Mac Grammar checker shoot-out

Remember the early days of Microsoft Word? It astounded the world by having the temerity not only to correct spellings (mainly to American, until users figured out how to install the ‘International’ English dictionary), but also to comment on grammar. If your grammar was much more advanced than junior school, then Word would generally miss genuine errors, but point out things that it thought were wrong, but weren’t.

Word, of course, like all things, has improved over time. However, if you’re not writing in Word — for example because you are using Scrivener, or doing final editing in QuarkXpress or InDesign — there are now a number of options on the market for giving your text a once over before you submit it to your boss, client, tutor, supervisor, or Amazon for direct publishing on Kindle.

As I’m currently involved both with issuing a novel and reworking a major business document, I decided to put four of them to the test: Grammatica, Grammarly, Grammarian, and the innovatively named 1Checker. White Smoke, an alternative competitor, didn’t make the test because it does not offer a demo version.

1Checker is free, though you have to sign up for an account, and the work is done by internet servers.

Grammatica and Grammarian are software you pay for once and runs from your computer.

Grammarly is internet-only, and charges a substantial monthly or annual fee.

I’m going to ignore cost, because if any of these actually work the way they are supposed to, then they’re worth far more than any of them charge. On the other hand, if they don’t, they aren’t worth having at all.

The interface

Grammarly and 1Checker both have slick, on-line interfaces, though 1Checker runs in its own app. Grammatica and Grammarian are apps which live on your computer, with downloadable dictionaries, and use their own windows. Both of them are a bit ugly by today’s standards. Grammatica can work directly in the text in QuarkXpress and other applications, via the F2 key. Grammarian is supposed to do this, but, having logged in and out and restarted as per the instructions, the promised top menu never appeared. Grammatica’s direct involvement, though, is a mixed blessing: it stores all the corrections until you are finished, and then appears to paste them back into the document, thus terminally wrecking the formatting. To be fair, pasting back in is the most that any of these checkers do, and in all cases this destroys your format.

On the other hand, Grammatica is the only one of the three which makes you click through the errors one by one, rather than being able to scan them across a range of text. Although this may be helpful in forcing you to look at each one, it is less useful if you want to simply identify early on which sections of text — for example from different authors — require the most work.

Winner: Grammatica, by a smidgen. Although Grammarly and 1Checker are nicer, it takes a lot more work to get to the point of being able to do anything with them. Grammatica’s F2 at least takes you straight there, even if you ought to be very circumspect about allowing it to paste the results back in.

The errors

Grammarian is by far the strictest in searching for agreements and in challenging anything it doesn’t like. Unfortunately, only American (or, as they call it, ‘English’) is available on the demo, not standard or ‘International’ English (or, as they call it, ‘British’). Even giving it the benefit of the doubt, many of Grammarian’s suggestions were plain wrong, both on the 76,000 word novel and on the 24 page business document. I should say before going on that both of these had already been proof-read a couple of times, so I was using the software to find the last few errors.

Grammatica had, I felt, the largest number of helpful suggestions, though it got extremely confused by dialogue, and kept on suggesting that there was a hanging quotation mark. It was much politer than Grammarian in its suggestions. Indeed, Grammarian is quite rude, persistently telling you that you are wrong, even when it is, whereas Grammatica asks you to consider whether or not something is right.

Grammarly and 1Check seem to take a similar approach to the checking itself. Both try to offer you less rather than more, and to make it as helpful as possible, clearly showing what you have and what they think you should have. They are both wrong as often as Grammatica and Grammarian are, picking up few false positives, but also fewer errors. Neither is as troubled by dialogue as Grammarian and Grammatica, so if you are writing fiction you may decide that the interruptions of Grammarian’s inability to put the comma in the right place, and Grammatica’s failure to see when a quotation begins and ends, are too much to be bothered with. In that case, 1Check may be your best choice.

As far as I can make out, grammar checkers are good for the following kinds of errors:

  • subordinate clauses and punctuation — provided that you use old fashioned, closed punctuation, Grammatica and Grammarian will help you a lot. If you prefer modern punctuation, Grammarly and 1Check will annoy you less
  • agreement of verbs and nouns — all four are over-zealous in trying to make parts of sentences agree with each other in the wrong way, but they do identify a large amount of bad agreement. This is probably the most useful feature, because word-processing is notorious for sentences which started as one thing, are edited to be something else, and as a result have badly matched verbs and nouns
  • Consistent inconsistency — English is full of official inconsistencies. If you write consistently, but don’t happen to know whether it’s ‘no-one’ or ‘no one’ or ‘noone’ (it isn’t), then all the grammar checkers will give you the correct, albeit inconsistent, English usage
  • Vocabulary — if you use the wrong word, they may spot it. Also, all of them give you help with woolly phrases and clumsy cliché, though 1Check suggested changing ‘use’ to ‘utilise’ (face palm). Likewise, if you keep using a word, Grammarly and 1Check may identify this, though their suggestions are often of little help.

Winner: undecided. Grammatica would be, if only it didn’t come up with so many false positives on quotations. If you follow Grammarian, then you will insert Oxford commas everywhere — in other words, you are forced to use Grammarian’s house-style, not your client’s. All four picked up different errors, and all four had false positives.

Added features

Grammarly checks for plagiarism, by comparing your text to online sources. It doesn’t understand when you’ve cited something which is also cited by an online source, but it can still be a great help if you are working on a document which it turns out has been culled from a variety of others — not uncommon in business documents — and you suddenly find a striking fact which is either highly significant or simply wrong. Being able to track down where it came from can tell you which it is.

And the winner is…

A proper human proof-reader. Grammatica and Grammarian, with their endless suggestions of stuff that might be wrong, are the most comprehensive, but wading through the false positives is enough to put off anyone. The system is not much use if it’s too much trouble. On the other hand, 1Check and Grammarly don’t pick up all the errors, so you will still need a human proof reader.

Recommendation

1Check, from the App Store, for free, is probably worth the money you pay for it and a bit more. If you don’t really need grammar checking, but quite fancy a go, then it’s easy to acquire and cost-free.

Grammarly may be worth the steep fees if plagiarism checking is important to you, but, otherwise, it simply doesn’t pick up enough of the critical errors to dispense with a human proof-reader, at £15 an hour.

I really don’t get on with Grammarian. The fact that the demo comes with an American dictionary, and Grammarian thinks that English = American, whereas International or Standard English = British, doesn’t help. The style of correction, though, is needlessly brusque and schoolmarmish, and is reminiscent of Dan Quayle incorrectly criticising a child’s spelling of potato: if Grammarian was right a bit more often, it would be better.

I said I wouldn’t consider cost, but I’m going to now. Grammatica, from Semantica, comes in at $29.99. Grammarly costs about this much per month, whereas Grammarian is a bit more at £32. Grammatica was recently moved from Ultralingua to Semantica (seriously, these guys need some branding advice), and doesn’t appear to be on a good update path, though it functions perfectly well on OS X Mavericks. Taking everything together, my money will probably go on Grammatica, because it seems to me it does $29 worth of useful functioning.

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