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Grammar Police – reactions to written errors

Now for something completely different. Let’s talk about Grammar Police, those people who take glee in pointing out and correcting your mistakes. It could be spelling, grammar, usage, or anything. You know the type.

I don’t like Grammar Police, because they appear to be more focused on showing you that you misspelled something rather than comment about the content.  Sure, I’d like to be a perfect speller, but I’ve gotten lazy, since modern operating systems now auto-correct mistakes to what it thinks is the right one. I used to check. Now I don’t.

I do try to focus on my grammar, and word usage. I was once criticized and complimented for using the Harvard comma (called the Oxford comma in non-American English speaking countries), which is a very formal way of separating a list of conjunctions. My usage style is quite formal, and I write at the college educated level (according to the Flesch reading scale), which is automatically tracked by my blogging software.

But that doesn’t mean I’m perfect. My lame excuse is that editing what I’ve already written is difficult. I already know what I’m trying to say, so I accidentally overlook some errors.

However, my intentions are to communicate an idea, and unless my writing style or spelling errors destroy the effectiveness of communicating complex and nuanced points, I don’t care all that much.

On the other hand, my personal rules about joining the ranks of Grammar Police in comments are quite simple:

  1. If something written is confusing, and I don’t easily comprehend what the author is communicating, I’ll ask. Sometimes people, myself included, will accidentally say “pro-vaccine” instead of “anti-vaccine,” and, of course, that can be confusing. But if I know the author, I try to be polite, and ask for clarification.
  2. If I want to troll truly incompetent or unscientific junk, I will point out grammar errors just to make my overall point. Yes, I can be a card-carrying member of the Grammar Police, just to mock an anti-vaccination cult member. But that’s rare, I don’t comment frequently on the internet.

Otherwise, I don’t really care. I see spelling errors and grammar mistakes all the time on blogs, in high quality well-edited newspapers, and even published books. As long as I get the point, I don’t care. Seriously, I have better things to do with my time, like counting my shill payments from Big Pharma.

On the other hand, some people really make it their (or is it there) life’s objectives. Let’s take a look at the personality of these Grammar Police individuals.

Grammar Police personality types


I often post answers to questions on Quora, a website that is all about asking questions, and getting answers from “experts.” I focus on answering vaccine questions (of course), and a few other topics. I also am an enthusiastic reader of the history questions – a lot of people like to ask what if questions, and a lot of history experts and hobbyists seem to enjoy discussing alternative history scenarios.

It has an up and down voting system that makes it clear which answers are supported by consensus science (or expertise) as opposed to garbage. Just read any question where the author asks about vaccines and autism. In case you’re wondering, vaccines don’t cause autism.

A few weeks ago, I posted a long answer to something regarding vaccines. A day later, I had a message where someone corrected my whole post – Quora allows you to suggest copyedits. It was not just a spelling error or two, but a full-on re-write, like a college professor redlining an essay.

So I looked at what he did – maybe my points weren’t clear. Or I made a fundamental science error. Or maybe it was an anti-vaccine troll trying to make a point.

Nope, none of that. It was simply a re-write of what I had posted. And no comment like “maybe if you did this, your point about vaccines would be clearer.” Or, “hey dude, I like what you wrote, and I was confused – maybe if you did this, it would be clearer.”

So, I checked out his posts going back a few months. And I figured out that’s all he did – he was an official member of the Grammar Police, and he was incredibly annoying. Responses to some of his comments were quite rude.

At the time, I thought that this had to be some sort of personality disorder. Little did I know, a paper would be published that would provide evidence that there might be some credibility to my belief.

Recently, Julie Boland and Robin Queen of the University of Michigan published a paper in PLOS One that examined people’s reaction to spelling and grammar errors in emails. And what they discovered was people who are more sensitive to written typos and grammatical errors are indeed the kinds of assholes we all suspected they were.


Let’s look at the paper


I admit, Boland and Queen did not say they were assholes. They said those who were most willing to comment about grammar errors (the authors called them grammos, a new term for me) and typos  “are less tolerant of deviations from convention.”

They also mentioned that extroverts (or extraverts, I thought they had a spelling error, ironically) were usually more willing to ignore the grammos and typos. Yes, I’m going to use grammo. It’s just too cool.

The researchers recruited 83 English speaking participants in the USA to read email responses to an ad for a housemate. The emails either contained no errors or had been altered to include either typos, such as “mkae” instead of “make,” or “abuot” instead “about”, or grammos, such as “to/too,” “it’s/its,” or “your/you’re.”

Then each of the participants were giving a questionnaire about their demographics, and one to assess their Big Five Personality Inventory (BFI), which include five personality factors which have been defined as openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Now, almost all personality measurements are critiqued frequently for methodology, scope and other issues. But for the purposes of this article, the broad strokes of the BFI will work.

First of all, the authors found no significant correlation between reaction to the typos and grammos and various demographic groups, like education. This was a surprising result indeed. So just because you have a college education, you don’t necessarily end up being a Grammar Nazi.

The participants rated the various email writers based on their perceived intelligence, friendliness and other attribute. The participants were also asked if they noticed any typos or grammatical errors in the email responses.

If the they answered “yes,” they did notice, the researchers asked how much the errors annoyed the reader of the emails.

Boland and Queen determined that extraverted individuals are significantly more likely to overlook typos and grammatical errors; on the other hand, introverted individuals were more likely to judge the person who makes such errors more negatively. Furthermore, those participants who reported grammar as being important to written communications at the beginning of the experiment were more likely to be bothered by grammos during the test.

The authors stated that, “…less agreeable people are more sensitive to grammatical errors, while more conscientious and less open people are sensitive to typos. The attributions associated with grammos are more personalized and may thus be more likely to impact other unrelated assessments of the writer (such as trustworthiness), compared with the more neutral attributions associated with typos.”

In other words, it’s possible that those who were irritated by grammos may have made several assumptions about the email’s writer and their personality. Those participants who were sensitive to typos may have just been troubled by the writer’s carelessness.

Now this is all well and good, but let’s be clear here. It is a study of only 83 participants, looking at one email about an ad for a housemate. Maybe participants set a different standard for a housemate search (would I want one who used bad grammar?) than they might if the email is from a friend or relative.

In addition, I’m reluctant to put much statistical credence into studies that use such subjective measurements as the BFI. In “hard” sciences, like biochemistry or genetics, the results are more black and white. If you do X, does B result?

However, the authors make an interesting point:

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Social assessments of written errors take on particular importance given that many of our interactions either occur solely via electronically mediated communication (EMC) or become face to face interactions only after initial vetting via EMC. When we interact electronically with people we don’t otherwise know, the effects of written errors may be heightened because of the lack of the kinds of contextual information found in face-to-face interaction.[/infobox]

In other words, we are missing the subtle cues that give us more information about the intent  and context of the communication.

These results aren’t quite the headlines I’ve been reading lately. One person claimed that Grammar Police (sure, it’s pejorative) are “arrogant sociopaths.” The paper makes no such claim.

The paper did say that certain personality traits (I didn’t notice sociopathy as one of them) would modulate responses to grammos and typos. And if you’re an extravert, it appears that you are less likely to point out issues. That’s about it.

In fact, I can’t even use the paper to make fun of members of the Grammar Police. This makes me sad.


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Michael Simpson
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