Grammarly schooled for pushing woke language choices surrounding slavery: ‘It doesn’t make any sense’

Grammarly, a popular writing-assistant app, is suddenly making suggestions not based on grammar or spelling, but on ideology, as a Princeton postdoc student studying the history of slavery discovered when the app suggested she write “freedom seeker” instead of “runaway slave.”

In a recent thread on Twitter, Elise A. Mitchell wrote the suggestion “doesn’t make any sense.”

“Not everyone who fled was seeking ‘freedom,” Mitchell tweeted. “Some people sought temporary reprieve, the company of one another, or employment (often still in bondage) for example.”


“Running away is not the only way to ‘seek freedom,'” continued Mitchell. “The term ‘freedom’ in the era of slavery always needs clarification.”

As journalist Rebecca Onion wrote in an article about Mitchell’s thread for Slate, Grammarly’s new suggestions, which appeared in the app on Jan. 18, did not stop there.

“If you were to write ‘slaveowner’ or ‘master’ (in places where the context indicates you’re talking about slavery), the app would suggest ‘enslaver’ instead,” Onion writes. “The use of ‘master’ or ‘slave’ in nonslavery contexts (as sometimes occurs in engineering, or when describing that one big, fancy bedroom in a house) provokes a suggestion to consider an alternate.”

“We prioritized these particular suggestions based on a combination of the curiosity of our users for these topics as ascertained through user research, the prevalence of the language in question in writing, and the potential hurt the language can cause,” Grammarly spokesperson Senka Hadzimuratovic told Onion.

Onion also notes that, according to Hadzimuratovic, Grammarly consulted with “subject matter experts on race and ethnicity” for its research, but when Onion asked to speak with one of them, Hadzimuratovic declined.

She did, however, provide Onion with a list of resources Grammarly used, including guides from the Underground Railroad Education Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project, and the NAACP.

So why are Mitchell and the many of her fellow historians who replied to her thread so displeased with Grammarly’s move?

“This is what happens when experts in a complicated subject matter see their work translated into normative prescriptions,” writes Onion.

In other words, the automated, politically-correct suggestions often miss the nuances inherent in a complicated history.

Mitchell says she is worried, for example, by the replacement of “enslaver” with “slave owner,” noting that she uses the word “enslaver” often.

“I’m worried it can sometimes muddle the differences between chattel slavery and other forms of enslavement,” Mitchell tweeted. “If one is critiquing the emergence of racial capitalism ‘slave owner’ is a vit more explicit about commodification and property.”

As Dartmouth scholar Nicholas Rinehart, who has written about slavery and language, told Onion, “One thing I want to caution readers and students about in general is this idea that there are good words and bad words. Language is really too context-specific, too complicated, too variable over time” for specific, automated suggestions.

“We can adjust our language in any number of situation,” Rinehart said, “but it doesn’t necessarily solve a problem, so much as it introduces a new set of problems.”

“Furthermore, these terms have been developed and promoted by a small subset of the field,” Mitchell tweeted. “They haven’t been fully (or enthusiastically) adopted by scholars whose work exceeds the study of slavery and is in conversation with Black Studies and African Diaspora History.”

“I’m wary (and weary) of who gets to be an authority over the language we use to talk about our past and whose terms get adopted (or foisted upon us by the app I use to spell-check my emails,” Mitchell concluded.

Apparently, Grammarly was listening… at least in how they view the phrase, “fugitive slave.”

“On Jan. 21, the app began flagging only the word ‘slave’ in that phrase and suggesting a replacement accordingly,” reports Onion.


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