By Viv Midlane, Academic Manager.
We’ve been reading this interesting article in the Economist (subscription needed). It’s about the use of artificial intelligence in apps like Grammarly. Grammarly checks for grammar, syntax, or spelling problems in your writing, whether you’re using email, writing a message on a social media platform such as Facebook or Twitter, or using Word processing software like Word or Pages. It also comments on your style and choice of words.
The article finds that Grammarly doesn’t always pick up all the errors in a piece of writing; it misses some errors that are there, and sometimes points out “false positives“, flagging up problems where they don’t exist, and where a human editor wouldn’t make any changes. The author put a piece of student writing with 14 errors in it through Grammarly; Grammarly found only five of them. Of these, two were “false positives” – though Grammarly described them as “critical errors“.
Since the earliest word processors, computers have revolutionised the way we write text. As a student in the 1980s I wrote all my university assignments by hand with a pen. I wrote one draft of each assignment, read it through and noted corrections, and then wrote a second version… still with a pen. If I made mistakes, or thought of anything that was missing or needed taking out, my only option was to start again and hand write a third version – in full. With a pen. Today I’m writing this blog post using speech recognition on my phone in Google Docs. I can speak in my original draft and then make as many changes as I want to the text until I get my post exactly as I want it. I can’t remember the last time I used a pen and my handwriting has become illegible.
Although speech recognition systems have made amazing advances over the last few years, they still make mistakes, and probably always will do. The Economist article says that this is because the artificial intelligence systems that power tools like Grammarly are based on formulae and algorithms; they can never really understand the meaning of a piece of writing or the intention of the author.
What this means for students is that you shouldn’t totally rely on machine-based systems to correct or guide your writing. According to the article, Grammarly’s CEO, Brad Hoover, describes his product as a “coach, not a crutch”, suggesting that their idea is that users should see Grammarly as an aid or advisor not as an absolute authority. If you strongly feel what you’ve written is good English, and Grammarly says it isn’t, there’s a good chance that you’re right and it’s wrong. And if you’re a student at Express English College, your best next step is to approach your teacher and ask – send an email or show your teacher your writing in class – we’re always here to help. You also need to ensure the word processor on the computer you use is an English language version or at least has the proofing language set to English – that way it’ll pick up any spelling mistakes in English that you do make.
Spellcheckers in programs like Word have a similar problem to grammar checkers and speech recognition software. If you spell the word completely wrongly, the spellchecker should pick it up. If you weren’t too far from the correct spelling it will suggest the correct spelling or offer alternatives. But the problem is when your mistake actually is a valid word in itself. The classic example was writing “form” when you wanted to write “from”, though new versions of Word will now pick this example up. But say you want to write the word “manager”. If you write “mnaeger”, this will definitely come up as an error.
But say you just miss out the second letter A and write “manger“ instead of “manager”. “Manger” is a perfectly good word. It’s not very common, but it refers to something you find on a farm and which features in the Christmas story – try looking it up on Google Images. Because “manger” is a perfectly good word, if you write a sentence like “my mum works as a bank manger”, Word won’t usually flag that as an error.
Here at Express English College we call these kinds of mistakes “proxinyms”. A synonym is a word which means the same is another word; a homonym is a word which sounds the same as another word. We think “proxinym” should mean a word which is nearly the same as another word, but not quite…
Whether you’re writing for study or work, “nearly but not quite” isn’t good enough. That’s why when you write you shouldn’t put all your trust in grammar checkers, spell checkers, or speech recognition systems. Proofread your work carefully by eye, ask your teachers for help, and above all, trust your own instinct!