Bad advice from Grammarly: Repeated words
As I’ve noted in recent essays, I’ve recently been using Grammarly to check the grammar in my musings. And, as I wrote in my assessment of Grammarly’s comments on the relative placement of punctuation and quotation marks, I sometimes disagreed with the advice. Let’s consider another disagreement.
I repeat words [1,2]. Grammarly premium tells you when you seem to be using the same word too many times. I usually appreciated that Grammarly  marked my repetition. But then I read the accompanying advice, and I was dismayed when I saw that the checker makes some strange claims about repetition .
Repetitive word: answers
The word answers appears repeatedly in this text. Consider using a synonym in its place.
A written work that uses the same words over and over is less interesting for the reader than a work that uses a richer vocabulary.
Incorrect: I love watching movies, but going to the movie theater is very expensive. When I want to see a movie, I usually just rent one.
Correct: I love watching movies, but going to the theater is very expensive. When I want to see a film, I usually just rent one.
Incorrect: Gerald reads classic novels to see how they influenced the novels of today.
Correct: Gerald reads classic novels to see how they influenced the books of today.
That advice strikes me as problematic for a number of reasons. First, it’s not that the first in each pair is literally incorrect; the grammar is certainly correct. Rather the style is worse . More importantly, they’ve significantly changed the meaning in the second pair of sentences. Novels are only one kind of book . In the
incorrect sentence, Gerald examines the influences of novels on novels. In the
correct sentence, he may also consider the influences of novels on collections of short stories, or on nonfiction, or whatever. And, in the
correct sentence, he probably isn’t considering the influence of classic novels on modern serial novels . I would claim that most people read
theater differently than
movie theater. I see plays and musicals at the theatre . They could have used
cinema, and I’d complain less. But they were careless in their corrections.
That lack of precision particularly worries me. Good writing requires thought. While I agree that text with repeated words can feel, well, repetitious, I also note that one should not blindly replace words or structures just because they violate someone’s stylistic guidelines. A good writer thinks about the effects of changes, particularly the ways in which changes affect meaning. It’s hard to trust recommendations from people who are not so careful.
So, how bad is repetition? I did a quick search of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Williams and Columb  because I recalled some sections in which they encouraged certain kinds of repetition. I quickly found two related claims.
In the last chapter, we discussed what readers look for (whether they know it or not) when they begin a paragraph, a section of a document, or a whole document: (1) They look for a relatively short opening segment that acts like an overture to what follows - we called it the issue. (2) Near the end of the last sentence of every issue, readers expect to nd words that announce the new topics and themes that the writer will repeat in the longer segment that follows, the segment that we called the discussion. (p. 97, emphasis theirs)
- In the issue, introduce key thematic and topical words in its stress.
- In the discussion, keep strings of topics consistent.
- In the discussion, repeat those thematic words or words related to them. (p. 109, emphasis mine)
It certainly seems like they encourage repetition because it can help, rather than hinder, the reader. Nonetheless, they also note that some variation is good, provided you retain meaning.
As I reflect on this return to Style, I see that their approach is one of the key reasons that I believe that it’s okay to violate rules and guidelines as long as you’ve thought carefully about why you have chosen to transgress.
The examples of
incorrect repetition from Grammarly are what convinced me that I did not want to pay for the premium version . That means that I’m not able to easily tell  how much repetition there is in this essay. Maybe I’ll write my own repetition checker .
Let’s see … up to this point, the word
the appeared 52 times , the word
I 33 times, the word
of 30 times, and the word
that 29 times. The more popular nontrivial words included
novels, with 14 appearances  ,
Grammarly with 11 appearances ,
words with 10 appearances  , and
repetition with 8 appearances . I’m generally comfortable with that much repetition.
I’m also not sure what I’d substitute. The
novels are there because I was writing about the differences between
I could use
longer pieces of fiction, but that seems less accurate and less clear. For
Grammarly, I suppose I could use
that annoying online grammar checker about which I’ve been writing, but that also seems less helpful.
The checker might work as a substitute. Let’s see. I started with these three sentences.
I found that I usually appreciated that Grammarly marked my repetition. But then I read Grammarly’s advice, and I was dismayed at what I read. Here’s what Grammarly says about repetition.
Let’s get rid of two
I found that I usually appreciated that Grammarly marked my repetition. But then I read the advice, and I was dismayed at what I read. Here’s what the checker says about repetition.
Okay, I’ll admit that those sentences need some more editing. There are superfluous words. The last two sentences can be combined. Let’s try again.
I usually appreciated that Grammarly marked my repetition. But then I read the accompanying advice, and I was dismayed when I saw that the checker makes some strange claims about repetition.
Those latter changes seem more important than removing the repeated
Grammarlys. Both sets of changes do make the paragraph better. I should add repeated word checking to my toolbox of normal edits .
It seems that Grammarly’s general advice to think about repeated words is good advice. However, its explanation of that advice is misleading, at best.
 That should not come as a surprise to you.
 One of the words I repeat is
 It appears that I also repeat the word
Grammarly in this essay.
 In case you couldn’t tell, it appears that I used the word
answers too much in whatever essay I was having Grammarly critique.
 Or, more precisely, the folks at Grammarly seem to claim that the style is worse.
 Arguably, some novels are not even books. Serial novels still exist, in both print form and electronic form.
 Dickens and many others wrote serial novels; the influence of old serial novels on modern serial novels could be an interesting study.
 I also prefer the
r before e spelling, which Grinnell’s Department of Theatre and Dance also uses.
 Joe Williams ended up writing a variety of books that all started with the word
Style. The yellow-covered one from the University of Chicago press, which is intended for a general  audience, is my favorite.
 Or at least professional.
 Well, those, and the incorrect advice on quotation marks and punctuation.
 OMG! It’s a split infinitive! Will you survive?
 I love *nix. It took under ten minutes to figure out how to get a sorted list of the number of times each word is repeated . My solution is not perfect, since it doesn’t do stemming or similar marks of similarity, but it’s good for a quick-and-dirty check.
 I’ll report on this solution in a future essay.
 With no jokers.
 Those appearances include the material I quoted from Grammarly.
 I see that my counter distinguished between
Grammarly’s, so it’s really 14 appearances.
 I really should do some form of stemming.
 Another 5 for
 I should also reread Style and start applying that advice carefully to my writing.
Version 1.0 of 2017-04-06.