.” So I changed every Grammarly in the passage to WhiteSmoke and scored a 61 ("weak, needs revision"). Could the camel-cased WhiteSmoke be a problem? I changed it to Michael and got another 61. Any service that gives its own writing a 61 and William Zinsser a 54 is a service I wouldn’t trust. I’ll add that any service that gives my writing a higher score than Zinsser’s is a service I wouldn’t trust.

Here’s a thoughtful review of Grammarly from someone who signed up (and who no longer runs Grammarly ads). I’m unable to find anything equally thoughtful about WhiteSmoke, but the reviews at CNET are overwhelmingly negative. Some of those reviews, granted, could be the work of a competitor, but I can see no reason to recommend the service.

For the cost of a couple of months of Grammarly or a year of WhiteSmoke, you could buy a serious dictionary, a writing handbook, and Garner’s Modern American Usage, resources that would serve you well for many years. Learning from those resources, you could become a better writer. That’s how it happens, not by trusting to algorithms.


January 9, 2014: An open-source alternative: Language Tool. Language Tool did a much better job than Grammarly with the review that I mention above, flagging thirty-two possible spelling errors (mostly compound words and proper names) and a possible wrong word. More interesting: Language Tool noted two instances of the same word beginning three successive sentences. The word is the, and in one case, the repetition is harmless; in the other, purposeful. But such repetition isn’t always harmless or purposeful, and mechanical scrutiny might reveal a genuine problem that even a careful writer has overlooked. I didn’t notice the first triple-the until Language Tool pointed it out.

Language Tool is available for download and online use. Thanks to developer Daniel Naber for letting me know about it.


November 26, 2014: WhiteSmoke now has a demo. Pasting in text from the company’s website, two or three paragraphs at a time, the only score I could pull was an 80 (of 100), with one to five “critical writing mistakes” per sample.


November 29, 2014: Comments on this post add some background on the computer science that goes into WhiteSmoke.

comments: 4

Elaine Fine said...

A bit of Henry James (from "The Turn of the Screw") got a 48, but the algorithms did detect plagiarism. They also found it "wordy," and thought it needed revision. A bit of my own prose got a 63. Go figure!

Michael Leddy said...

Irresistible, isn’t it?

Daughter Number Three said...

What a racket.

Todor said...

Do not waste your time and money with WhiteSmoke. It is a scam.
The company is going to bankrupt. They cancel user accounts much earlier. You will find so many negative comments and reviews on Internet about scamming with user subscriptions.

I suggest you to use Grammarly or LanguageTool. The second one is free and really woks well.