Why Justin Timberlake Should Avoid Transitive Verbs

As writers, we're always trying to find words that perfectly capture our meaning.  "I broke the cookie jar" has a different feel than "The cookie jar broke." But does it really matter? Would the average reader really notice the difference? A recent study suggests that subtle wording changes can have real psychological effects.

Psychologist from Stanford University were interested in the distinction between agentive (a.k.a. transitive) or nonagentive (a.k.a. nontransitive) verbs. For example, in the example above, my role in the cookie jar mishap is emphasized in the agentive version ("I broke the cookie jar") while it is completely ignored in the nonagentive ("The cookie jar broke") version. So how much does wording matter?


The researchers wrote two versions of a report describing a restaurant fire. One used agentive verbs, while the other version used nonagentive verbs. Here's the actual passage used:

Agentive version:

Mrs. Smith and her friends were finishing a lovely dinner at their favorite restaurant. After they settled the bill, they decided to head to a nearby café for coffee and dessert. Mrs. Smith followed her friends and she stood up, she flopped her napkin on the centerpiece candle. She had ignited the napkin! As Mrs. Smith reached to grab the napkin, she toppled the candle and ignited the whole tablecloth too! As she jumped back, she overturned the table and ignited the carpet, as well. Hearing her desperate cries, the restaurant staff hurried over and heroically managed to put the fire out before anyone got hurt.

Nonagentive version:


Mrs. Smith and her friends were finishing a lovely dinner at their favorite restaurant. After they settled the bill, they decided to head to a nearby café for coffee and dessert. Mrs. Smith followed her friends and she stood up, her napkin flopped on the centerpiece candle. The napkin had ignited! As Mrs. Smith reached to grab the napkin, the candle toppled and the whole tablecloth ignited too! As she jumped back, the table overturned and the carpet ignited, as well. Hearing her desperate cries, the restaurant staff hurried over and heroically managed to put the fire out before anyone got hurt.

Participants got either one version or the other and  had to answer questions regarding how much Mrs. Smith should be blamed and how much she should pay the restaurant for damages. And here's the interesting part. Participants who got the agentive version  thought that Mrs. Smith should pay $935.17 on average. This is $247 more than the amount assigned by the participants who read the non-agentive version ($688.75)

This is interesting, but how far can you push it? The paragraph in this experiment was the only source of information participants had about the restaurant fire. Would language be as important if participants had other sources of information?

To answer this question, the experimenters took advantage of the infamous wardrobe malfunction between Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl (yeah, remember that?). For those of you unfamiliar with the event, you can watch it here. [Warning, partial nudity, although very blurry].




In this second experiment, participants watched the video and  read a description of the event (the order of the video and written description were counterbalanced between subjects). The description was either  transitive "In the final dance move, he unfastened a snap and tore part of the bodice! He slid the cover right off Jackson's chest!", or non-transitive “In this final dance move, a snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore! The cover slid right off Jackson's chest!"

Even though participants watched the video, language still had an effect on perceived blame, increasing both the rating of Timberlake's fault in the event and the amount of money participants thought he should be fined.

So writers, use your verbs carefully, and make sure you're saying exactly what you mean.

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Fausey CM, & Boroditsky L (2010). Subtle linguistic cues influence perceived blame and financial liability. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 17 (5), 644-50 PMID: 21037161

14 comments:

  1. Wording is so important sometimes! Or... maybe all the time? This was really interesting :)

    Hope you're doing well!!

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  2. Great post, Livia! You really emphasize the power of language on psychology here. Lately a lot of my revisions have been based on how I think a reader will react to something on this same level. I'm not sure what sort of impact it's having, but your post suggests that it could be a big one.

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  3. I often use non-transitive verbs to avoid starting all my sentences with the same pronoun. But if I take this into consideration, I guess I should be more careful.
    It's fascinating how such a small change of words can change an opinion of blame. Now I wonder if it would work the other way around too? As in someone doing something heroic. Would non-transitive cause people to see the person as less heroic?

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  4. I'm happy you share this commentary. Our choice of verbs critically shapes events for sure, when we speak as well as when we write. It shows something about us, not just about how listeners see us, also about us inside and how we see ourselves.

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  5. Perhaps you should check the meaning of transitive and intransitive. The difference has to do with whether there is an object of the action and not whether there is an agent identified. "I hurt." is intransitive and "I hurt him" is transitive. It has nothing to do with the subject or agent which is clearly "I" in both cases.

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  6. Sara- I kind of hope it's not this important all the time, because that would be exhausting!

    Domey - how do you judge how the reader will react? Is it mostly by monitoring yourself as you read it?

    Jake -- I'm guessing it would also work the opposite way as well.

    JJ -- and it also shows how were not the logic machines that sometimes we think we are.

    Janet -- I used the terms as they were used by the authors of the paper. I'm not familiar with "agentive" is a grammatical term, but a quick Google search turns up " the semantic role of the animate entity that instigates or causes the happening denoted by the verb in the clause." The key word is animate, I think. If you look at the examples from the experiment, only the transitive versions have animate agents. You are right though, that transitive and agentive are not always interchangeable.

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  7. I see "agentive verb" and the first thing I think is, "Damn, that verb must have written a good query letter."

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  8. Joseph -- time for a query break, I think?

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  9. Politicians have had this one figured out for centuries.

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  10. Gretchen -- "mistakes were made"

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  11. That is an important distinction, and one I may have to pay more attention to in the future. After all, my novel has a politician in it.

    But it's even more important to watch out for transient verbs. Inevitably, you'll have to replace them later.

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  12. Well, now I know how to reduce my liability when I'm writing up descriptions of unfortunate events for my insurance company. Thanks for that, Liv! :)

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  13. Simon -- At least you're not killing anyone...I think.

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