Careful Writers Make Good Bedfellows (or at Least Good Housemates)

By Mark Nichol

I was interested to read about a recent University of Michigan study that concluded that people who are highly judgmental about writing errors tend to be more introverted and have less pleasant personalities than those who are more forgiving about people’s flawed writing skills.

The tools of the study were a questionnaire that, when answered by research subjects, enabled researchers to identify the people as introverted or extroverted and to rate them as having easygoing or difficult personalities, along with a set of fake responses to housemate ads. The study concluded that introverts and difficult people were less likely to respond to people who had sent error-ridden replies than extroverts and people with more appealing personalities. Overall, both introverts and difficult people were more likely than extroverts and people who rated higher on healthy personality qualities to be judgmental about errors.

However, the study made a distinction between two types of writing errors: typos, or typographical errors (such as typing mkae instead of make), and grammos, or grammatical errors (such as confusing your and you’re). The study did not pertain to more substantial errors of grammar and syntax such as dangling or misplaced modifiers (or to usage or style errors), but it found that typos were more likely to irk those whose questionnaire responses identified them as introverts, while people determined to have negative personality traits tended to be bothered more by grammos.

Would you be less likely to respond to an email by a prospective housemate whose message was full of errors? I certainly would, which apparently identifies me as an introverted jerk—or as an editor, which is perhaps the same thing.

Why? Because typographical errors indicate carelessness (I make them, too, but I generally identify and correct them before I publish), and I don’t want a careless housemate. I am more forgiving of grammatical errors, because I know that writing skill does not necessarily correlate with intelligence, though I would be concerned about a lack of compatibility with someone who does not know the difference between your and you’re.

Careful writing is important in business communication, and a response to a housemate ad is, in one respect, a business communication, because it involves financial transactions (sharing the costs of rent, utilities, and at least some household supplies). A potential housemate who does not bother to run spell-check before sending me an email is failing to demonstrate diligence. And though I strive not to let grammatical errors annoy me (otherwise, I would have to forgo reading for leisure), I can’t help judging those who do not exercise care in writing.

If you bother to write a job application carefully or to proofread an email before you send it to a colleague, you are likely careful about your correspondence when you seek to be chosen as a housemate (which is, in a sense, like being hired). Whether you choose to be diligent when sending a text message or an email to a friend or posting to social media is up to you (though I assume subscribers to these posts are more likely than the general population to do so).

My role as an editor is to help a writer communicate. Communication is, of course, also the writer’s key objective, whether one is writing a book or an email message. The same degree of diligence is not required for one as for another, but demonstrating some level of effort to clearly convey one’s message, regardless of the message, is one’s primary duty as a writer.

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5 Responses to “Careful Writers Make Good Bedfellows (or at Least Good Housemates)”

  • Bill

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. People who don’t care about typos don’t care about them because they’re unconcerned with others. Such a housemate would be a door slammer who plays loud music late at night, and doesn’t keep the kitchen clean. Not the type I’d want to live with. Incidentally, I read much of the study and I didn’t find a typo or grammo in it. That gave it credibility. Hmmm …

  • venqax

    Lots here. First, I am glad the distinction is made between typos and other errors. “Studies show” that most people do not think “the” is spelled h-t-e, but without that error typology one might think that basic literacy was in an even worse state than it really is. Which would be really bad to wrongly think and to really be. I know that I, at least, know how to spell the, of, for, any and many other 2- and 3-letter words though my first draft typing would not support that conclusion ta all. (Crap!)

    I do believe completely that careless writing indicates carelessness in general. I think that about speaking, too, so if I talked on the phone to a potential roommate who said irrevelant, nukyular, irregardless, and supposably, I’d be unlikely to accept them, too. It’s kind of the language equivalent of having your shirt buttoned unevenly, or your fly open, or your shoes untied (oh, wait, that is “stylish”– different reason for me to be judgmental. Okay.)

    Incidentally, I would know nothing about being an introverted jerk. I do know that when I offered up that I may be, on rare occasion, a great big jerk, I was consoled by those who know me well that I am not really that big.

  • Larry S

    As I read your description of the study, I came to the same conclusions you did in regard to carelessness. As an introvert, I neither want to share a house with someone who won’t be an ideal match, nor do I want to spend any more time than I have to in interviewing potential candidates. I don’t think that makes me “a jerk,” but rather a stereotypical shy introvert. It should be noted, by the way, that shy and introvert are not necessarily synonymous.

  • Thebluebird11

    Love the post…I’m not sure I fit the bill (in terms of being an introvert or a crabby person), at least not all the time…but I have been known to rip apart handwritten love letters that have misspellings, bad grammar, etc. I am heartless, I guess. But I agree with all the above (Bill, venqax and Larry). I think a careful person is careful in most aspects of his/her life, and that includes speaking and writing. If being careful is felt by some people to be synonymous with being introverted and/or crabby, well…those people are free to steer clear of me and we will all be happier for it.

  • Anne-Marie

    Hmmm. Seems like this university study is helping to promote the acceptance of the decline of the American education system.

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