Artificial Intelligence Wants Us To Write Better

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 7, 2016

For weeks now, my computer has been nagging me to write clearer. I checked Google, and Microsoft has upgraded Office 2016 with two new tools for Word and Outlook: Editor and Researcher. In the past, I’ve thought of adding Grammarly to Office, but using the full version is rather pricey. I wonder if the new Editor feature in Word is meant to compete with it, or similar add-on grammar checking programs? It must be a bummer for little companies that create a business by patching cracks in big programs when those cracks are filled.


Anyway, the update feels like Microsoft fed my computer a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser, the classic guide to clear writing. Word now bitches at me to simplify my sentences. Little red underlines and popups tell me the same thing my teachers used to write in red ink on my papers. This advice feels like a Deep Learning program studied all the works of Ernest Hemingway and now wants us to write like Papa. It’s hard on passive voice, wordy phrases, and unnecessary words. Words like “really” and “just” are superfluous. And they are, but I often use them to make my writing voice sound like my speaking voice. The AI in Word obviously thinks I sound dumb. Surely, it knows best.

When did AI minds decide clear writing in humans was needed? Did NSA computers ask Microsoft computer to help clean up our language? Spy programs would have an easier time tracking our opinions if we wrote precisely.

Do you take style and grammatical suggestions from your computer? We could tell it to shut the #@&% up. Don’t our grammatical quirks give us unique voices? Won’t Word convince all humans to sound alike? I wonder how many people around the world learn English just so they can go more places on the web? Will grammar checkers convince us all to write the same way? Maybe it’s not Microsoft, but the AI overlords. They want us to be more logical. We’re being evolved.


8 thoughts on “Artificial Intelligence Wants Us To Write Better”

  1. Omg, Jim. You have touched on a subject near and dear to my heart – Daddy was an English teacher and I love the subject. I can even still diagram a sentence.

    No – I do NOT rely on my computer to tell me anything about my writing except how to spell a word and even then they sometimes get it wrong. I suppose this often shows in my blog. lol

    I read the book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” (Lynn Truss) some time ago and it’s great, funny, perceptive and spot on (for the UK, anyway). It’s mostly about commas but covers other punctuation as well. It’s dedicated “to the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St. Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution” LOL!

    To me, clarity trumps all. If someone’s writing is full of dangling participles, unclear antecedents an excess of clauses and ambiguous pronouns (to say nothing of punctuation errors), then it’s harder for a reader to make sense of it. Papa Hemingway was a bit too concise and I personally like Faulkner better. However, Faulkner knows how to keep the sense of the sentence flowing and remain lovely throughout all those clauses. He was pretty careful about everything.

    Anyway, the main question is, “for whom are you writing?”

    If you’re writing a text message then formal language and grammar would be way out of place. If you’re writing an email to a group of like-minded friends that’s more informal -your own voice is fine – but check for clarity! Skip the Grammarly.

    But if you’re writing a business letter, a project proposal or whatever, then formal is best and the Grammarly information is likely quite useful. Do not use your own chatty little voice. lol Text-write in a business letter is NOT going to get you the job.

    No matter what or how we communicate (except in some novels) the goal is clarity. It’s not always a good idea to just “write like we talk” because the two mediums are inherently different. When we communicate orally we add all sorts of vocal tones, pauses and gestures if it’s in person and even then misunderstandings abound. But there’s no one available to clarify when the communication is written and the clarifiers mentioned in the previous sentence aren’t even available in written text. Written communication demands that the clarity be on the paper.

    Goodness, I certainly do ramble – and I sound like a lecture – sorry,

  2. Yes, yes, and yes. However, there is more to that. Human communication’s hierarchical context has it’s own rules, and in the case of “business” is not unlike the serf through royalty relationships from our European Middle Ages. A pleading memo from on-high seems weak and ambiguous in the context of office drones. Strident pontifications of Sturm und Drang cascading down through levels of management may be cause for mass self-immolation, or at least emergency vacation requests.
    In other contexts, a teenage love letter may be sweet and pure at heart but may be cause for a police department’s investigation (or worse, psychological treatment and therapy).

    I prefer my complex data interaction from the hardware/software interface of today’s pre-Skynet tools to be in strict digital form. That way I can ignore it and continue to daydream.

    And JW, I really hope you’re wrong about our being “evolved” by our software. First, the tooth and claw theory of evolution at least gives us the illusion that Mother Nature has a plan and will stick to it right up to our end.

    Second, the premise that we are easily bent to the long term will of our own tools through “practical” evolution lacks the room for belief in an Omnipresence so far above us that we can sneak around in the loosely bound details of such a concept. Our monkey-brain lives for that freedom.

  3. Um. Didn’t you mean to say “my computer has been nagging me to write more clearly or with more clarity? 😉

  4. Well, so far, computers can only tell us what other humans have programmed them to tell us. So it’s really a variation of the authority-figure concept, with all the same considerations and reactions.

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