Thursday, February 14, 2013

2013 report: Developments in the grammar software world

I've been doing a lot of research in preparation for my upcoming TESOL presentation, Grammar technology: for better or worse, and I have a few informal comments about my conclusions. It's a huge field, and I have half a mind to write a book about it, since nobody else seems to be doing it. But it's developing the world quickly, and changing the language, so there is a lot to say.

First, I've come to like Grammarly, for a number of reasons. At first, like many ESL/EFL teachers, I considered most technological interference to be damaging to our students, based on my observations, and as a grammarian I was critical of their claims that couldn't always be carried out and in fact led people astray quite often. By the way there is no shortage of grammarians who are willing to point out how and where they might have gone wrong in trying to interpret and correct someone's errant grammar, but that's not my point; of course they are imperfect. So is the elephant in the room, Microsoft Word's grammar-check, which is automatically loaded onto word programs and thus is an ubiquitous contributor to all writing products. Word's grammar-check needed some competition, and got it, and now both of them are improving, and thus we approach, slowly but surely, a situation where grammar-correction programs get a lot of things right most of the time. We no longer see non-words in writing; we no longer see subject-verb matching errors. These programs actually teach people some grammar some of the time; we teachers have a hard time admitting that.

The reason I like them is that they were basically a couple of Ukranian guys (I think) who had a good idea, and got a wealthy venture capitalist to back them; they planned and set up this company by themselves, put a huge investment of time and money into it, and jumpstarted it to where it is now. They made one of their headquarters Kiev, presumably so they could keep their families there while they ran this new business. Their other center is on Market Street in San Francisco, but they are very active online (where they make Facebook memes and spend thousands on Google Adwords); their investment is huge but it was timed well and they are now a major force in the grammar-correction business (I read somewhere recently that businesses already pay $3 million a year on grammar correction - don't quote me on that, because I've lost the reference, but it's a huge amount, and it's mainly because businesses care about how things appear. I think their idea to get computers to perfect the grammar-correction process is noble, and it's already being done by Word anyway; it has certain and not necessarily good effects on the language, but that's not their problem; and, I think if someone has a good idea, at some point we should just recognize that and admire them.

So what else is there to report? First, my presentation itself has gotten some interesting reactions, such that I've concluded that it's much like marriage itself, which it's named after. Many people consider that good grammar technology will simply solve all their problems, much like marriage; they say, basically, show me the software and let's get this over with. They're tired of grammar always getting in the way of their students' trying to say what they want, and they have absolutely no problem with simply getting grammar technology to simply solve this problem. The other ones, of course, complain so bitterly that they are ready to teach writing absolutely without technology, without even a computer, without Word grammar-check, or especially without the constant translating of whatever phone/electronic dictionary students happen to be using. These teachers are ready for a divorce (from technology) and aren't in much of a mood to negotiate. They are basically sick of the technology actually impeding the writing and impeding our ability to figure out what our students meant. And they have some justification for their outrage; technology has at the very least made the whole process of teaching writing much more complicated. If technology has taught them to not trust themselves, you have to rebuild that trust. If it has taught them that passives should be ironed out at all costs, you have to explain what that's all about and hope they believe you over their little tech coach/advisor. If they live and breathe with a translator by their side, you have to adjust to that somehow. There is no easy way out.

That's why I say: For better or worse. I see the development of Grammarly and its competition with Word grammar-check as somewhat inevitable. Even if grammar-check developed slowly, it would still develop, and the results of its omnipotence and ubiquity would slowly but surely change the language, as it is doing as I write. I'm not justifying it, or saying it's good; all I'm saying is, it's like climate change. Get used to it! There's no going back.

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