Told  /  Explainer

Why Grammarly’s New Language Suggestions Miss the Mark

Slavery’s a sensitive subject, but so is the question of who gets to be an authority about language.

“Twitter is an ok place to be a little annoyed, right?” asked historian of slavery Elise A. Mitchell in January. She then reported in a thread that Grammarly, the freemium writing-assistant app very familiar to consumers of YouTube videos, had started to suggest changes in language around slavery. If a person were to type the word slave, Grammarly would now suggest the replacement enslaved person. The phrases fugitive slave and runaway slave now triggered the suggested replacement freedom seeker. 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. 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. “I’m wary (and weary) of who gets to be an authority over the language we use to talk about our past,” Mitchell wrote.

These suggestions appeared in the app as of Jan. 18, Grammarly spokesperson Senka Hadzimuratovic confirmed to me in an email. Asked how Grammarly decided to add “suggestions” about slavery, Hadzimuratovic wrote: “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.” (Hadzimuratovic added that the company included “subject matter experts on race and ethnicity” in its research process; I asked to speak to one, and she declined, citing nondisclosure agreements signed when the experts agreed to work with the company.)

Hadzimuratovic also sent me a list of 11 resources the company had used when researching these changes: guides produced by organizations like the Underground Railroad Education Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project, and the NAACP. The suggestions Grammarly provided are, so to speak, in the air—you can find support for every one of them in these resources. So why did the many historians of slavery who replied to Mitchell’s thread agree that the company had misstepped?

This is what happens when experts in a complicated subject matter see their work translated into normative prescriptions. First, on freedom seeker. As Mitchell pointed out in her tweets, “Not everyone who fled was seeking ‘freedom,’ ” and “running away is not the only way to ‘seek freedom.’ ” There is a growing body of academic work on how some enslaved people in the United States who could not run away altogether for whatever reason stayed and “sought freedom” in other ways: negotiation, temporary absences, smaller (and less permanent and risky) acts of resistance. (Historian Daina Ramey Berry wrote about enslaved people’s negotiations around freedom here, in an essay referring to, and synthesizing, some of this work.)