(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

Dear Grammarly:

I recently bought a subscription to your extensively advertised online writing-enhancement tool, which promises both plagiarism detection and state-of-the-art proofreading for grammar, word usage and syntax. For several days now, your program has been reading my submissions and issuing instant reports on their quality and originality. Please accept this as a report on your reports.

I have no issues with your plagiarism policing, inasmuch as you busted me repeatedly when I submitted others’ work as my own, such as the opening page of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Good work! Tragically, your computer did not stop there. It turns out it was not that impressed with Mr. Nabokov’s writing chops. It suggested, for example, that he punch up the two most memorable phrases he ever wrote, in the line for which he is most deservedly famous, by adding the definite article. To wit: “Lolita, the light of my life, the fire of my loins.”

In short, as a sleuth, Grammarly is top-notch. As an editor, however, it is of the prissy, arbitrary, rule-besotted sort whom good writers want to kill. Under the circumstances, I would do it slow and ugly, like what Dave the astronaut did to HAL.

Consider “Consider the Lobster,” the famous magazine story by the late David Foster Wallace, which I submitted and Grammarly instantly recognized. Unfortunately, it then had some writing tips for Mr. Wallace. First, it found this line wanting: “The point is that lobsters are basically giant sea-insects.” Grammarly demanded that Wallace delete “basically,” a word that the program seems to universally disapprove of. Alas, losing that amusing qualifier here would be deeply disturbing to any taxonomist, let alone any shellfish lover. (From the same article, Grammarly notes that Wallace refers to “long skinny forks” that are deployed to dislodge lobster meat and suggests that he meant, instead, “long, skinny folks.”)

Grammarly tends to criticize for “wordiness” any sentence that contains more than 20 of those basic units of language. Unfortunately, this rather unforgiving threshold would dismiss as harrumphing blather the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address, “A Tale of Two Cities,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Don Quixote,” as well as, ahem, this very sentence . (“Moby-Dick’s” famous three-word first line is not wordy, according to Grammarly, but the second line is, and also the fourth. Grammarly hates Melville.)

In addition to “basically,” Grammarly has absolutely no use for three other adverbs, applied in most any context: “very,” “really” and “actually.” It almost always flags them as unnecessary. This basically really defames just about every page of “The Catcher in the Rye,” which is actually a very good book, if you want to know the truth.

Anyway, I began to think there would be nothing your tool would find simply perfect, in no need of tweaking or improvement. For example, I submitted a few of my recent columns, only to discover that, as far as wordiness, I am second only to Melville. (Note to self, as a blurb for my next book cover: “Second only to Melville.” — Grammarly)

Finally, though, I remembered a piece of literature I have long cherished. I have it in my house. So I fed it into Grammarly, and it came back completely clean. Not a line challenged, not a phrase found wanting, no trace of dreaded wordiness. It’s perfect, says Grammarly, and I have to say I agree. It was written in 1988. I print it here, verbatim.

The Dead Cow

By Molly Weingarten, age 7

There once was a cow named Francine. Francine

was pretty. One day she ate some poison and she

died. She went to heaven.

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