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Understanding Grammar Nazis and language bullies

Ever wondered why some people always seem like they are on the lookout for mistakes or errors? No, not the kind of errors that compromise on the purpose of the communication or that misrepresent the case. But those that do not, for most parts, alter the function or change the intended outcome. There are multiple aspects to the phenomenon, which can can be very subtle or as bad as public shaming. And, the advent of social media and instant messaging has given the tendency to manifest itself in manner we have never seen before. It has thrown light on another facet of our complex psyche.

The need to correct others: what’s behind it?

Every behavior is a product of a mechanism of reinforcement. If things please us, we are likely to do it again. So it is important to understand that such behavior stems from a personal need for satisfaction, and not from some sense of need to set right a wrong thing — which happens to be a positive outcome.

I’m not trying to undermine the concepts of accuracy and grammatically correct communication. They are important and help us articulate our thoughts and nuances to a great level of accuracy. The idea behind the article is only to delve into what drives the constant need to correct others.

So what is this ‘need’? The need to correct and set things ‘right’ or at every given opportunity. Our personalities play a key role in how we react to mistakes or errors. A study, titled, If You’re House Is Still Available, Send Me an Email: Personality Influences Reactions to Written Errors in Email Messages, by Julie E. Boland and Robin Queen, on how personality influences our reactions to email errors, found:

More extroverted people were likely to overlook written errors that would cause introverted people to judge the person who makes such errors more negatively. Less agreeable people were more sensitive to grammos [a grammatical error], while more conscientious and less open people were sensitive to typos.

In other words, the constant need to correct others is a mechanism that reflects a certain kind of personality. Why are introverts more critical of others’ mistakes? One reason that psychologists agree to is that introverts are more sensitive to changes or deviations. Extroverts, on the other hand, are willing to make certain ‘jumps’ to get to the outcome. However, this is a very simplistic view.

The study also found that extroverts who reported grammar as more important were less sensitive to typos. In other words, they were willing to look beyond the form as long as the function was intact. This brings us to to next aspect of the phenomenon.

Form or function?

Our minds are hardwired to take shortcuts, create templates and jump through things that seem mundane or old. It helps us organize and box or classify ideas easily. That explains some of the errors that creep into our writing. Mistakes involving words that sound similar — like your, you’re; right, write; they’re, their; effect, affect; accept, except — are a case in point.

By form, I refer to the structure of the sentence and grammar. The functions include its purpose, its use, and the intended outcome. It is important to understand that both — form and function — are key to articulating an argument but what if the intended outcome is achieved despite the form being incorrect? Or, why do people go out of their way to point at mistakes or errors even when the communication is successful?

The most obvious one is that is based on our need to feel good about ourselves or impose our sense of superiority. Also, social media websites are public platforms where one’s comments or posts are open to public scrutiny or attention. That, for many, is an incentive too. Grammar Nazis or language bullies are examples of how the phenomenon manifests itself in the age of social media and instant messaging.

People who have the constant need to point out mistakes or pick on others’ weakness are often those who need psychological help. They hide or take refuge under the pretext of correcting others — which is only a projections of their own deficiencies.

Have you been at the receiving end of such behavior? How did you handle it? Tell us as comments, below.

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