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Responses to Typos and Personality: "Grammar Nazis" Confirmed?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Mar 27, 2016 2:24 PMMay 17, 2019 9:40 PM


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Do you haet typos? If you spot a grammo (a grammatical error), does you’re blood boil?

Some people are more offended by these kinds of linguistic errors than others, but why? Ann Arbor psychologists Julie E. Boland and Robin Queen examine this in a new PLOS ONE paper called If You’re House Is Still Available, Send Me an Email: Personality Influences Reactions to Written Errors in Email Messages

The authors recruited 83 volunteers (on MTurk) and asked them to imagine that they’d placed an online ad looking for a new housemate. The volunteers were then asked to evaluate a set of 12 ‘response e-mails’, as if from people replying to their ad. Some of the responses contained errors. Each participant got shown one version of each email: either well-written, or with typos, or with grammos (not both.)

For instance, here’s one of the ‘e-mails’ with the possible typos and grammos highlighted

Hey! My name is Pat and I’m interested in sharing a house with other students who are serious abuot (about) there (their) schoolwork but who also know how to relax and have fun. I like to play tennis and love old school rap. If your (you’re) someone who likes that kind of thing too, maybe we would mkae (make) good housemates.

The results showed that both typos and grammos had a negative impact on how likely the participants would be to accept the sender of each email as a housemate. Typos had the larger effect.

Yet there were individual differences in the tolerance of errors, and Boland and Queen found that this correlates with personality. They had participants fill out a questionnaire measuring the “Big 5” or OCEAN personality traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Some traits were associated with more negative reactions to the errors. For instance, introverts tended to judge text with typos more harshly than extroverts. Less agreeable people took a harder line on grammos. These personality-error interaction effects were, in some cases, even larger than the overall effects of grammos.


Boland and Queen conclude that

The primary contribution of the current study is the finding that personality traits influence our reactions to written errors… Although personality traits have been linked to variation in production, particularly the use of specific lexical items, this is the first study to show that the personality traits of listeners/readers have an effect on the overall assessment of variable language.

These results seem to fit with common sense. We all know the stereotype of the “grammar Nazi” who berates others for the smallest mistakes. This textual totalitarian is, in the popular mind, not a very agreeable person. Likewise, it’s easy to imagine that an introvert would tend to be more ‘anal’ about typos than a happy-go-luck extrovert.

On the other hand, I wonder if MTurk is the ideal population in which to do this task. My understanding is that MTurkers spend lots of time carefully clicking the right buttons and typing the right things into boxes (as part of psychology experiments, and other tasks.) They might be more attuned to typos (and motivated to avoid them) than other people.

Boland JE, & Queen R (2016). If You’re House Is Still Available, Send Me an Email: Personality Influences Reactions to Written Errors in Email Messages. PloS ONE, 11 (3) PMID: 26959823

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