These Cards Always Lie!

Joan Blondell as Zeena in “Nightmare Alley”

Back in college, my friend Bill and I used to go to the Film Society’s offering every week. One of the movies that made the biggest impression on us was Nightmare Alley (1947), a noir tale of a carny barker and con man played by Tyrone Power, and his inexorable fall. In one key scene, a mentalist (Joan Blondell) lays out Tarot cards for Power’s character. As she slowly grasps what they are telling her, a look of absolute horror slowly and deliciously spreads across her face. She clears the table with a violent sweep of her arm and declaims: “These cards always lie!”

“These cards always lie!” was our catchphrase for the semester.

I felt like pulling that expression out for the first time in decades this week. It all started when I got an e-mail from Grammarly, a Web-based service that describes itself as “an automated proofreader and your personal grammar coach.” It went on: “Check your writing for grammar, punctuation, style and much more.” There’s a bare-bones free version, but now, Grammarly was offering me a five-day gratis trial of the deluxe edition, which, at the cheapest price point, runs $140 year.

How could I resist? I signed up and was presented with a blank field into which I could paste or upload a text. I chose the first chapter of my forthcoming book—a guide to writing, as it happens—and picked “General” for style (as opposed to Business, Academic, or Creative) After eight or nine minutes of almost audible data crunching, the verdict came down. Grammarly had found 230 “writing issues” and had 193 “enhancement suggestions.” Bottom line? My numerical grade was 47 of 100, with an overall assessment of “weak, needs revision.”

So do those cards lie? Well, judge for yourself. Here’s one paragraph from my text, with the bracketed numbers keyed to Grammarly’s criticisms, listed below, and the bracketed comments inserted by Grammarly. (My previous sentence referred to the fact that grammatical standards and “rules” change over time.)

On that idea [1] of “accepted practice” changing, I recognize—as how could anyone not? [2] [not, note, nota] —that [3] standards [4] [Standards] evolve over time. There was a time when it was verboten to end a sentence with a preposition, start one with a conjunction, write “an e-mail” instead of “an e-mail message,” use “hopefully” to mean “I hope that,” and so on. Now all those things are okay. Going back even farther[5], it used to be that the first-person future tense of to go was “I shall go.”[5] If you [6] said that today, you would get some seriously strange looks. “Awful” used to refer to the quality of filling one with, [7] you [8] got it, awe; now it means really bad. [9] [10]

  1. Comma-mark missing where expected.
  2. Spelling
  3. Missing Final Punctuation
  4. Review this sentence for capital letters.
  5. Dependent phrase may not properly modify subject in main clause of this sentence.
  6. Personal pronoun may not be appropriate for formal or academic writing.
  7. Comma splice separates two independent clauses instead of conjunction or semicolon.
  8. Personal pronoun may not be appropriate for formal or academic writing.
  9. Adjective (instead of adverb) modifying verb.
  10. Determiner or modifier is potentially unnecessary.


I divide the critiques into two categories. I understand where Grammarly is coming from with 5, 6, 8, and 10, though even with that understanding I would not make any changes. The other six are meritless and/or baffling. Needless to say, when the free trial runs out, I will not be parting with $140.

Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks ago, The New York Times ran an excellent online piece by Helen Sword called “Zombie Nouns,” about the deadening effects on prose of  nouns formed from other parts of speech (like implacability, generalization, and tendency.)  Sword, a New Zealand professor with a new book called Stylish Academic Writing, mentioned in the essay that she had put up a Web site where you can test whether your own writing is “flabby or fit”—free! Naturally, I pasted in a chunk of my Intro (the size limit is 1,000 words).

I like Sword’s cards a whole lot better than Grammarly’s, given that they declared my passage was “Fit & Trim.” Here’s the breakdown:


All kidding aside, my general feeling is that when it comes to computer programs evaluating prose, the cards never tell the truth. Those of us involved in teaching writing should bear that in mind when the Holy Grail of the endeavor—automated paper grading—is periodically raised.

Unfortunately, such solutions appear already to be prevalent in high schools and middle schools, especially in the grading of standardized tests. Michael Winerip, the Times‘ education columnist, had a piece on the subject a few months ago that focused on e-Rater, the automated reader developed by the Educational Testing Service, which supposedly “can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds.” Winerip wrote about Les Perelman, director of Writing Across the Curriculum at MIT, who, as a sort of hobby, likes to expose the bogosity of these programs, which reward big words and long sentences, among other bogus things, and pay scant or no attention to the actual content of essays.

To a prompt asking for explanations for the high cost of college, Perelman composed a 716-word essay. Here’s one paragraph:

Teaching assistants are paid an excessive amount of money. The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents. In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, a staring roles in motion pictures. Moreover, in the Dickens novel Great Expectation, Pip makes his fortune by being a teaching assistant. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, since there are three parts to everything you can think of. If you can’t think of more than two, you just have to think harder or come up with something that might fit. An example will often work, like the three causes of the Civil War or abortion or reasons why the ridiculous twenty-one-year-old limit for drinking alcohol should be abolished. A worse problem is when you wind up with more than three subtopics, since sometimes you want to talk about all of them.

E-Rater grades essays on a scale of one (worst) to six (best). Perelman’s essay got a six. And that is some lying cards.




Return to Top