Intergenerational cycles of peeving?

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In a recent article in Psychology Today, Nick Morgan proposes a new theory about the psychodynamics of prescriptivist peeving ("Why Bad Grammar Activates Our Fight-or-Flight Response", 12/14/2023):

Does grammar matter? And did you have a teacher in your youth who insisted on drumming the rules of good grammar into you—and was that teacher on the stern and grumpy side of the instructional continuum?

My anecdotal research into these questions over the years has gradually built a composite picture of a somewhat terrifying authority figure, either male or female, who insisted on good grammar as the essential basis of a sound education. They managed to impart enough of it to you so that you cringe when someone uses "among" and "between" interchangeably—or flubs the distinction between 'that" and "which" because of a fatal lack of understanding of the difference between an independent and dependent clause.

Now, a study reveals that your response to those solecisms (and your bad-tempered teacher's response) is indeed physiological: The grammar of language affects us viscerally.

When we hear bad grammar, our pupils dilate, and our heart rate increases, indicating a fight-or-flight response.

Morgan seems to be suggesting that what we jocularly call "peeving" — annoyed reactions to perceived solecisms — is analogous to intergenerational cycles of violence.

And he goes on to argue that this intergenerational cycle of peeving is actually a Good Thing:

Why should language be so important that we get stressed out when we hear bad grammar? Because successful communication with other people is potentially a matter of life and death in the prehistoric cave. We need to understand what Grob is saying when he shouts a warning over the din of approaching woolly mammoths or something like that. In those moments, bad or confusing grammar could conceivably kill us.

I should think that getting worked up over Grob's complementizer choice would be maladaptive in cave crisis response, in fact.

But the idea of intergenerational cycles of peeving does make sense, added to theories referencing shibboleths, social anxiety and cultural capital.

The study that Morgan cites is Dagmar Divjak et al., "Physiological responses and cognitive behaviours: Measures of heart rate variability index language knowledge", Journal of Neurolinguistics 2024. And what it shows is that "There is a statistically significant reduction in Heart Rate Variability as indexed by NN50 in response to grammatical violations" — where the "grammatical violations" involved are very different from those that trigger among/between or that/which peeving.

There's lots more to say about the size and reliability of various measures of autonomic nervous system responses, and their relationship to various kinds of cognitive load, including grammatical issues. I'll just note for now that Difjak's study did not measure pupil size, did not find an effect on mean heart rate, and focused on errors in article (a/an, the) usage e.g.

I think that culture is one of the areas most affected by a globalisation and it's hard to say whether it is the positive or negative impact. I think that thanks to a globalisation, people all around the world listen to same music, watch the same movies, and read same books. They can discuss the same issues with each other, and understand each other better, because they know what they are talking about.

The samples "were were extracted from the BACKBONE English as Lingua Franca (ELF) Corpus of Polish speakers", with non-article errors removed, and the rate of article errors artificially varied so that "The density of grammatical errors, calculated as the number of errors divided by the number of nouns, varied from 18% to 56% among the 20 samples with errors". The passages were then read by "four speakers who were either native or foreign English speakers (British and Polish, female and male)".

There was somewhat-complicated effect of all this on HRV, and a small difference of speaker accent:

So the details of this particular study make it largely irrelevant to Morgan's argument. "Grammatical errors" like Slavic speakers' misuse of English articles seem quite different from (invented) prescriptivist bugbears like the idea that between must be used for exactly two alternatives or "the myth that which is banned from integrated relatives". And both L2 problems and Zombie Rules are different from the many genuine violations of linguistic regularities that might also affect listeners' autonomic nervous systems.

But it's clear that "peeving" does engage the autonomic nervous system, and it might well be true that those effects are the residue of childhood trauma, at least in part.

As bonus synchronicity, the current Perry Bible Fellowship strip "Trauma Trooper" is a deep exploration of intergenerational cycles of abuse.

