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Fingernails on a blackboard? Not so bad.

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 24, 2008 08:49 PM

"Itís like fingernails on a blackboard" is probably the peevologistís favorite description of how a usage fumble affects his or her nervous system. But according to a report in todayís New York Times, "nails on a blackboard" ranks only 16th on the list of Noises Humans Hate.

So if you really, really recoil at "me and him went fishing," you should say itís like listening to someone upchuck. Yes, the most unpleasant noise, according to thousands of online voters, was the sound of someone (else) vomiting.

The survey is still online, but itís not entirely satisfying; you may get the same sample three times (there are 30-plus noises, randomly shuffled). I heard a coughing fit that sounded just like me, a couple of pollen-drenched weeks ago, and a reasonable impression of my husbandís snore, but I never did get to the barfing. And while almost any noise, repeated at night, could keep a person awake and homicidal, few of these were truly horripilating.

Anyway, as I waited for the scraping fingernails to turn up, I began to wonder: Do they really make a horrible sound on a blackboard? I tried it myself, and I couldnít raise a squeak. On the other hand, chalk on a blackboard -- or charcoal on drawing paper -- can produce a shriek that makes my teeth twang like banjo strings.


No usage mistake has ever done that to me. But some people think itís possible. In their book "Forbidden Words" (2006), linguists Kate Burridge and Keith Allan speculated[*] that grammar errors might have measurable physiological effects on certain people, just as obscenities do. One day perhaps theyíll assemble a group of sticklers, wire them up, and see whether split infinitives really do make them sweat.

Till then, only you will know whether your "fingernails on a blackboard" comparison is hyperbole or plain physiological truth.

[*Update June 25: The Burridge/Allan book is searchable at Amazon and Google Books, it turns out. Hereís the relevant bit:]

It would be interesting to measure (using, say, electrodermal monitoring) the emotional impact of a wider range of forbidden language forms, beyond the kinds of obscenity so far investigated; we have in mind slipshod pronunciations, "mistakes" in grammar, newfangled meanings, colloquialisms, jargon, clichťs. . . . We guess that psycho-physiological testing would show that an encounter with [irritating usages] not only activates their meaning, but also leads to emotional arousal. Speakers often describe expressions as getting up their nose, getting under their skin, getting on their nerves/wick, turning their stomach, sticking in their throat, making their hair curl / flesh creep / blood run cold. Irritating words, phrases and grammatical constructions figuratively touch many parts of the anatomy, and presumably this would be reflected in larger skin conductance amplitudes of a polygraph tracing.

[And about Bart Simpson: The words on the chalkboard are his, but the illustration had assists from both Add Letters and Photoshop.]

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column ďThe WordĒ since 1997. E-mail her at

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