The study measured participants' heart rate variability to determine how exposure to grammatical errors affected their physiological response.
Have you ever felt like you were experiencing actual, physical pain when you heard someone use incorrect grammar? It turns out you’re not alone — and there is a real scientific explanation for it.
A new study from the University of Birmingham has found that hearing or reading grammatical mistakes causes humans to experience a physiological stress response. The discovery was recently published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.
Researchers monitored heart rate variability (HRV) to determine the effect grammatical errors had on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) of the study’s subjects. HRV measures the length of time between heartbeats. When a person is relaxed, this time tends to vary, but when they experience stress, it becomes more regular.
The scientists found that the subjects’ HRV became more regular when they were exposed to grammatical errors, suggesting that they were undergoing a stress response.
“The results of this study bring into focus a new dimension of the intricate relationship between physiology and cognition,” wrote lead researcher Dagmar Divjak. “The relation between language cognition and the autonomic nervous system has so far received less attention.”
During the study, scientists had 41 British English-speaking adults with no known learning difficulties or heart irregularities listen to 40 speech samples. Some had grammatical errors and some did not, and the length and number of grammatical errors in each sample varied.
When the study’s subjects heard speech samples without grammatical errors, their HRV was variable. This means the length of the intervals between their successive heartbeats changed, indicating the participants were more relaxed. But when they heard grammatical errors, their HRV became more regular. There was also a correlation between how many errors they heard and the length of time between their heart beats.
“Our findings show that [the ANS], too, responds to cognitive demands, and this suggests that cognitive effort reverberates through the physiological system in more ways than previously thought,” Divjak said.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for the body’s unconscious processes, like breathing and digestion. It’s also responsible for what is known as the “fight or flight” response — which was triggered when the subjects heard grammatical errors.
According to New Atlas, these errors included incorrect use of tense, poor sentence structure, and confusing singular and plural words, among others. One example of an excerpt the study’s participants heard is: “I think that thanks to a globalisation, people all around the world listen to same music, watch the same movies, and read same books.”
The scientists believe this study can help shed light on linguistic knowledge, that is, how much a person understands about their native language without consciously thinking about it.
“Your knowledge about your first language is largely implicit, i.e., learning your mother tongue did not require you to sit and study, and using it does not require much, if any, thought,” Divjak said. “This also means that you will find it hard to pin down what exactly is right or wrong about a sentence and, even worse, explain why that is so, especially if you’ve not had formal language training.”
This latest research illustrates that humans unconsciously react to grammatical mistakes, even when they can’t explicitly point out what the error is.
“This study provides us with a new method for tapping into aspects of cognition that are not directly observable,” Divjak continued. “This is particularly valuable in work with language users who are unable to verbally express their opinion due to young or old age, or ill health.”