What Is Grammarly, and Is It Cheating?

Grammarly is an automated writing assistant, an online resource designed to help students spot and correct errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. In the simplest terms, Grammarly is a web-based editing application that helps students improve the quality of their writing. And boy do they need it. I should know. For a decade, I made a living helping students cheat. I worked for an array of contract cheating websites, where students would pay writers like me to complete their book reports, research projects, creative writing assignments, admission essays, thesis statements, and even doctoral dissertations. So believe me when I tell you that students at every single level, and with every kind of professional ambition, struggle to write grammatically competent sentences. Grammarly aims to help. But does it help? And more importantly, does it help too much? In other words, is using Grammarly cheating?

What Is Grammarly, and Is It Cheating?

If you squint your eyes, Grammarly might look a little bit like the shady custom paper writing sites where I once earned my living. Like Grammarly, most paper writing companies describe their services as editorial assistance. But this claim is a thin veil for what paper writing companies actually sell—which is the opportunity to outsource your academic responsibilities wholesale to a hired gun.

By contrast, Grammarly’s offer of editorial assistance seems to be genuine. In fact, there’s a good reason that Grammarly looks, on the surface, like many of the illicit services where you can buy tailor-made papers. It’s because both services address the same need. That is, both custom paper writing services and web-based editing assistance programs recognize that far too many students don’t know how to write.

Students at every level of education struggle with grammar, diction, and punctuationAcademicInfluence.com

Students at every level of education—from high school English students to doctoral candidates trudging through dissertations—struggle with grammar, diction, and punctuation. They struggle to organize their ideas, cite their sources, or build a case around a cohesive argument. Writing is an educational requirement and yet, for too many students, it is a source of anxiety and dread. Grammarly can’t necessarily fix all of these issues for you, but it can help you write better, and unlike customer paper writing companies, it isn’t cheating.

What Is Grammarly?

Grammarly is a free online writing assistant—though you can pay for an enhanced level of assistance (which we’ll get to in a minute). Grammarly is one of the leading entities in a writing enhancement software sector that includes competitors like ProWritingAid and Ginger.

The primary function of Grammarly is to help users identify grammatical errors, improper sentence structure, punctuation mistakes, and spelling typos in their writing. It can best be described as an editorial tool, one that can improve the user’s ability to produce grammatically correct writing.

How Does Grammarly Work?

Grammarly can be used either directly on the service’s website, or it can be added as a free extension to your browser. In either environment, you can write your document in real-time, or you can paste text that you’ve already written into the text editor for review. As you enter content into the text editor provided by the Grammarly extension—or directly on the Grammarly website—an automated editor will highlight spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. The editor will also offer explanations for why these errors have been flagged, and will consequently offer suggestions for how you can correct your mistakes.

Tools like Grammarly have potential value in improving time effectiveness for instructors and students.AcademicInfluence.com

These services are completely free of charge, and research suggests they have the potential to be quite valuable for students and instructors alike. According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Academic Language & Learning, Automated Writing Evaluation (AWE) tools like Grammarly have potential value in improving “time effectiveness” for instructors and students. The study finds “that students made more revisions if they used an AWE…[and that] these revisions were more likely to be surface-level revisions relating to form, suggesting that automated tools are more appropriate for grammar or spelling reviews than for higher level language issues.”

In other words, the free application can be very helpful in addressing the basic mechanics issues that students experience in their writing. For help with higher level language issues, you can pay Grammarly a monthly premium ($11.66 at the time of writing). This will give you access to a wide array of editorial services, including support in the following areas:

  • Sounding fluent in English
  • Communicating your ideas clearly
  • Avoiding plagiarism
  • Using more dynamic synonyms
  • Refining tone and delivery
  • Writing with concision

If you need even more personalized support, Grammarly also provides access to professional contract editing and proofreading services for paying customers. And perhaps it is this service offering that is likeliest to raise an eyebrow. Just how intensive are these editorial services? And to what extent do writing assistants—whether through an automated application or independently-contracted humans—undermine the creation of original work?

This is where educators may be given pause. We can all agree that improving the basic use of grammar and punctuation is a positive development, no matter how one comes by it. And adding a layer of editorial polish to the work can certainly make it a more digestible experience for the grader. But where is the line drawn between editorial polish and contract cheating. What’s the difference between Grammarly and, something like writemypaper4me.org, for instance?

Well, for one thing, there are no grammar errors on Grammarly’s homepage. But it goes deeper than that…

What’s The Difference Between Using Grammarly and Cheating?

The answer is actually readily found in a Grammarly’s origin story. The online tool has its roots in the anti-plagiarism business. According to The Stock Dork, “Ukrainian Co-founders Alex Shevchenko, Max Lytvyn, and Dmytro Lider started Grammarly in 2009. The development of Grammarly began with the co-founders’ 2004 plagiarism detection start-up called MyDropbox. This software was sold to universities in 2007 as a licensed product. This sale provided funding for the development of the browser extension we know today.”