Update — The which/what business is thoroughly covered by the links on Geoff Pullum's page, cited above. But the treatment of the between/among issue is buried in the middle of the cited LLOG post — so here it is:

The idea that between must be used for two alternatives, and among for more than two, is a Zombie Rule with a pedigree. It was apparently invented by Goold Brown in 1851, in his Grammar of English Grammars, in order to demonstrate his superiority to earlier grammarians who had "misused" between for more than two alternatives. As the entry in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage observes, the validity of this "rule" is explicitly denied by both the Oxford English Dictionary and by Noah Webster, and "violations" can be easily be found in writers like Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot, and the Fowler brothers.

And since the MW usage dictionary is no longer linkable online, here's the first page of the between/among entry:

It's interesting but not surprising that Morgan's two examples of "bad grammar" are both invented Zombie Rules…


  1. Dave said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 7:34 am

    See also the cycles in _The Sneetches_

  2. bks said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 7:47 am

    "There wolf!"

  3. Stephen Goranson said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 9:14 am

    The anxiety remains whether to disdain the writing of one who confuses
    you're and your.

  4. neil. said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 9:57 am

    How would the that/which distinction hinge on not knowing an independent vs a dependent clause?

  5. David L said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 11:19 am

    Given that the study was of British and Polish English speakers, I'm surprised they got a response to the that/which and between/among issues. I'd never come across the so-called rules governing these usages until I came to the US in my mid-twenties. And if you look at any UK newspaper today, I think you will find that that/which and between/among are not used according to the strictures so fondly embraced by US peevers.

  6. Doug said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 11:23 am

    neil. – I'm guessing he was thinking of the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relative c;lauses, but he misremembered the terminology.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 11:28 am

    @David L: "Given that the study was of British and Polish English speakers, I'm surprised they got a response to the that/which and between/among issues. "

    The study did NOT test that/which or between/among — Morgan introduced those examples on his own. The faults in the study were entirely inappropriate article usage, e.g. (in the example I quoted):

    I think that culture is one of the areas most affected by a globalisation and it's hard to say whether it is the positive or negative impact. I think that thanks to a globalisation, people all around the world listen to same music, watch the same movies, and read same books. They can discuss the same issues with each other, and understand each other better, because they know what they are talking about.

  8. Rodger Cunningham said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 11:34 am

    the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses

    I'm showing my age when I say that I was actually taught that "that" and "which" are interchangeable for restrictive clauses. This change in prescriptions, which can be traced in successive editions of style manuals, has been discussed here (and/or on Hat) before.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 12:29 pm

    I have read Knuth on "the wicked 'which'", but I still make up my own mind as to which is preferable whenever I vacillate between the two. When I compose, I use whichever comes first to mind,but when I proof-read before sending I may change my mind.

  10. neil. said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 12:34 pm

    @dough that's what I thought he meant as well, but it seems like an error a communications professional should have caught

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 12:35 pm

    "analogous to intergenerational cycles of violence"

    Perhaps not merely analogous. One wonders whether many famous peevers of a certain age were physically punished as children for violating the Zombie Rules of their peevish schoolmasters.

    Be that as it may, the finding that annoyance (at grammatical solecisms or anything else) produces a measurable physiological response is scarcely surprising; it would be surprising if that were not the case.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 1:08 pm

    Well, I have no claim to fame whatsever, and I was not beaten at school, but I do experience a considerable negative reaction whenever I hear something on the radio that does not accord with my idea of "BBC English". And yes, I did wonder whether to amend "that" to "which" in the preceding while proof-reading before pressing "Submit comment".

  13. Cervantes said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 2:27 pm

    Not that I would be prescriptivist about it, but it does seem to me that it would not be common to say "among" when there are only two objects, e.g. "Just among you and me" would be strange. Perfectly understandable, of course, but just not what people say. Agreed that between has lost its dichotomous origin, but just as a personal predilection since I'm aware of the etymology I tend to honor it. People can make their own choices.

  14. Chester Draws said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 3:28 pm

    While we are on peeves, this is one of mine:

    I think that thanks to a globalisation, people all around the world listen to same music, watch the same movies, and read same books.

    This is exactly the wrong way round.

