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:
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.
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