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Oct
05
2012

Spell and Grammar Checkers

I’m not a native English speaker, so given the task of writing something a bit more involved than just a blog post, I decided to seek out a spell checker which could also analyze my grammar (things such as punctuation rules, mixed up tense and so on come to mind).

The easiest route would probably have been to just install Word since it has both a spell checker and a grammar checker built-in, but I’m a bit allergic to having Office on my system, so I hesitated for a few days and looked at several other options. Which ended up motivating me to write this little rant…

Ginger

My first stop was "Ginger", which is supposedly the exact spell checker that’s integrated into Word. That gives it some credibility and on top of that, it’s free. So how did it work out? Can you spell "disaster?"

What I was looking for was a silly little program that I could launch, paste some text into and get shown a list of spelling and grammar errors.

What I got downloaded and installed a megabyte-sized Office Add-in (uhm, did I mention that I don’t have Office?), a Firefox Add-In, an Internet Explorer add-in and a tray icon:

Screenshot of the Ginger installer wasting my time download an office add-in

When the installer had finished, I was left with this… bar thing blocking the top of my screen:

Screenshot of the corrupted Ginger Bar

This bar prevents me from reaching my editor’s menus or from moving the window around. To the left there’s some message-box-looking thingy that says nothing and gives me the choice between either nothing or nothing. At least there’s a helpful hint at the right side of the weird window: "Click your text and press F2 to start correcting with Ginger."

When I pressed F2 for the first time, I got this:

The error message Ginger displayed the first time I tried to use it

From then on, all the F2 key did was take focus away from the active window… to nothing. If I switch to another application, the weird bar morphs into a smaller version of itself that looks like this:

Screenshot of the Ginger Bar in its minimized state

Well, needless to say that this wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Especially not the Firefox and Internet Explorer add-ins. Or the tray icon, or the always present bar on my screen. Neither was the Office add-in, but well, at least it was only dead weight and didn’t get in the way like the rest.

To add insult to injury, the uninstaller asked me why I was uninstalling Ginger. I wrote in friendly terms that it doesn’t work, is showing graphical garbage and left my email address. Which, a week later, actually got contacted. By someone who clearly hadn’t even read my comments and told me that I could continue using this wonderful product by simply clicking on a nice green rounded rectangle with a link in it. Outch.

Grammarly

Give your product a nice Web 2.0 name and your userbase will at once imagine a streamlined application with shaded buttons, sensible design choices and great usability.

It’s certainly true for the front page of the website, which invites you to try out Grammarly by pasting some text into a prominently placed input box right away:

Screenshot of the front page of the Grammarly website in Internet Explorer

Except that it doesn’t. It will tell you the number of errors you supposedly have in your text, but keeps the actual report hostage until you signed up. Wait a moment, this costs money! But how much?

That’s what you’ll be asking yourself for quite a while as you browse their front page, feedback area, terms of use, etc. but the price for the service is nowhere to be seen. Eventually you’ll try the sign up page, hoping to at least see the prices during the registration steps, but what you get is this:

Screenshot of the Grammarly sign-up form in Internet Explorer

Notice something about that "Proceed to Next Step" button?

That’s right, it doesn’t just move through a wizard, it requires you to agree to their terms of service. And, as expected, this is what you’re agreeing to:

Consent to Receive Email

Your registration to use the Site and/or Services constitutes your consent to receive email communications from Grammarly, including messages regarding customer service issues and other matters. You may opt not to receive email correspondence, other than technical notifications and email regarding issues related to your account and your use of the Site and Services, at any time by following the link included in the email messages.

Once you’ve consented to receiving emails from Grammarly, you get to see the prices at least. I think a good tag line would be:

Why send your kids to college if you can use this fantastic grammar checker instead?

Because the price is about $30 monthly (or $130 yearly at a big discount) and of course that’s at the reduced price, valid only for a short time, so better sign up quick!

You’ll have to leave your credit card details, but they state that you can test the service for 7 days and that you’re able to cancel online or by phone (a quick heads up: the online cancellation was quick and painless, so I don’t see anything speaking against trying out Grammarly for yourself if you want to.)

 

So what do you get after signing up?

Well, I had to paste my text all over again. Except that I couldn’t, because suddenly, I was told that I needed a Firefox add-in to paste text into their input box. WTF?

There also was an option allowing me to upload a document in RTF or HTML format. Which I made use of next. After the upload was finished, I was informed that my document could not be analyzed because it was longer than 30 pages. Erm…

Thus, the next thing I found myself doing was splitting my document into smaller pieces that I could upload to Grammarly. I quickly closed all those WordPad windows again to avoid the risk of editing the temporary copies instead of my original document.

With the split document pieces, my text at last appeared in the input box, even if all formatting was lost and paragraphs had been moved together without blank lines inbetween. The grammar checker then proceeded to make brilliant suggestions such as:

  • "He took a step backwards" should be changed to "He took step backwards."
  • "Later, four horse-drawn carriages entered the village" should be changed to "Later, for horse-drawn carriages entered the village."
  • "Everyone felt nervous when they left the carriages" should be changed to "Everyone felt nervous when he left the carriages."

Well, I do not agree with this grammar checker. I’m no longer sure if my last sentence is actually correct (maybe it would be better to write "They all felt nervous when they left the carriages" but that would repeat the word "they"). In light of those clearly insane suggestions, I was now more confused about what was good advice and what wasn’t than anything else.

In each suggestion pop-up, you’ll also find a link that recommends you to save time and let a professional fix your mistakes for you. Not surprising, given typical market rates at $175 / 10,000 words. I feel a bit sorry for the proof readers who might get a big, cohesive block of text with no distinguishable structure unless you have to upload your text a second time.

This was enough for me to decide that I didn’t want to pay obscene amounts of money for Grammarly, so I cancelled my subscription (which, as I mentioned before, is the one feature they got right – a single click on a button, no questions asked, no hassle.)

When I then tried to create another screenshot of the aforementioned poor suggestions for this article, I couldn’t because by cancelling my subscription, it seems that my 7 day free trial is null and void.

Word

I’m still looking for a good grammar checker, obviously.

Grammarly could have been great (it even provides statistics about your most common errors), but every third suggestion was completely insane from my point of view, so it has shattered my trust in the service. Their sleazy sales tactics also didn’t help much.

Ginger, well, the only good thing I can say is that the installer and uninstaller worked (the uninstaller only after the second attempt…)

I’ve now installed Word from the Office 2013 Preview, which includes a spell checker (the one from Ginger, even, I believe) that works. It doesn’t catch many grammar errors and hasn’t detected missing articles, confusing "live" with "life" and such, but at least I have a window I can paste text into, press F7, fix it and be done with it instead of finding my task bar and web browser taken over.

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