In the past year, I have witnessed an unfortunate proliferation of language apps: those that correct your spelling, grammar and style, and claim to make you a better writer.
I’ve tested a few, and here is my considered advice: avoid.
Apart from their obvious redundancy – Microsoft has been doing this for 20 years – the apps that correct your spelling and grammar perpetuate illiteracy.
The effort of looking the word up in a dictionary makes you remember it, while studying grammar properly means that you have lifelong tools to analyse it. However, if a machine swaps one word or syntactic construction for another in your text automatically, chances are you won’t even notice, and will continue using the language blindly.
But my real problem is with the apps that promise “writing enhancement” – or, in proper English, improving your style.
One app says it can suggest a “stronger synonym”, so when I enter “good service on the Northern Line”, the app returns: “sublime service on the Northern Line”.
Another posits: “use simple utterances instead of complex utterances”.
So when I enter this rather complex utterance from Nietzsche – “The problem that I raise here is not what ought to succeed mankind in the sequence of species (-the human being is a conclusion-): but what type of human being one ought to breed, ought to will, as more valuable, more worthy of life, more certain of the future” – the app returns the good grammar score of 34.6 per cent. Poor Nietzsche.
A machine cannot correct writing style – and claiming otherwise is market fair charlatanism. Because what is style? It’s a process of selecting the words that carry maximum weight and arranging them together for a desired impact. It’s a search for linguistic precision, energy and vitality.
For this reason, style cannot be prescriptive. You can write expansively or with economy, you can be rhetorical or direct, you can be a Tolstoy or a Hemingway.
All that matters is that your style conveys the essence of your ideas. (As an aside to Tolstoy imitators, however, expansive is not the same as verbose.)
And, by the way, who’s on the other side of these apps? Who reads my texts and decides if they are good? Who gave Nietzche a score of 34.6 per cent? Martin Amis? Margaret Atwood?
No, it’s an algorithm – probably developed by a bloke who writes like this (taken from one of the app’s blogs): “Our efforts are part of a greater whole that hinges on your abilities as a collaborator to succeed.”
If you want to become a good writer, forget about the apps.
Instead, study grammar, use dictionaries, and read, read, read. And by that I mean proper reading: Coetzee, Roth, Gordimer, The Atlantic, Paris Review. You get the message. Jo Jo Moyes and the Daily Express don’t count.
My conclusion is simple: let’s not outsource language – the main thing that makes us human – to an app.
My Latin professor told me a wonderful thing once: that to master the grammar of a language, even the most complex one, takes six months. But to master the style takes a lifetime.
And, as far as I am concerned, it’s not a bad way to spend a lifetime.