    When I was at school we all listened to the same music, because we had no choice. We had commercial radio, TV or whatever vinyl someone owned. Now kids have wildly differing choices and wildly different playlists as a result. Globalisation has blown apart what we listen to. Thanks to globalisation my playlist includes music written in Spanish, Japanese, Cantonese, etc and in very niche styles at that. Forty years ago, I could never have found it.

    Just because the writer's friends all share common tastes in music, books etc, does not mean the rest of us do. Taylor Swift is a phenomenon because a small percentage applied across the many billions of us adds up to large numbers. Don't make the mistake from that of thinking that most of the world listens to her.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 4:19 pm

    Chester, I don't know how old you are, but at the age of 76 I can assure that "when I was at school we [most certainly did not] all listen(ed) to the same music". Someone in my class had "Thelonius Monk" proudly written on the cover of one of his exercise books, and I not only had never listened to Monk play, I had absolutely no idea who he was …

  16. /df said,

    December 22, 2023 @ 4:22 pm

    Likewise, Keith Richards fell in with his old junior school-mate Mick Jagger because Jagger was carrying a hard-to-obtain-at-the-time (1962-ish) Chuck Berry LP when they bumped in to each other at Dartford (the E-S-E London suburb where these future Stones grew up, now known as one end of the QE2 Thames motorway bridge) station. You had to write off to the USA with a substantial International Money Order to get discs like that, unless you lived in Liverpool and your uncle was a transatlantic sailor. Monk you could get at specialist jazz shops like Dobell's.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    December 23, 2023 @ 3:59 am

    "Motorway bridge", /df ? The last time I took the Dartford River crossing, it was a mere A-road — the A282, in fact. Is the crossing now restricted to motoway-permitted vehicles only (i.e., no learner-drivers, etc) ?

  18. /df said,

    December 24, 2023 @ 1:48 pm

    It's a link in the M25 orbital motorway, though classed 'A' so that all types of vehicle can use it. But this is probably not too interesting for the general LL reader, or indeed to W Londoners like myself.

  19. Philip Anderson said,

    December 25, 2023 @ 7:01 pm

    I wouldn’t say "just among you and me" either, but would you say e.g. "among you, me and the gatepost" just because there are three entities listed? The distinction between “between” and “among” is clearly explained in the quoted dictionary entry.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    December 27, 2023 @ 12:29 pm

    Not speaking for Cervantes (of course) but my response would depend on how I was using the phrase. If I were to use it in its idiomatic sense (e.g., "Between you, me and the gatepost, I wouldn't give him a cat's chance in hell"), I would use "between". But if I were to say, for example, "Among you, me and the gatepost, only the gatepost can support a five-bar gate for decades without tiring", "between" would not seem a possibility.

  21. Haamu said,

    December 27, 2023 @ 4:48 pm

    @Philip Taylor — You may feel you're merely following an idiom when you prefer "Between you, me and the gatepost" in your first example, but James A.H. Murray (as quoted in the MW usage note in the update to the original post) nails the reason for the idiom:

    It [between] is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely.

    I would argue that your first example qualifies as "severally and individually" because it emphasizes a bounded relationship that is spatial or figuratively spatial — i.e., this remark should not go outside the figurative area bounded by you, me and the gatepost.

    For the same reason, I'd say "Let's agree to keep this secret between the four of us." I would not use among because the secret is to be kept in a precisely bounded area.

    Same for a literal spatial relationship: if someone told me a treasure was buried "between the oaks beyond the back fence" and I went out there and found 5 oaks in a rough circle, I'd have no trouble understanding what was meant. If I was told instead that the location was "among the oaks… ," I might feel as though I had to dig up a larger area.

    Meanwhile, I'd argue your second example treats the three items listed as a collection from which any item could be selected, a relationship Murray would probably agree is expressed "collectively and vaguely." For me, there's no spatial analogue here.

    So, in its spatial sense, between has a precision that among lacks. However one feels about the zombie rule, there's a strong argument for ignoring it when the relationship expressed is spatial or figuratively spatial. (I am not alone in this, as I see it was mentioned by a commenter on the earlier between/among post linked above.)

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