Sure, you can ask Siri or Alexa to tell you a joke, add something to your grocery list or set a timer. You can even have your Tesla drive itself. The future of AI is here and it’s trickling down to more everyday tasks, such as writing an email.
It’s what I like to call Microsoft Clippy 2.0: AI-powered spell-check. Google’s GSuite, Microsoft Office 365 and Grammarly—just to name a few—are using AI and Machine Learning to edit your copy so you don’t have to.
The platforms use natural-language processing methods to build statistical learning algorithms that continue to feed upon itself. But before you let these tools determine when to appropriately use their, there and they’re, remember that the data driving these algorithms are only as good as the programmers. To be sure, to err is human.
Even Grammarly’s CEO, Brad Hoover, adds this disclaimer in an email to The Washington Post: “Our writing assistant is a coach, not a crutch.”
You may also be thinking, “I took writing and grammar classes in school. Surely between that and these AI tools, I don’t need to brush up on my grammar.”
“Then why bother learning to sing if you have Auto-Tune?” replies instructor Erica Olsen. “If you don’t have a sophisticated understanding of grammar, that doesn’t prevent you from writing or from reading a book for pleasure, just like not knowing music theory doesn’t keep a person from being able to sing or whistle or enjoy listening to music. I like to remind people that grammar is just one aspect of language and the way we communicate.”
Have you ever visited a website, read a book or skimmed a social media post, saw a typo and started giggling to yourself? Those giggles translate into lost credibility for the business or author. What credibility could you lose if you have more than a handful of typos in your email, presentation or—gasp!—résumé?
“Do most people consciously recognize misplaced modifiers in their writing or speech?” questions instructor Megan Parker. “Do they catch those sneaky comma splices or pesky run-on sentences? Can they tell the difference between a colon and a semicolon, a hyphen from an em dash? Often, the answer is no, but readers can usually catch these discrepancies, even if they cannot specifically name them.
“And when readers consist of hiring managers or an admissions board, I can guarantee these individuals will notice if an application is peppered with grammatical errors,” she continues. “Typically, one or two typos can be overlooked, particularly when other elements are considered such as the context of the applicant’s submission or whether English is not the applicant’s first language. But one too many errors may be the difference between, ‘You’re hired,’ or, ‘You’ve been accepted,’ and rejection.”
Starting to rethink about brushing up on your editing skills? That’s what two of our editing instructors are encouraging you to do.
It is unlikely that any AI spell-check algorithm or grammar-correcting software program will be 100-percent accurate. I believe users should self-monitor against their expectations of these AI tools.
—Instructor Megan Parker
So why should someone take a grammar class if spell check exists?
Megan: Depending on the person and the situation, I might have several reactions and cheeky responses, but ultimately I would point out that any AI grammar tool is only as effective as its human programmers. Though these programmers are often brilliant at what they do, it is unlikely that any AI spell-check algorithm or grammar-correcting software program will be 100-percent accurate. I believe users should self-monitor against their expectations of these AI tools.
Now, that is not to suggest that AI grammar tools should not be used. In fact, these tools can be enormously helpful, especially if you don’t have the opportunity, time, interest or finances to enroll in a grammar course. But I would advise users to refer to them as backup editors, so to speak, rather than relying on them to perform all proofreading tasks. Establish and employ a foundational understanding of grammar—learn what aspects of your writing and grammar habits are not working and self-correct—so that you do not inadvertently allow AI programs to wrongly “fix” your grammar and spelling.
What is the value in taking a mechanics of grammar course if someone took a general writing class during their undergraduate studies?
Erica: For students who are studying copyediting in our program, taking a grammar course can be eye-opening. A lot of students find that English grammar is more flexible than they thought it was. You might have been taught certain rules that aren’t really rules, or taught that certain ways of writing things are mistakes when they’re actually fine. And language evolves. Look at how “they” as a singular pronoun has become a topic of conversation in recent years. It’s actually been used this way for centuries, but it has a specific usefulness as a pronoun that is gender-neutral. “They” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2019!
Megan: Undergraduate writing courses tend to focus on crafting essays, conducting research and forming arguments for analysis. By that point, educators often assume that the student possesses a solid understanding of grammar. Of course, that is not always the case; the nuances of grammar usage can be forgotten over the years if not consistently applied. Or students may not have received an in-depth review of grammar during the years in elementary school or junior high. A general writing course may not cut it.
We must remember that the English language is constantly evolving to suit our needs. And as we become increasingly exposed to technological advancements and short-cut tools—like Grammarly, Siri or Alexa spelling anything we can think of, and the presence of autocorrect systems in texting, word programs and emails—the scope of grammar and language continues to flex and expand.
The beauty of grammar is that it isn’t limited to communication- or writing-focused professions. It’s reasonable to expect that professionals outside of those fields can efficiently communicate.
With language and grammar evolving, how does that impact professionals in roles that aren’t heavily in the communications or writing genres?
Megan: The beauty of grammar is that it isn’t limited to communication- or writing-focused professions. It’s reasonable to expect that professionals outside of those fields can efficiently communicate. Everyone makes typographical errors from time to time, but if someone is writing reports, creating presentations or drafting emails to clients or colleagues that are consistently riddled with grammatical mistakes, then their qualifications, reliability and competence may be called into question. They may lose out on promotions or other career advancements, which happens all too often. What most grammatical errors do is distract readers from the overall message, which, in turn, can lead to a subversion or loss of meaning. We can become so hung up on the typos that we overlook important content.
Software certainly has a role to play. Editors use spell-check! It never hurts to have more tools to use.
Will we see more professionals learning about and correctly using grammar and then using AI to triple-check their work?
Erica: Software certainly has a role to play. Editors use spell-check! The Chicago Manual of Style recently became available as part of PerfectIt proofreading software. It never hurts to have more tools to use.
Megan: Though many educators teach grammar based on more traditional models to help students build an important, foundational skill set, I’d wager that AI programs will continue to become part of educational and professional communities based on ease of use and availability. These programs are especially helpful for non-native English speakers because English is a complex, ever-evolving language. Do I think AI programs will replace human-taught grammar courses? No. But in a culture that is both tech-savvy and tech-reliant, AI integration feels inevitable.
You obviously have a passion for grammar. What can students expect when taking your classes?
Erica: One of the things our curriculum emphasizes is the ability to make correct, consistent, justifiable edits—you don’t want to introduce new errors or overedit by changing things that weren’t incorrect to begin with. It’s common for new editors to have a gut sense of when a sentence “just sounds wrong.” But if they can’t identify the specific grammatical error(s) in a sentence, it’s tempting to just rewrite it. If you do that, you might change things that weren’t wrong, and you might even inadvertently change the meaning. With a strong understanding of grammar, you won’t make copy-editing decisions based on a gut feeling. Your edits will be justifiable and precise in a way that respects the author’s voice.
Megan: I tend to focus less on prescriptive teaching and more on exploratory methods. I find the former restricting and ineffectual because there exist exceptions to rules, even rules created for something as seemingly straightlaced as grammar. I encourage students to approach grammar with an open mind, to explore and experiment with the various ways in which we can express language. When you have a strong understanding of the basics, you can leverage grammar and punctuation in ways you may not have previously realized, all while maintaining and respecting the author’s intent and meaning. I have had numerous students enroll in the course for the simple joy of learning something new, interesting and challenging—to stretch their brains and establish useful skills that often provide exciting and, perhaps, unexpected opportunities.