The Grammar Police Are Jerks, According To Science
We all know them. The people who send emails back with grammatical corrections– the people who comment “Uh, I think you mean they’re?” on a Facebook post about someone’s Grandmother passing away. Charming people, the lot of them.
Well, a group of scientists actually got together and did an experiment in order to confirm something we ought to all know by now–those people are assholes.
For the experiment, 83 subjects were asked to peruse email responses for a roommate ad. Some contained no errors, but others had been altered to include simple common errors. For example, in some, “about” might have been written “abuot,” and in other instances, “their” and “there,” or “you’re” and “your” might have been swapped incorrectly.
The subjects were also given personality tests, based on the Big Five Index. Those that tested lowest on “agreeability” were found to judge the typos harshly, while those who rated higher tended to ignore them. The researcher also found that those who rated high on introversion and low on “agreeability” tended to be the most judgmental of the letter writers themselves in terms of “perceived intelligence, friendliness, and so forth” on their Housemate Scale.
Frankly, I’d like to see them take this a bit further and give that personality test to people who feel the need to post smug memes on Facebook advertising their grasp of the Oxford comma. What even is that?
There are a few obvious reasons why “Grammar Police” types might not be too “agreeable.” For one, if you are the sort of person who would judge someone for switching up their homophones, you’re likely not the sort of person who thinks “Hey, maybe this person is better at something else than I am! I sure wouldn’t want them to be testing me on my math skills!,” or considers the possibility that they have dyslexia.
You may not be the type of person who thinks “Eh, we all make mistakes.” You may be the type of person who thinks people are stupid just because they’re not good at the thing you are good at, or the type of person who feels insecure about their own intelligence, and wants to make sure everyone is aware that they are “smart.” In general, these types of people tend to be less “agreeable.”
The other reason is quite simple. People who point things out publicly or in a way that could embarrass someone or make them feel self-conscious are people with bad manners.
People always think of manners and etiquette as either just saying “please” and “thank you,” or about knowing which fork to use. But really, they’re about being considerate and the making people around you feel welcome and comfortable. They’re about putting someone else’s comfort before your own. For instance, you don’t chew with your mouth open simply because it’s a random “rule,” but because it would be uncomfortable for others to watch. Similarly, pointing out a mistake in a way that would embarrass someone or make them feel self-conscious about talking to you, is not a very kind or considerate thing to do.
I think it’s fine to let people know if they’ve made a mistake in order to prevent them from public embarrassment–for instance if it’s a public statement or what have you. However, in these instances, you want to tell them privately. Like how if someone had toilet paper on their shoe, you would pull them aside and quietly tell them, rather than shout it across the room.
There is only one instance in which I think it is perfectly OK to publicly correct someone’s grammar or spelling–and that is when you actually do want to bust their balls. If someone insults you and that insult contains a spelling error, simply pointing that out rather than responding to the insult itself is an excellent way to handle things. But–unless you actually want someone to feel badly, maybe try to handle things in a kinder way.
If you have a hard time not judging people for grammatical mistakes and spelling errors, and would like to stop being that person, here is something to consider: the English language is a mutable thing–it changes and evolves–and that’s one of the best and most interesting things about it. Besides, if everyone had been a linguistic prescriptivist all through the years, we’d all be talking like Chaucer right now. Joining the descriptivist team will save you a lot of angst and heartburn (by which I mean the current definition rather than its original meaning of “jealousy or hatred”).