God bless my students! They ask me the best questions.
In a recent class, as I was giving my “here are the four indispensible reference works you absolutely, positively must have” spiel, one of them said, “as we move into a digital world and the book begins its long, slow decline, what do you believe are the e-reader alternatives?”
“Uh – I dunno” not being an appropriate answer for the classroom environment, I dutifully began to research the topic. And here’s what I discovered.
Grammar apps suck!
Gee, that sounds a little biased. Allow me to qualify that statement. Apps have limited functionality. Grammar is a large, fluid topic. I doubt that anatomy has a good app, or organic chemistry, or biology. The topics don’t lend themselves to “applification.”
Broadly speaking, grammar apps are divided into two categories – (a) those that are designed for elementary to middle school aged children, and (b) those that are designed for English as Second Language learners. The worst apps combine (a) and (b), so adult professionals can be patronized, condescended to, and handed a simplified version of a language they need to understand and use in sophisticated ways.
Additionally, many of these apps are produced by software developers from foreign companies and are rife with grammar errors. For someone who is learning the language, this is obviously a difficult trait to assess.
The better apps are focused. They specialize in verb tense, modifiers, or nouns, for example. So they’re useful to a targeted demographic, but not to a professional writer.
For the purposes of this article, I selected apps from several platforms that have a broad range of reference and learning potential for people who write often. I assumed some degree of proficiency with the English language and a willingness to cross-reference dictionaries and grammar handbooks where necessary. I also think learning should be fun, and apps that allow us to play have a special pedagogical value.
So here they are – my top 10 grammar apps, in no particular order:
1) English Grammar Study Book. Springz. Android. Free, supported by ads. (Ad-free version available for $1.70) Designed for ESL. Contains a review of parts of speech with charts for verb tenses and modifiers. Practice tests with results analyzed. Recorded spoken English for practice as well as sample letters.
2) Oxford Grammar & Punctuation. Mobile Systems, Inc. Android and iPhone / iPad. $10.99. (fully functional free trial available.) A grammar reference with notes on usage. American users should note that this is a guide to British English with advice for students preparing for the National Strategies, the UK version of the SAT. So be aware of differences in spelling and usage for the American reader.
3) Grammarly. Web-based. 7-day free trial available. Pricing thereafter on a monthly subscription basis for individuals or organizations. A powerful grammar-checking tool that uses Bloom’s taxonomy to reply to errors with corrections, feedback, and chat availability, giving students the opportunity for deep learning.
4) Dictionary – Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Android and iPhone. Free, supported by ads. Includes a thesaurus, sample sentences, light usage notes, and voice pronunciation as well as all entries from the collegiate edition. The best free dictionary app on the market.
5) 7 Little Words. Blue Ox Technologies Ltd. Android, iPhone / iPad. Free. Offers in-app purchases. Games are a long-recognized pedagogical tool that help us learn or brush up on things like parts of speech and vocabulary. And they’re fun! 7 Little Words challenges you with a set of two-four letter blocks and seven descriptive phrases. You combine the blocks into words. It’s really that easy – except, it’s not.
6) MadLibs. Penguin Group, USA. iPhone / iPad. Free. Offers in-app purchases. If you’ve forgotten the difference between an adverb and an adjective (or you’re looking for an excuse to use your new dictionary app), play MadLibs. The clues challenge you to insert parts of speech into a sentence. You can make the results more interesting by making up your own rules, like all the words have to start with the letter “r,” or every word has to be a color. And be sure to add drinks to the mix; shots always make the results funnier.
7) Crosswords Classic. Stand Alone, Inc. $9.99. (on Android as “Crosswords.”) iPhone / iPad. Offers in-app purchases. Curates crosswords from the world’s most popular newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The Independent. Steer away from puzzle clues that ask you to remember historical facts and figures. Instead, look for clues with copious amounts of wordplay. These will challenge you to see words from a different perspective and broaden your vocabulary.
8) Grammar Girl App. Wizzard Media. $1.99. iPhone. A few years ago, Grammar Girl’s podcast was one of the top 10 podcasts in the world. Today her website is riddled with ridiculous advertising. You open the site; you are bombarded with irrelevant videos. Mignan Fogarty has sold out. But she’s still offering rock-solid grammar advice that is also entertaining. So if you like a daily dose of grammar with snark and pearls, this ad-free app is worth the price.
9) English Grammar. Blufish LLC. $1.99. iPhone. A stuffy, old-fashioned grammar textbook, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Who are we kidding? You know it’s on my wish list!)
10) The Grading Game. mode of expression, LLC. Free. Offers in-app purchases. Hilariously tongue-in-cheek way to practice rapid proofreading for misspellings, repeated words, missing words, capitalization, etc. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of serving as a teaching assistant, you will never succeed at this game, because you will be laughing too hard to see the screen.
Please be sure to add your favorite apps in the comments section so we can all update our phones, e-readers, and brains – thanks!