Grammar-checking software is everywhere now. But does it replace an editor? No. Machines are not yet capable of catching everything a human can catch. Maybe they will someday, but we’re not there yet.
So what does an editor catch that grammar software doesn’t catch? I’m glad you asked.
Timeline and Appropriateness
Editors should note when the timeline doesn’t make sense. For example, if a man was thirty-two years old at the beginning of the novel and six years has passed during the events of the novel, he should be thirty-eight. If at the end of the book, it’s mentioned that he is celebrating his fortieth birthday, the math doesn’t add up. Grammar software will not catch this mistake, but your editor will. And if you don’t use an editor, your readers will certainly catch it.
Editors will also notice when something is unrealistic to the timeline. For example, it’s unlikely that characters would be celebrating Christmas in Michigan while they’re wearing shorts and flip flops or that a trip that took ten minutes on foot takes fifteen minutes on a bike.
Other things editors will often note is when a metaphor or simile doesn’t quite work or when something you’ve written may be offensive. While grammar checkers may be able to make sure your offensive wording is presented correctly, they can’t point out the human reaction that such words may evoke.
Changes to Characters and Things
Grammar checkers will not be able to tell if something about your character has changed. Perhaps your main character was originally a brunette, but somewhere along the way, you decided to give her red hair instead and forgot that you had even mentioned her hair color before. An editor will notice the change, but a grammar checker will only make sure you spelled the colors correctly. Similarly, if your character’s name changed from Susie to Sue, most grammar checkers will not point that out to you.
Likewise, an editor will notice changes to places or things, such as a red shirt suddenly becoming a blue shirt or a school that was on the west side of town suddenly being on the east side. Perhaps these things are explainable—such as time-space interference or a multiverse situation—but your editor can follow the logic of these things while grammar checkers cannot.
Plot and Character Development
An editor will also find holes in your plot. If something doesn’t quite work—maybe it worked in your head, but there’s not enough on the page for the reader to follow it—your editor can help you find it and fix it.
An editor will also point out if there needs to be additional character development or if something seems out of character. For example, in a book I recently proofread, a nurse said something condescending to a patient during a social event at a hospital. I pointed out to the author that it seemed unlikely that a member of the staff would behave in such a way, so he changed it to have another patient say it instead.
Correct Spelling but Incorrect Context
Sometimes grammar checkers are not sophisticated enough to recognize when correctly spelled words are used incorrectly in the context. Famous examples are there/their/they’re, to/too, and bear/bare being used erroneously. But there are even worse faux pas. We all start thinking about other things sometimes when we’re writing. Perhaps I meant to write “incorporate,” but my mind wandered while I was waiting for my fingers to catch up, and I accidentally typed “incorporeal.” Those are not at all the same things, but they are both spelled correctly. Editors will catch that the entirely wrong word was used. They might not be able to tell what the intended word was, but they’ll know that one’s not right based on the context and will ask you what you intended there.
Style Guide and Specific Dictionary
There are generally specific style guides and dictionaries required based on industry. For example, fiction should follow Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (M-W). But grammar checkers don’t usually let you choose a specific style guide or dictionary.
Also, all grammar checkers require you, a human, to decide whether to accept the suggestions offered by the software. But if you aren’t familiar with the style guides or specific dictionaries for your industry, how do you make an educated decision on whether to accept those suggestions? You could very well choose incorrectly.
An additional issue editors handle is when CMOS and M-W conflict with one another. For instance, “internet” is capitalized in M-W, but CMOS lowercases it; “copyeditor” is two words in M-W, but in CMOS, it’s only one. (Hint: CMOS trumps M-W unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise.) To add more headache to the situation, both reference materials require a subscription to access their information, so if you want to look up something, you would have to buy those subscriptions. Plus, your time may be better spent creating your next book rather than worrying about these details.
What about Proofreading?
Can grammar checkers replace proofreading? Admittedly, it’s a closer comparison. But there are still the issues of correct spelling in incorrect context and familiarity with style guides and dictionaries to be concerned about. There’s also the human sensitivity element that software can’t catch.
Do Editors Use Grammar Software?
Absolutely. It would be foolish to ignore the tools available that can aid me. I use software at the beginning of a project and again at the end. At the beginning, it helps me to get an overview of the manuscript and what challenges I may be facing. It also helps me to start filling out my style sheet by documenting decisions I’ve made or noting things to pay attention to as I’m going through the manuscript—for example, if I didn’t know enough about what was going on to make a judgment call for something that the software brought up as a possible error or inconsistency. At the end, I run it again because it helps me feel confident that I didn’t overlook something or create an error and that I addressed everything that I didn’t feel confident addressing at the beginning. I also run Word’s spelling and grammar check at the end for the same reason. But these tools unquestionably do not make up for the time I spent combing through the manuscript and noticing the things I mention in this post, like timeline, plot, and other details.
Should I Use Grammar Software?
If you’re not planning to hire an editor or a proofreader, then you absolutely should. It’s better than nothing. But the software is not yet at the point where it can replace everything a human can do. And the confidence you’ll feel in your product after an editor helps you is worth the money.