This initial source of revenue makes Grammarly more akin to something like plagiarism detection leader turnitin.com, than to custom cheating services like writemypaper4me. And true to its roots, Grammarly’s suite of services works more like a helpful advisor standing over your shoulder than an outsourced laborer, delegated to do the work for you.

Grammarly is a utility that you can use to improve your writing, but it won't provide you with the substance at the heart of this writing. That's still your job.AcademicInfluence.com

At its heart, Grammarly is a utility that you can use to improve your writing, but it won’t provide you with the substance at the heart of this writing. That’s still your job. And that’s what separates Grammarly from the rather larger online market of cheating services. At most schools (unless expressly forbidden), editorial support is encouraged (or at least it should be).

The Office of Academic Integrity at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health offers a useful summation on editorial assistance, noting that it is indeed permissible to enlist the services of an editor for course and capstone work, “whether or not the editor receives any compensation in exchange for their work.”

Importantly, the Office of Academic Integrity specifies that “using an editor is only permissible if the editor provides stylistic and not substantive modifications to the course, capstone, or thesis related assignment.”

Stylistic modifications, says the Bloomberg School, include support with spelling, grammar, punctuation, clarity, referencing, and alternative phrasing. All of these editorial inputs are considered acceptable.

By contrast, substantive modifications, says Johns Hopkins, include writing new sentences which introduce new information, rewriting content to introduce new materials, adding or deleting references, or “any other modification that changes the meaning of what you’ve written in a material way.”

Grammarly will not conduct your research, produce your ideas, or build your arguments. And this matters a great deal.AcademicInfluence.com

Whether you simply use Grammarly’s free browser extension to spot-check typos, you pay for its premium service to spruce up your wordflow, or you go as far as commissioning the assistance of a professional proofer or editor, Grammarly will not conduct your research, produce your ideas, or build your arguments. And this matters a great deal.

That’s because, by contrast, these are exactly the types of substantive contributions that independently-contracted cheaters will make on behalf of their student customers. Contract paper writers conduct research, produce new ideas, craft arguments, and construct novel sentences to support these arguments. This is materially different from the stylistic services offered by Grammarly.

According to the Helpful Professor, a blog which, in the interest of full disclosure, offers its author a commission for link-throughs, assures that Grammarly won’t do any of the following:

  • “Tell you what to write about to get higher grades.
  • Give answers to your assignment questions.
  • Get grammar right every time.
  • Automatically make changes to your work.”

Again, outside of getting grammar the right every time, custom paper-writing companies literally do all of these things.

Should students use Grammarly?

According to Grammarly’s own research, internal surveys reveal that “75% of its users are afraid of being misunderstood.”

This is a powerful imperative driving people to its services. And it’s also the one thing that Grammarly users and contract cheating customers do have in common. They are both contending with a real and palpable fear. Language and writing deficiencies are rampant at every level of education, and at startling levels even in the upper reaches of the ivory tower.

There are many ways to manage this fear. Hiring a cheating service is certainly one way. But Grammarly presents a far more advisable way to manage the fear, and possibly even to vanquish it.

Should educators use Grammarly?

Put us solidly in the camp of those who advocate the use of Grammarly, not just for students, but for educators as well, especially those working in higher education. At this level of instruction, we’re guessing you haven’t the time, energy or inclination to police punctuation, correct spelling, and train in the basic rules of grammar. These are skills students should have learned on the way to the university.

Unfortunately, many don’t. So unless the goal of each and every class is to grade compositional ability, it’s clear that many students simply need this resource. In fact, there’s a compelling argument that instructors who decline to assist students in basic compositional matters should make Grammarly a mandatory part of the writing process, at least for students who demonstrate the need.

To return briefly to the business of contract cheating, it’s clear to anybody in this illicit sector that the client base is made up primarily of those who demonstrate such a need, whether because English is a second language, or because they simply lack the necessary academic tools to write. Whatever the reason, the reality is that colleges are not in the business of teaching students how to write. Writing is a building block skill. Students are supposed to have mastered this skill before reaching a level of education where deeper thinking is required. But in the absence both of this skill, and the academic assistance required to attain this skill, many students resort to contract cheating.

Automated writing assistance gives the student a chance to focus on the actual substance of an assignment...AcademicInfluence.com

By contrast, automated writing assistance gives the student a chance to focus on the actual substance of an assignment, instead of the implementation of rules which the student has already struggled to master for the better part of a 20-year education.

There is a case to be made that much deep thinking in college (and probably in the professional world) is prevented, or at least garbled, by the basic anxiety and distraction of writing incompetence. Grammarly seems like a fantastic way to offset that anxiety, and perhaps even make students more competent writers by simply exposing them to regular, continuous, and real-time feedback on their errors.

This underscores the core benefit of Grammarly to educators, insofar as it does a job that most college-level instructors either lack the time to do themselves or that they may even see as beneath their station as educators. In other words, unless you’re here to coach your students in their writing, be glad that Grammarly is there to do the job.

Want to be an Academic Influence Insider? Sign up to get the latest news, information, and rankings in our upcoming newsletter.