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How Faulty Grammar Challenges Individuals and Relationships

Here's what to do when you encounter unsettling grammar.

Key points

  • A new U.K. study found that listening to grammatically incorrect speech increases stress levels.
  • One dilemma is that correcting grammar may help the individual but disrupt the conversation.
  • Grammatical errors in online dating profiles lead to lower perceived intelligence and attractiveness.
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Source: Shvets Production/Pexels

With friends, family, and romantic partners, we have much to tell and hear. What we communicate, however, depends not only on the content of what we say but also on the structure.

In particular, grammatical structure can end up encouraging or disrupting effective communication. Let's focus on the disruptive consequences of faulty grammar and how to contend with these consequences.

Psychological Effects of Troublesome Grammar

Changes in Our Physiology. A 2024 study in the U.K. reveals that our bodies show physiological signs of stress when we hear misused grammar.

Researchers Dagmar Divjak, Hui Sun, and Petar Milin used heart rate variability to measure stress as people listened to passages of speech that varied in the density of grammatical mistakes. (Intervals between successive heartbeats are more variable when calm and more tightly regular when stressed.)

As measured by heart rate variability, stress levels increased while people listened to ungrammatical speech, with the amount of stress rising as a function of grammatical errors. That is, cardiovascular response to the violation of grammatical rules grew stronger as the violations became more frequent.

The researchers concluded that over the course of our lives, we assimilate language usage patterns, expect them, and respond negatively when they're violated in speech.

Evaluation of Online Dating Profiles. People who post dating profiles containing grammatical mistakes are evaluated as socially and romantically less attractive than those with grammatical profiles.

Researchers at Tilburg University found that grammatical mistakes in online profiles caused lower scores on the perceived intelligence of the people posting the profiles, leading to decreased judgments of attractiveness and a lower likelihood of dating these people.1

Grammar and Personality Type. While a variety of people express frustration with other people's grammatical errors in emails, Psychology Today blogger Jenn Granneman reports that introverts, in particular, are troubled by grammatical errors and typos.

Granneman reviewed the results of a study conducted by two linguists at the University of Michigan and then corroborated these results in her own online study with introverts. One specific result of the Michigan study was that introverts are less amenable than others to having grammatically flawed people as roommates. More generally, the study found that the higher the density of errors in emails, the greater the detrimental effect of these errors.

Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels
Source: Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels

Grammar and the Roles We Perform. According to clinical and forensic psychologist Michael Karson, our grammar and word choice should fit the role we have chosen to perform.

In accordance with this principle, politicians speak in folksy phrases to show they're down to earth, and English teachers use textbook grammar to show consistency with their subject matter. Grammar that runs counter to the performance of a chosen role comes across as inauthentic and troublesome.

When textbook grammar isn't central to the dominant role people are performing, grammatical errors are not considered inappropriate. For example, we don't get upset with misspellings on menus. The main function of a restaurant is to serve good food, not to deliver flawless prose.

Similarly, when a person's first language is different from our own, we are not as stressed by their grammatical mistakes as we are by the mistakes of native speakers—due to the expectation that grammatical errors might occur.2

The Dilemma

In a comprehensive study of everyday conversation with friends, colleagues, siblings, and romantic partners, researchers Daena Goldsmith and Leslie Baxter concluded that our relationships are "works in progress," with the work of building and supporting relationships being accomplished in conversations.

We are then confronted with a dilemma. Faulty grammar is stressful to individuals, but correcting faulty grammar is detrimental to the flow of conversation and the maintenance of relationships.

Grammatical corrections disrupt ongoing conversations in several ways. They emphasize the structure of speech rather than the meaning, conveying that a shallow, structural focus is taking precedence over a deeper, more satisfying understanding of what is being said.3 Grammatical corrections can also distract attention, shut down expression, and come across as demonstrations of intellectual or cultural superiority—and all of these conflict with supporting the conversational relationship.

How, then, do we balance the individual benefits of reducing the stress of troublesome grammar with the relationship benefits of unselfconscious, uncorrected expression?

Resolving the Dilemma

Jack Sparrow/Pexels
Source: Jack Sparrow/Pexels

Timing. If we feel a genuine need to critique grammar, we should do so outside the flow of ongoing conversation. Grammatical corrections that take place unannounced come across as blunt criticisms. In a relationship (either romantic or friendly), troublesome grammar should be addressed the same way other relationship difficulties are addressed: By setting aside time for discussion.

Awareness. Before bringing up the subject of grammar, we need to be aware of the pitfalls of suggesting corrections and consider the implications of such suggestions. If we genuinely want to discuss grammar, we can try to assess the other person's openness to such a discussion or simply ask the person about it.

More Awareness. Before addressing grammar issues, we should disclose our responses to grammatical transgressions, clarifying that we understand the meanings being expressed and that particular syntactic structures bother us. Conversely, if we receive grammatical suggestions, being open to them is helpful.

Modeling. One way to influence others' grammar is to model good grammar in our spoken and written communications. After doing this, we might be asked about the grammar in question, offering an opportunity for education.

The same goes for other linguistic mistakes. If someone misspells a name or a word in an email and we need to use that name or word in our reply, we should spell it correctly. We're not overtly correcting. We're simply being orthographically honest.

Letting It Pass. In informal situations, if a grammatical mistake isn't part of a recurring pattern, a correction isn't called for. If a mistake does consistently recur, then offering a correction depends on how bothersome we find it—and on the larger context. For example, I had a childhood friend who would say, "I ain't got no any." Although the sentence breaks at least three rules of textbook grammar, we all knew what he meant; we let it pass, and the sentence simply became a part of our neighborhood vernacular.

Final Words

Encountering faulty grammar can be awkward and stressful, but there are ways of responding that do not disrupt unselfconscious expression or the flow of communication. Ultimately, we should treat troublesome grammar in a manner that encourages our conversations to carry out their necessary function of building and supporting relationships.


Note 1. The researchers noted that one third of the participants observed the grammatical errors, and it was this group whose profile ratings were significantly lower.

Note 2. In the study with heart rate variability, grammatical mistakes made in a Polish accent for English-speaking participants were less stressful than comments not made in a Polish accent.

Note 3. Cognitive psychologists Craik and Lockhart proposed the Levels of Processing framework for comprehension and memory: Shallow processing focuses on the structure of language (such as grammar) and deeper processing focuses on meaning.

Craik, F.I.M, & Lockhart, R.S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 11(6), 671-684.

Divjak, D., Sun, H., & Milan, P. (2024) Physiological responses and cognitive behaviors: Measures of heart rate variability index language knowledge. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 69, 1-12.

Goldsmith, D.J., & Baxter, L.A. (1996). Constituting relationships in talk: A taxonomy of speech events in social and personal relationships. Human Communication Research, 23 (1), 87-114.

Van der Zanden, T., Schouten, A.P., Mos, M.B., & Krahmer, E.J. (2020). Impression formation on online dating sites: Effects of language errors in profile texts on perceptions of profile owners’ attractiveness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(3), 758–778.

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