Using LanguageTool to improve your writing

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Published on 1 September 2022 by Andrew Owen (4 minutes)

As I’ve previously remarked, I missed two things on switching from print journalism to technical writing. I covered style guides last week, so this time it’s editors (I retained the black coffee addiction). If you have to write customer-facing copy, and you’re lucky enough to have an editor, make sure their boss knows how important their work is to your job. If not, there are some software solutions that can help.

But before I get into that, there are some things you can do to help yourself out. First, give your copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” to that friend of yours who churns out novels that should never be published (this will ensure that they remain unpublished). Then get a decent style guide.

If you can, get a colleague to peer review your writing (offer to do the same for them in return). Our brains lie to us—we see what we think we wrote. When you’re proofreading, print it out. Typically, this is against company environmental policy, but be prepared to stand your ground (and offer to use recycled paper). Studies have shown that we read faster and absorb more when we read on paper compared to computer screens.

Almost thirty years ago, when I was learning the craft of newswriting, our IT department helpfully removed the spell checker from every copy of Microsoft Word in the communications faculty. The logic was that spell checkers gave a false sense of security because they would accept words that were spelled correctly but used incorrectly. For example, anything with an apostrophe in it.

The technology has improved since then, and if you’re using an app that has spelling and grammar checking available, you should enable it. But make sure you select the correct region (typically English-US). Microsoft Office products have caused me no end of headaches because they enable different sections to use different dialects of English. If I’m editing anything in Office, I typically select everything and set the language to US English before I start.

If you’re creating customer-facing docs in Markdown in VSCode then I recommend the Code Spell Checker. It’s smart enough not to flag all your code as spelling errors. But maybe you’re using web tools, like Google Docs or some kind of content management system. Most browsers include support for spell checking, but it’s usually fairly primitive. This is where the dedicated solutions that you could think of as virtual editors come in.

If you watch YouTube, doubtless you’ve seen an advert for Grammarly. There are dozens of similar tools, but it’s the most heavily marketed towards individuals. At the other end of the scale, there’s Acrolinx, an enterprise solution that you’ve probably never heard of. Grammarly offers various tiers from free to $15 a month per person for the business tier. Acrolinx doesn’t discuss its pricing and probably won’t talk to you unless you run a communications department.

Acrolinx is great if you want dictatorial control of your corporate messaging. That can be a good thing. But if the powers that be put it in Strunk and White mode, then it’s more of a hindrance than a help. I haven’t used Grammarly. My prejudice against it is based entirely on the company’s own marketing copy. If you run it through Grammarly’s own free online checker, it picks out the type of problems I noticed in the text (although you have to sign up for an account to get the details). So I guess it works. I went looking for an alternative, and I found LanguageTool.

The biggest difference with LanguageTool from other options is that it’s open source. You can download the software and run it on your own servers. If you regularly work on commercial in-confidence documents, then this is worth considering. Any solution based on external servers is going to involve sending your classified data outside your organization, and you’ll be trusting your security to HTTPS.

LanguageTool is also available as a service, with comparable features to other products at comparable prices. I recommend it to everyone, but in particular those who have English as a second language. I have anecdotal reports that ESL users find it easier to get on with than Grammarly. Here are some of the features that I like about it:

  • Personal dictionary (handy for product names).
  • Mother tongue (enter your native language and LT highlights false friends).
  • Support for languages other than English (helpful for validating machine translation).
  • Support for dialects (for Catalan, English, German and Portuguese).
  • Option to switch off rules globally (although I’d like to be warned if I added a serial comma by mistake).

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for a real editor. You can’t have a discussion with software about why you disagree with it (yet). But software solutions like LanguageTool are better than nothing at all.

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