Becoming Your Own Grammarly -->

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Becoming Your Own Grammarly

Matt Smith
By Matt Smith, Writing Consultant

In my last post, I discussed the benefits of incorporating Grammarly into your writing process. Grammarly is a great resource, but it can’t do everything; its core function is only to quickly analyze your writing and provide details about the grammar issues it identifies. Unfortunately, it has no speedy, high-tech way of ensuring that you learn and retain this information.

You can best internalize these grammar rules—to know them so well you use them as automatically as you walk, without having to think about putting one foot in front of the other—by using them over and over again. The most natural way to do this is simply to write, which you already do in your coursework and capstone projects. Just like critical reading, however, you’ll learn more from this experience by engaging your writing critically, actively learning from your mistakes and improving over time as a result. In other words, you can more fluently understand grammar by, essentially, becoming your own Grammarly.

Let me be more specific: I want you to try reviewing your text like Grammarly would. Start with just a page or two of your most recent paper or post, reading sentence by sentence. Focus solely on the mechanics of your writing and try, as much as you can, to ignore the big-picture issues such as organization and tone (they’re really important, but that’s not what we’re working on here). The point is to lay bare the fundamental pieces of your text so you can see how they all fit together, because, with apologies to William Carlos Williams, a piece of writing is really a machine made of words. As with the repair of any other machine, you need to understand how its parts operate before you can spot the faulty ones.

In each sentence, identify the subject and the verb; then, find the direct object and any prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, etc. (See our page on sentence elements for more about these parts of speech.) If you want, you could even diagram your sentences—however, if this gives you, as it does me, nauseating flashbacks to seventh-grade English, feel free to skip the diagramming. Don’t make any corrections if you spot errors—we’ll save those for later. Instead, make a note in your text either by writing directly onto a printed copy or by using Track Changes in Microsoft Word.

After you identify the components of each sentence, check to see that they properly connect to each other. Determine whether a sentence is a fragment or a run-on, check for appropriate article usage, and look for subject-verb agreement, noun-pronoun agreement, and parallel construction. These issues comprise the majority of grammar mistakes we encounter in the Writing Center, so mastering these rules in particular will likely minimize the sentence-level interference in your work. Repeat this for each sentence in this sample (remember, you’re only looking at 1-2 pages; don’t do much more than that unless you have a few hours to spare).

Read through the sentences once more with an eye for basic style issues, such as punctuation (especially commas used to connect clauses), word choice, and passive voice. At this point, you’ll have created an analyzed, marked-up version of your text similar to what Grammarly would produce. Take a moment now to look through your notes. Do you notice any patterns? Which issues are the most prevalent?

Finally, run this sample through Grammarly and compare its report with your own. Were there any discrepancies? Did Grammarly notice any issues you didn’t (or vice versa)? After you compare these analyses, revise your text to eliminate the issues you found.

This may seem like a tedious process, and you may not get any more information than you would by using Grammarly alone—after all, automating this kind of drudgery is precisely why we have computers. And, in a sense, you’d be right: this work can be repetitive. But that’s part of the point. While all writing practice—course papers, discussion posts, emails, grocery lists—is helpful to some degree, critically analyzing your work and adjusting it accordingly sharpens your skills better than practice alone would. Moreover, a writing process that includes critical analysis will build on itself over time. Like a baseball player taking batting practice or a photographer tweaking shots in a darkroom, you’ll have learned what to do differently in the future; that player will get better at pulling the ball to the opposite field, and that photographer will better gauge the lighting at her next shoot.

Or think of writing as you would music—after all, both are complex rule systems that beginners find daunting. You start small, picking out notes on a piano, putting them together, in the following days and weeks, to form chords and progressions, and steadily increasing the tempo at which you can play without stopping until finally you no longer have to look at the keys or even your sheet music.