I’ve been ignoring the whole minifuror over the recent Atlantic article “The QWERTY Effect: The Keyboards Are Changing Our Language!” by Rebecca J. Rosen, and the paper by Kyle Jasmin and Daniel Casasanto it was based on, because it was (to my mind) so self-evidently silly it didn’t bear thinking about, much less writing about. (The idea, in case you missed the furor, is that, in Rosen’s words, “because of the QWERTY keyboard’s asymmetrical shape …, words dominated by right-side letters ‘acquire more positive valences’ — that is to say, they become more likable.”) Mark Liberman at the Log has been doggedly investigating, giving the idea more benefit of the doubt than I would have (The QWERTY Effect, QWERTY: Failure to replicate) but ending up with the results to be expected, that there’s no there there, and Geoffrey Pullum has (as one would expect) done a bang-up job of summarizing it all with the appropriate mockery at Lingua Franca: The Bad Science Reporting Effect. Here’s an excerpt:

Publicity for the unresult of their paper in Psychonomics Bulletin and Review has garnered them some appallingly stupid press coverage (“The Keyboards Are Changing Our Language!”; “Just Typing ‘LOL’ Makes You Happy”; etc.). The worst I saw was in the Metro, a free tabloid in Britain: “SEX is depressing—but only if you use your left hand,” they began. “Typing letters with your left hand conveys more negative emotions than typing with your right, British and U.S. scientists say.” (The authors say nothing about what “conveys more negative emotions,” of course.) And in conclusion: “despite their meaning, words such as ‘lonely’ cheer us up more than, say, ‘sex’.” (If there was ever a worse example of illicit inference about particular cases from aggregated results, don’t show it to me, I might cry.)
One might argue that the two young psychologists are not responsible for jokey press reports. But they are not blameless. Jasmin told Wired: “Technology changes words, and by association languages. It’s an important thing to look at.” All of this is false. There has been no demonstration that technology “changes words.” If connotative valences of some words did alter slightly for some reason, that wouldn’t change the language at all. And above all, this is not “an important thing to look at”: No scientific importance would attach to a very weak correlation between spelling and affective attitudes toward isolated words, even if there was one.

Follow the link for the URLs I’ve left out of my quote, and of course for more of Geoff’s righteous smiting.


  1. This is even more time-wasting than prescriptivism!

  2. I’ve often wondered why, on the keyboards of all my laptops over the years, the “N” on the N letter gets worn away first. This distracts me because I can’t type without looking at the keyboard from time to time, to orient myself.
    Is this evidence that I use words with a lot of “N”s in them ? Or perhaps I don’t trim the left side of my right-hand index fingernail sufficiently, so that it abrades the printed “N” ?
    Now there is a new, integrated explanation: QWERTY is trying to take control, causing me to prefer words with “N”, and telling me to cut my fingernails right.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Years ago I spilled coffee on my keyboard, and for a while it refused to type the letter k. I thought that might be because it was a French keyboard and reckoned that I’d used up my supply of k’s.

  4. This deserves to be at the top of Sen. Waxman’s Golden Fleece Awards for “research” that wastes the taxpayer’s money. If it was not the result of a grant – though I can imagine the process of acquiring same – then the researchers deserve a joint Ignoble Prize …

  5. Athel’s comment just now made me notice that none of this applies to me anyway, because I have a QWERTZ keyboard.

  6. @Paul: For the record: Senator Proxmire, Ig Nobel Prize. And I wouldn’t want it to get a Golden Fleece Award because it looks like it really is crap research. It would thus tend to legitimize the GFA, which is a tool for science-bashers.

  7. How does journalism like this get into respectable publications? Have they no one on their editorial staffs who can cast a critical eye on a scientific study? The New York Times publishes all kind of “science” drivel too.

  8. Trond Engen says

    There must be something to it. Why else would engineers with a positive attitude to numbers put the numerical keypad on the right hand side?
    This laptop is two years old. The n-key has been rubbish for a month, but the print is fine. I must have a different touch than Stu.

