David Shariatmadari in The Guardian
When you picture a “grammar nazi”, what does that person look like?
Are they old or young? Male or female? Professorial or blue-collar?
A new study suggests they could be any of those things. In an experiment involving 80 Americans from a range of backgrounds, linguists Julie Boland and Robin Queen found no significant links between a judgmental attitude towards “typos” and “grammos” and gender, age or level of education.
So you can’t tell if someone hunts down misprints and writes letters to editors just by looking at them. If you know something about the way they experience the world, though, you might be able to take an educated guess.
Introverts, it turns out, are more likely to get annoyed at both typos and grammos. Not only that; they’ll probably not want to share their lives with you if you’re particularly error-prone.
Boland and Queen tested people’s reactions to emails responding to an ad for a housemate. Some of them contained typos, some grammos and some were perfectly written. They were then asked whether they agreed with statements like “the writer seems friendly”, “the writer seems considerate”, “the writer seems trustworthy”. Their ratings were combined to produce an overall “good housemate” score.
They then had to fill out questionnaires about their own personalities, based on the “big five” traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
And that’s how the researchers found that introverts were more likely than extraverts to rate people as poor potential housemates if their spelling or grammar was bad. There were other findings – agreeable people, perhaps unsurprisingly, were easygoing when it came to grammos. Conscientious people tended to see typos as a problem. Levels of neuroticism, oddly enough, didn’t predict any kind of penchant for pet peeves.
But the finding about introversion is intriguing, because it’s harder to understand.
First, a word about what makes an introvert. It’s not the same as being shy. The following quote summarises one common view, associated with psychologist Hans Eysenck.
Eysenck’s theory was that extroverts have just a slightly lower basic rate of arousal. The effect is that they need to work a little harder to get themselves up to the level others find normal and pleasant without doing anything. Hence the need for company, seeking out novel experiences and risks. Conversely, highly introverted individuals find themselves overstimulated by things others might find merely pleasantly exciting or engaging.
I spoke to Robin Queen. “We hadn’t quite anticipated that introversion would have the effect it did,” she told me.
“I found myself asking: this is weird – why would it be the case that introverts care more?”
Queen isn’t an expert in the study of personality – she’s a linguist – but she has a hunch. “My guess is that introverts have more sensitivity to variability.” That could make variations from the norm like mistakes – which require extra processing that increases arousal – more irksome.
“Maybe there’s something about extraverts that makes them less bothered by it. Because extraverts enjoy variability and engaging with people. They find that energising. This could be an indirect manifestation of that.”
I would describe myself as an introvert (I just took two “big five” personality tests and scored 42/100 and 47/100 for extraversion, so maybe I’m more of a people-person than I thought). I’m also an editor, with more than a passing interest in language. Two forces compete within me when I see a grammo or worse. As a linguist, I know that meaning is use – so, if lots of people use “disinterested” to mean “uninterested”, well, that’s now part of its meaning. Error is the engine of language change. Error is inevitable.
But at the same time, I feel something akin to having a stone in my shoe when I see a mistake. It acts as an irritant. If I had to relate that to my introversion, then I would say a sense of order and predictability is important to me. I like it when things are under control.
I’m not sure whether that makes me a good housemate or not. But I can spot a dangling modifier a mile off.