Tag Archives: Grammar

Languages with large vocabularies have simple grammar, study suggests

Languages with large vocabularies, such as Mandarin or English, are simpler grammatically, as opposed to complex languages which possess reduced lexicon.

These two Polynesian women sure do know more grammar rules than any of us.
Credits: Pixabay/Mariamichelle

A team of psychologists composed of Florencia RealiNick Chater, and Morten H. Christiansen, suggests that this linguistic paradox is correlated with the size of the speaker’s population.

For example, Mandarin is spoken by a huge number of native speakers and English is the most common second language learned word-wide. At the opposite end of the spectrum are Polynesian languages, which are used in extremely small communities of native speakers, but exhibit complex grammatical regularities.

Researchers tried to explain this tendency by dividing language innovations into two categories: easy to learn — new words that only need to be heard a few times to catch on — and hard to learn — grammar rules, which need to be heard and repeated multiple times to be fully comprehended in the language.

“We were able to show that whether something is easy to learn – like words – or hard to learn – like complex grammar – can explain these opposing tendencies,” said co-author Morten Christiansen, professor of psychology and co-director of the Cognitive Science Program.

In a large city, where a speaker only has contact with a small part of the population, it is quite facile to innovate through new words. In a small community though, grammar innovations seem to catch on more rapidly, because of the numerous interactions the small number of speakers have with each other.

“If you don’t get enough exposure to more complex patterns, those patterns are likely to disappear, whereas the simpler patterns that are easy to pick up are likely to survive,” Christiansen said. “As the population size of a language community increases, the number of hard-to-learn conventions decreased, whereas the number of easy-to-learn conventions increased,” he added.

Next, researchers designed an experiment to prove their theory. They simulated a community of individuals that communicated with each other, modeled on real-life interactions on a cellphone network.

Each individual had a number of conventions (easy or hard to learn) that they could communicate to one another. When one agent met another, they could either use conventions from their inventory or create a new one and use that instead.

“What we did was vary the size of the community and ran simulations on the different variations to see what happened,” Christiansen said.

The results confirmed scientist’s suspicion: in smaller communities, the more complex conventions survived. In larger communities, easier conventions thrived.

The lead author believes not only languages but also most aspects of culture may become simpler as our world becomes increasingly interconnected. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all culture will become overly simple. Christiansen thinks that maybe only the mainstream parts will lose complexity over time.

And he actually might be right. Let’s think of music — what is the most popular new genre? Electronic music. The simple musical composition and repetitive sounds of techno music have generated a huge amount of fans and their number appears to be growing each day.

But complex aspects of culture might still have a chance.

“People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification,” Christiansen suggests.

The paper was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B on 24 January, 2018.

Both Democrats and Republicans use simpler grammar than 50 years ago. Trump most of all, to good effect

Analysists from Grammarly looked at all the general election debate transcripts since the 1960s word for word and found Presidential candidates have greatly simplified their language since. This is true for both Republicans and Democrats, but it seems the simple language has only helped Republicans. Simpler rhetoric corresponds to lower poll results for Democrats, the analysis suggests.

Donald Trump, whose speeches were classed by a previous study as typical of students aged 11 or younger, uses the simplest language out of all the analyzed candidates. Grammarly says Trump uses complex sentences only 3.3 percent of the time. The research suggests his monosyllabic rhetoric is an important factor that helped him rank so well in polls and elections.

The Presidential candidates’ language was given a complexity score by an algorithm that looked at such things as sentence length, frequency of the passive voice, non-restrictive clauses or proper complex adjective order.

Concerning Democrats, Hilary Clinton used complex sentences 7.87 percent of the time, while for Bernie Sanders this happened 5.51 percent of the time.

Historically, both Democrats and Republicans used far more complex language. During the 1960 debates, Democrat John F. Kennedy had 12.3 percent of sentences that contain complex language. Republican Ronald Reagan ranked among the most complex speakers on the list having used complex sentences 13.8 percent of the time in 1984.



angry personalities

Grammar police on social media are ‘less agreeable people’ in real life too, study finds

Those who take too much offence of improper grammar and typos in an informal situations were found have “less agreeable” personalities.

angry personalities

Image: Pixabay

Researchers at University of Michigan recruited 83 native English speakers via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) and asked to read ‘email responses’ to an ad for a potential housemate. These e-mails contained either no errors or were altered to contain typos (e.g., teh) or homophonous grammar errors (grammos, e.g., to/too, it’s/its, there/their). Here’s an example:

Hey! My name is Pat and I’m interested in sharing a house with other students who are serious abuot (about) there (their) schoolwork but who also know how to relax and have fun. I like to play tennis and love old school rap. If your (you’re) someone who likes that kind of thing too, maybe we would mkae (make) good housemates.

The participants were then asked to judge the potential housemate using a 10-item evaluation scale for each message or paragraph. They had to rate from 1 to 7 — where 1 labeled strongly disagree and 7 labeled strongly agree — the following statements.


A demographic/behavior questionnaire asked about age, gender, first language, highest education level, number of texts per day (0 to 100), features used on Facebook (chat, private message, wall posts, other) and frequency of usage, time spent pleasure reading, and the importance of good grammar.

Finally, a questionnaire was completed by each participant that gauged the Big Five Personality index (BFI). This index assigns a score for extraversion, agreeability, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

House ads who had ‘grammos’/typos in them were rated more poorly overall, but some were overly harsh than others depending on their personalities. Extroverts were much more lenient and forgiving than introverts. Less open participants were more sensitive to typos, while those rated as having a less agreeable personality were upset by bad grammar.

“The primary contribution of the current study is the finding that personality traits influence our reactions to written errors.”

“It remains an open question whether the kind of variation in personality that our participants exhibited affects the most basic aspects of language comprehension (e.g., word recognition, syntactic parsing) or only relatively superficial aspects of interpretation,” the researchers write in PLOS ONE.

The sample size was very small, so take the conclusions lightly. Experience tells us that some people can be real jerks, though. Previous research found that applications containing typos or grammar mistakes negatively impacted fulfillment of real-world loan requests, for instance.

Apart from seemingly confirming an unwritten truth on the internet, the research supports a growing body of evidence “on the relationship between personality and language, which until now, has examined only certain aspects of language production, without considering any aspects of language interpretation,” the researchers note.

Check yourself (grammar wise) before you wreck yourself!

The Grammar Police can breathe a sigh of relief as the guys over at Pop Chart Lab have put together a poster to help them fight un-grammarness everywhere (keep fighting the good fight, brothers!).


With hand-drawn pictures of famous figures from movies, shows, literature and music,  this poster takes on particulars of interrogative pronouns, modal auxiliary verbs, and resulting copulas via the likes of Dumbledore, Rocky, and Michael J. Fox.

The characters help contextualize the sometimes ambiguous rules of grammar in a funny, catchy way. Whether to help with improving your English, your wall’s awesomeness level, or your standing amongst your more geeky friends, keep this poster handy. It’s well worth it.