  9. michael farris says

    I’m not sure I get the hostility. The hypothesis seems odd but not worthy of the derision heaped upon it. I’ve heard of weirder things.
    Pullum’s tone often irritates me so I won’t join in the enthusiasm for another of his sneerjobs.
    I think Liberman (as usual) gets it right by giving it the benefit of a doubt before examining it and deciding there’s no there there.
    And bad reporting on scientific subjects has been around forever, this case is hardly an innovation.

  10. I’ve heard of weirder things.
    Me too, but that doesn’t mean I want to see them treated with respect in the pages of supposedly serious publications. True, this isn’t on the level of the CAT AND DOG SUCCESSFULLY BRED/Should Offspring Be Called “Cog” or “Dat”? story I saw with disbelieving eyes in the Long Beach Press-Telegram forty or so years ago, but it’s pretty silly.

  11. This keyboard is six years old, S, F and X are worn away to shiny black plastic, X, C and L have traces of the markings visible, and E, N and M are deformed but recognisable. The other keymarkings are in good health. As far as I can see this particular brand of palmistry would suggest I write nothing likable. Something I’ll have to come to terms with, I suppose!

  12. Aidan calls it a brand of palmistry, and indeed we are witnessing the birth of a new divinatory science: claviatrics.
    There are many questions that need researching here, for instance; why is it that only Aidan reports degradation of a vowel-key ? Due to the frequency of vowels in any language, vowel-keys should degrade often due to material stress.
    Can we surmise that certain people here are repressing their keys, instead of just pressing them ?

  13. My other keyboard won’t type “b”. Which is plonk in the middle.
    uggering astard!

  14. uggering astard!
    As any licensed claviator will confirm, that is the Censor at work. Apart from supervising public morality, it is also checking your tax records and farmlands.

  15. marie-lucie says

    I have used computers for years at home and at work, and I have never seen letters or other signs disappear from the keys, or even fading. What is going on?

  16. befuggled says

    Clearly you don’t type enough.
    (I think it’s quality. I have a keyboard that I believe dates back to the nineties without any fading, and I have much newer keyboards with significant fading.)

  17. It also depends on keyboard manufacturing quality.
    The cheap Dell keyboard I have been using at work for less than a year has lost almost all of the E, A, S and N markings and a good part of Tab, R, D, X, C and M. The keyboard at home is fine, because it has laser-etched keycaps. (If you’re wondering how anyone can wear out the X key, I use Emacs. Left control is almost gone, too.)

  18. laser-etched keycaps
    Sounds pretty fancy, like platinum hubcaps on a pickup. If I owned a desktop (what happened to the word “tower” ?), I would get for it one of those indestructible IBM keyboards from the ’90s.
    Long ago I became fed up with having more than one computer – say one at home, one for the road. It’s such a hassle synchronizing state between them, and then my notebook often wouldn’t have something I wanted at a moment’s notice. So for a decade now I have, at any given time, one Thinkpad laptop (newest model) with everything on it.
    That means I have to live with the built-in keyboard. Recently I have been considering buying a little bottle of Torrid Tropics fingernail polish to repair the printed “N”. MMcM’s use of “keycaps” reminded me, though, that I can probably order a set of replacement keycaps from Lenovo and change them myself.
    It will seem silly that this had not occurred to me before now. It’s just that hardware of any kind bores me utterly. I pay good money for something recommended by a colleague who knows what’s what, then I expect the stuff to just work, instead of bugging me.
    I mean, like, what are the laws of physics good for if not to keep things humming while you think ?

  19. “Cash registers don’t really do arithmetic; they just grind their gears. But then they don’t really grind their gears, either; they just obey the laws of physics.”

  20. Yes, I was thinking of the Seven Dwarves. They obeyed Snow White, not physical laws, because these are unreliable in fairy tales. So they had to do their own humming while they worked.

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