top of page
  • Writer's pictureSiân Smith

Why Grammarly can't replace a proofreader

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Spellcheck, Grammarly, and other editing programs can be incredibly useful. Professional copyeditors and proofreaders use at least one proofreading program when working with written content (often two or more). Certainly, it’s best to run your written content through one or more of these programs before you press ‘publish’, as they will catch errors that would otherwise have been missed.

However, editors and proofreaders don’t rely on JUST those programs.

We allow for the wonderful idiosyncrasies of the English language to inform our decisions, use years of experience to prepare us for the most common errors, and have a community of proofreaders and editors we can seek assistance from should we ever want a second opinion.

Things a proofreader will spot that Grammarly will miss

  • Broken / incorrectly cited links

  • Changes in font type and other formatting issues (line spacing, paragraph type, etc.)

  • Words that are technically spelt correctly, but are not the correct spelling for that scenario (eg ‘parkrun’ is always spelt with a lowercase ‘p’, even at the start of a sentence. Or how you must follow the exact spelling of a company name, even if that company name is in US English whereas you are writing in British English, eg Smart Color Design Ltd.)

  • Not using capital letters for brand names (and, conversely, incorrectly using capital letters for job titles!)

  • If Sara changes to Sarah for a little while (or permanently!)

  • Copyright issues

  • Using outdated or gendered language (it can pull you up on this, but it’s not always reliable)

  • Where your sentence structure could be improved to clarify your meaning (using alternative words)*

  • Avoiding cliches / overused tropes

  • Where your authorial voice becomes weaker (and how to strengthen it again!)

  • Inconsistencies from YOUR style guide

  • Errors with pagination

  • Cross reference errors

  • Incorrect captions and figure headings

*I have been informed that ‘Grammarly does this to a point. Sometimes it’s bang on, sometimes it’s word salad.’ (Dani Brushfield-Smith, Rogue Letters)

A Caucasian hand holding open a grammar textbook on a page about quotation marks.
Grammarly loves grammar rules. Proofreaders know when these should be broken! Photo credit: Siân Smith

There are many more examples, but there are two main advantages to using a human proofreader in addition to a proofreading program:

1) The art of querying

2) The difference between what must be changed, what could be changed, and what should be left as it is (stet).

1. Proofreaders and editors love to QUERY

This is especially pertinent when we work directly with the author, eg self-publishing authors or small business owners. We can ask you questions and have a conversation about what you actually meant in a sentence. Where a sentence can currently be interpreted one way, but I anticipate (from context/your background) that a different meaning is intended, I will provide two ways to phrase the sentence, explaining how the different phraseology creates a different meaning. This, plus the conversation I invite when querying your work, means we achieve ultimate clarity with your written content.

I love getting to know my self-publishing authors. They may, for example, refer to the year 1980 when they were five years old, but as I know they are currently 46 in 2023, this maths just doesn’t add up!

A Caucasian woman with blonde, wavy hair is smiling at the camera in front of a computer screen. Photo credit: Sian Smiith
I won't just tell you to make any changes, I'll discuss changes with you. Photo credit: Siân Smith

The same applies to any references that have been used in the work: we may spot a repeated reference that doesn’t seem to apply to the point being raised, and so we can ask them to check whether there’s a missing reference. Sometimes I will refer them to a news story that seems pertinent to what they’re writing, too. Of course, this last example is copyediting rather than proofreading, but it still highlights the value of working with someone who knows you and has taken the time to get to know your work.

2. We understand (but don’t always stick to) the grammar rules

Above all, we KNOW what MUST be changed, what COULD be changed (according to personal preference), and what should be left well alone. Proofreading software can only highlight and recommend you make the changes – it doesn’t understand the complexities and nuances of the English language well enough to distinguish between these three different types of changes.

If you went ahead and just blindly accepted all the changes because Grammarly says so, unfortunately, there will be several incidences where your writing no longer sounds like you, or (even worse) your sentence no longer makes sense. I will always point out to my authors when ‘who’ should become ‘whom’, but as I understand use of the word ‘whom’ can sound incredibly formal these days, I make it clear that ‘whom’ is grammatical, but sticking with ‘who’ is also perfectly acceptable. (I had one author who replied to my comment to say they would use ‘whom’, otherwise they’d never hear the end of it from their mum 🤣.)

A Caucasian hand with dark, painted nails is holding a book called 'New Oxford Dictionary For Writers & Editors' in front of a computer screen.
Because I understand grammar rules, I know when they must be adhered to and when they can be left alone. Photo credit: Siân Smith

The English language is incredibly tricky to navigate. That’s why proofreaders and editors are professionally trained, use certain reference books to double-check, and undertake continual professional development to keep up to speed with the latest developments in the English language.

Proofreaders are human

Do you ever get frustrated using the self-checkouts at the supermarket? It’s telling you an item hasn’t been put in the bagging area and you just want to tell it the item you’re adding is extremely light (like a greetings card) or that yes, those are my shopping bags. The self-checkout can be quicker and more convenient, but nothing beats getting assistance from an actual human being.

It’s the same with proofreading programs. Grammarly is an AI program, AKA a robot. Proofreaders are human. Proofreading programs just don’t understand the wonderful human voices and dialects that we NEED to preserve in writing. The gorgeous phrases and intentional uses of punctuation that draw our attention to both what they say and how they say it.

We connect with a writer’s humanity more than their ability to never end a sentence with a preposition. Human proofreaders work with a writer’s voice and use of grammar. Errors which distract the reader or suggest a different meaning to what is intended are (of course) amended, but those supposed ‘errors’ which actually characterise that particular writer must be retained.

Above all, Grammarly and other proofreading programs will never be able to understand the nuances of the English language, NOR can they get to know your personal authorial voice. Proofreaders and editors are obsessed with grammar and the glorious way the rules can (and should) be bent or broken to ensure the unique voice of that piece stays intact. Combine this with ensuring that voice is also coherent to your readers, and you can see why there’s just no comparison between a human proofreader and Grammarly robot.

Written and proofread by Siân Smith, verified human and certified proofreader.

A Caucasian woman with blonde, wavy hair is smiling at the camera. She is wearing round glasses and has big, silver hoop earrings. She is wearing a tank top, which is lavender grey.
Siân Smith: certified proofreader, definitely human. Photo credit: Siân Smith

79 views0 comments


bottom of page