Does syntax highlighting actually help?

There are as many text editors as there are different flavors of ice cream, or at least it seems that way. No matter what type of writer, thinker, or creative you are, there’s a text editor slanted to your unique process and style. When a new text editor comes to market, it usually has a main feature that attempts to set it apart from the pack, be it easy entry in a distraction-free environment, Markdown formatting keys, or multiple ways to export your words to other platforms.

Writer Pro attempts to compartmentalize the writing process into four different modes: Note, Write, Edit, and Read. This is what I think the main selling feature of Writer Pro is. It’s innovative, interesting, and helpful.

iA positions Syntax Control as another selling feature of Writer Pro. Syntax Control allows you to highlight words based on parts of speech. There are options to isolate nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and sentences. It’s an interesting feature that has drawn a lot of feedback for multiple reasons. Apart from the patents and licensing issues, what’s great about this feature? And, more importantly, does it improve your writing skills? Is it better than another text editor that doesn’t have this feature? That’s what we want to find out.

This article focuses on the Syntax Control feature of Writer Pro, but there is a lot more to this app besides this feature. For more comprehensive reviews, we recommend these:

Like I said, one of the prominent features of the app was the four writing modes. I’m a big fan of the writing modes and really enjoy using them. Syntax Control is another feature that is new to this app, and if you’re familiar with iA’s previous writing app, Writer, then you’ll recognize that this is something of a large iteration on Focus Mode, which allows you to focus on one sentence at a time.

Before we dive into what I think, here’s what a few people said about how they use the Syntax Control feature on App.net.

“It’s been helpful to show me how repetitive I can be.” – @noahread “Have been and it’s rough goings.” – @smarterbits “I love the Syntax Control feature. I never realized what a slave to adverbs I am! I believe the app has significantly improved my writing. (See, there I go again with the adverbs!!)” – @jimhull

We also put together a quick poll to ask the readers what they think about the feature.

Do you think the Syntax Control feature helps you improve your writing?

helpful

Which Syntax Control mode do you find most helpful when editing?

speech parts

Was Writer Pro worth the purchase price?

worth it?

Did you own the original iA Writer app?

iA Writer

Roughly 55% of respondents said they think the Syntax Control feature improves their writing. The most common version of their reasoning was, “It points out repetition and weak adjectives and adverbs.”

“Syntax Mode is my first editor. It helps me find obvious errors in my copy, and allows me to single out unwanted repetitions keeping my text tight.” – Ashish “Just a neat way to show me patterns in my writing.” – Shawn Blanc “Is it a must-have, revolutionary feature? No, but short of having my own editor, it’s a convenient way to ferret out canned verbs.” – Jared Sinclair “I have the bad habit of using too many words in my sentences. Syntax control helps me analyse each part of a sentence and trim out what’s not required.” – Ian Betteridge

While this is an excellent tool in certain situations, I agree with Jared in that it’s hardly a must-have feature in writing apps.

So, is this tool useful? Yes, it can show you words that you repeat often. It can show you all of the adverbs, adjectives, nouns, verbs and sentences in your writing. What it can’t do is tell you whether or not your usage of these highlighted words is good or bad. Only you, your editor, and your audience can determine that.

On the other hand, this is an extremely useful tool in the context of teaching and learning English. Remember the years in grade school and middle school (and high school?) you spent learning and practicing the parts of speech in written word. It’s not an overly simplified process. When I was in school, we had to diagram sentences as an exercise to learn the parts of speech and how they all work together. I hated diagramming sentences, but in a way it was peaceful. Every word had a place. I tended to look at is as a puzzle that needed to be solved.

Syntax Mode

I really can’t say if the practice of diagramming sentences made me a better writer, but I do know that it taught me the underlying structure of our language and how to use it correctly (and incorrectly). Looking back at my primary learning years, I can see how a feature that points out certain parts of speech would be invaluable. I can also see how this would be an incredibly helpful tool when learning English.

Greg Pierce, developer behind Agile Tortoise and apps like Drafts and Phraseology, took a few minutes to answer some questions related to this topic. Greg’s app, Phraseology, has a similar functionality to Syntax Control that allows users to see the itemized usage of different parts of speech. He offered to share some of the feedback he’s received since launching the app two years ago.

The Inspect view has been what has drawn educators to Phraseology – it’s more helpful in repetition, because you get summaries by occurrence count, but provides other stats that are a larger draw. For example, I had a middle school teacher tell me how much her kids loved the “Grade Level” readability analysis because it gave them something concrete to get a feel for how well they were writing.

If you’re not familiar with the app, the Inspect view mentioned above is a view that breaks down the parts of speech in the document and provides some useful statistics.

Phraseology screenshot

Phraseology takes a more analytic approach toward the syntax data. As Greg mentioned, this information can be invaluable to educators and students.

Regarding more “mature”1 writers, Greg echoed some of the same feedback we got from the polls. I asked Greg this question: “Can you think of any scenarios (or have you gotten feedback) where mature writers request or need speech parts analysis or highlighting?”

No. Naturally, it would depend on the type of writer and how they go about writing. […] The one exception to that is writers who have (or editors who are particular about) certain ticks in writing – particularly excessive use of adverbs.

Syntax Control is useful insofar as you can see the different parts of speech in your writing. It cannot tell you what’s wrong or what you could do better. It’s merely a looking-glass. In most writing scenarios, I don’t want to see individual word usage. If I want to really focus, I want to limit my view to one sentence or one paragraph at a time.

Isolating certain words based on their syntax is an impressive feature, but there are other apps that take this a step or two further by offering more analysis. Phraseology can give you a grade level, which is a more human, or tangible, metric for your writing.

