Sloppy handwriting is not a sign of sloppy science

Academic reviewers rarely pull their punches, but their harshest words can sometimes be reserved not for the wisdom of your experimental design or the accuracy of your analysis, but for your spelling or grammatical errors.

There are critics who seem happy to point out where colons should be semicolons, or when italics, capitals, or Latin are appropriate. It’s not clear if they think they’re editors, proofreaders, or proofreaders. “Inappropriate” punctuation and deviations from journal guidelines provoke particularly furious comments. It is implied that such errors are markers of recklessness, dysfunctional impulsivity, and poor scholarship. If you are sloppy in grammar, the assumption is that you are also likely to sloppy facts, theories, extrapolations, so that your paper or grant application may be summarily rejected.

My personal turmoil, character traits and working style mean that I often face this burden. I’ve had it since I was in school. Yet I have always opposed those who argue that attention to grammatical detail is a marker of an individual’s attitudes toward work. Sure, repeated grammatical accents can get in the way of a reader’s understanding, but what’s the evidence that a misplaced semicolon is really a sign of a broader lack of precision?

For starters, where is the line supposed to be? Is it more forgivable to make mistakes in emails, for example, because people are required to be quick? What about speech? You arrive at the interview with the help of software that checks your CV, but then you get confused less and less, or spice up your sentences with “sort of”. Should that rule you out?

Psychologists have conducted studies on how various factors, such as the visual and acoustic properties of letters and words, affect the detection of intra-word errors (misspellings, typos) and inter-word errors /contextual (faulty grammar, incorrect use of words). Other studies have looked at the correlation between personality and other abilities and proofreading skills.

I have done some of these studies myself. But rather than finding that people who make fewer grammar mistakes also make fewer mistakes in other aspects of their research, I noticed something different: that those with grammar fetishes tend to be a little OCD. They are misfit perfectionists, with low emotional intelligence and zero creativity. They are hypercritical, passive-aggressive, all-or-nothing thinkers. And, of course, they are unproductive because nothing is good enough. Never.

Even at school, I noticed that, of my English teachers, strict grammarians were the least inspiring. Quick to rebuke and slow to bless, they believed grammar was more important than ideas. Think about the type of people who become proofreaders or editors: look at their creative writing output. Would you choose to have lunch with one of them if you wanted to have a really good time? Specifically, would you really want any of them involved in the production of one of your articles, instead of just checking the final product?

It is worth considering the difference between grammatical and communicative excellence. Personally, I prioritize vocabulary over grammar. I care more than anyone knows what dismal, pusillanimous Where pulchritudinous means, rather than if they can spell them. “Ah,” I hear you say, “but people with big vocabularies can also spell. The two go together: it’s called verbal intelligence or literateness. Maybe, but, again, where are the proofs? Do you read fiction or poetry for your grammar, for example? Remember ee cummings.

Honestly, who cares about the role of the semicolon? Why is it wrong to boldly divide an infinitive? Sure, there’s a problem where a grammatical error fails to convey the intended meaning, but that’s rarely the case.

“There is, however, a difference between scholarly writing and ‘popular’ writing of all kinds,” critics counter. Okay. Formulas must be correct, as must tables. But this is not grammarian territory.

More recently, the sensitive issue of dyslexia has become more prominent. Dyslexia literally means difficulty with words. It has also been called word blindness and specific reading or writing deficit. The term is used by professionals to refer to significant and persistent reading difficulties. Often people with dyslexia can’t spell, so by definition they don’t check their work well. This is a real and problematic problem.

Beyond that, however, some people are just plain more careless than others – amen to that. Some are more effective than others. Amen to that too. There is always a trade-off between speed and accuracy; between convergent thinking and divergent thinking; between fidelity to the spirit of the law and to the letter of the law.

Recently, however, an old friend claimed that I was too defensive about the issues identified in my writing. I blame myself so much, he argued, that I attribute a litany of personality flaws to anyone who brings my mistakes to my attention—in fact, anyone who writes carefully.

Maybe he’s right. But I’m not convinced. We expect and should expect academic writings to be accurate. However, fewer of us expect it to be “well-written”. And, for my part, I categorically reject the claim that grammatical errors are markers of personal neglect or even subclinical functional impulsiveness. They are just the sign of someone who is focused on more important things.

Adrian Furnham is an adjunct professor of psychology at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo and former professor of psychology at UCL.

Comments are closed.