A personal favorite of mine is 750words, a simple site that lets users write down their thoughts and achieve a daily goal of 750 words. This idea comes from a practice called Morning Pages. Basically, sit down and write 3 pages (roughly 750 words) before you start your day. It’s a way of clearing your mind and preparing for the day. I bring this site up because once you’ve finished writing, it offers up all kinds of data about your writing, such as typing speed, how often you were distracted, common emotional themes and concerns, mindset, and will even assign an MPAA rating to your writing (ie. PG, PG-13, R).

Maybe this kind of data isn’t interesting to you, but it’s still a unique and impressive way of looking at words and presenting meaning. Yes, this approach does add a good amount of subjectivity to your words, but they’re taking this syntax analysis approach a step further and trying to give you something useful in the end.

Another example of taking this syntax analysis to a more useful level is what Dr. Yejin Choi of Stony Brook University and her department are doing. Dr. Choi is the co-author of a paper titled Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels.

As the title of the paper implies, the Computer Science department at Stony Brook have created an algorithm that can predict whether or not a piece of fiction will succeed.

“We examined the quantitative connection between writing style and successful literature. Based on novels across different genres, we investigated the predictive power of statistical stylometry in discriminating successful literary works, and identified the stylistic elements that are more prominent in successful writings.”

Basically, they’re looking at the syntax of the literary work and comparing it to other literary works that have proven successful in the past. This algorithm is meant to help publishers select authors from the massive stacks of incoming novel pitches they receive daily. This type of work starts at the same place as Syntax Control: looking at the parts of speech. From there, they determine what qualifies as “good” writing, and go from there.

This is fascinating work, and something I hope more developers try to achieve. Instead of having a syntax highlighter in your text editor, you could have access to a decent writing coach. Instead of “this is an adjective,” you could get feedback like, “This sentence is too passive.”

A feature like Syntax Highlighting is going to appeal to some people and not matter to others. For example, of the dozens of responses we got from our survey, here’s a small handful that I think do a good job of representing the overall tone:

“It’s a gimmick that represents a complete misunderstanding of what the actual pain points of writing are.” – Baldur in UK “It’s silly, gimmicky, and unnecessary. It has not improved or assisted my writing in any way. I no longer use Writer Pro for my writing.” – Andrew in California “You don’t have to be a professional writer to use it. I’m a student and this helps a lot for all the written work we have to do.” – Zeb in Switzerland

Who might love the Syntax Control feature?

The Syntax Control feature offers some great information for educators and students who are interested in improving and learning about parts of speech. It can also appeal to writers and editors who have certain “blind-spots” in their writing that they want to improve or catch.

Why I don’t love the Syntax Control feature.

On a personal level, I don’t see any benefit from using this functionality. I like Writer Pro because of the writing environment, not because it can show me my parts of speech. It’s an empty feature for me — but that’s me and my writing style.

By writing style, I mean the way I compose and edit my words. I don’t think to myself when I’m writing, “Golly, I used way too many adverbs there.” I’m focused on the ideas when I’m writing. Features like this are distractions from the important thing.

So what if you use “very” twice in the same article? Here’s the question you have to ask yourself. Who are you writing for? If you’re writing for a teacher or a boss, then follow the guidelines they’ve given you. If you’re writing for yourself, write however you please. If you want to improve your writing and have identified an unconscious pattern of using lots of insert speech part here in your writing, then this app could significantly help you in the editing stage of your writing.

I don’t want to downplay the effort and time that went into creating this feature. It’s lightning fast and accurate. That’s amazing. Seriously. Just don’t think that it will make your words magically better. That’s all on you. This app might help you with that goal.

Do you really want to improve your writing? Share it with a friend or colleague and ask for real feedback. When you give it to them, name one or two things that you don’t like about it. That gives them an open invitation to give you real critique, not the polite “this is awesome!” version.

When Ben asked me to write this piece, I felt that my mind was completely made up. I didn’t see any value in the Syntax Control functionality. Honestly, I was surprised when the polls started coming in. 55% of you said the feature helps improve your writing. I didn’t understand. After reading through all the comments, I realized that this is a deeply subjective tool that only appeals to some writers and thinkers. For some people, this is a great feature that will get a lot of use. For other writers, it will never be touched. From reading all the feedback, my viewpoint was tempered a bit, but I still believe that this feature is mostly a gimmick that is marketed at magically making you a better writer. This simply isn’t true.

Based on the feedback in the survey, my opinions will make some of you angry. That’s fine. I’m very happy that you have found an app that you enjoy and that adds value to your writing. Do us both a favor and go prove me wrong. When it comes to someone improving their writing skills, I’d love to be proven wrong and have my face rubbed in the mud. I’m just one guy, and ultimately we all have to figure this out for ourselves. There’s no universal answer. Find what works for you, then do it.

My hunch is that you’ll know if this feature is right for you without even trying it. You’ll just know.

As for the other features and the price, good luck with that. Not recommended. I recommend checking out Phraseology for this kind of syntax highlighting functionality. Excellent writing apps are plentiful in the App Store. I honestly prefer iA Writer over Writer Pro.


  1. In the case of this article, let’s assume that “mature” writers are educated individuals with a desire to publish what they write in some form. 

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Article Details

Published
by Jeffrey Abbott
12 minutes to read.


tl;dr

There are as many text editors as there are different flavors of ice cream, or at least it seems that way. No matter what type of writer, thinker, or creative you are, there’s a text editor slanted to your unique process and style. When a new text editor comes to market, it usually has a […]