It can be something as subtle as “a” versus “the,” but the words others use to describe the world can alter our perceptions and even our memories. I came across two (linguistically) fun articles this week that reveal a bit about how and why the words we choose reveal more than we may consciously intend.

The first article, “Why Motivating Others Starts With Using The Right Language,” is about how phrasing can be used to promote leadership and team building, and it points out some interesting linguistic phenomena concerning how subtle differences in word choice can make a big difference. It starts out by talking about a team meeting where two different departments used the words “we” and “they,” indicating an us vs. them mentality rather than a unified group.

(Linguistic Side Note: Like “here” and “there,” and “this” and “that,” “we” and “they” are deictic terms: understanding their reference means having contextual knowledge of the situation.)

Recognizing the use of these terms can give insight into the mindset of the team, and how they feel about each other. And it may or may not be conscious on the speakers’ parts. Later, the article references a study from 1974 comparing how changing “a” to “the” changed people’s memories about seeing a broken headlight in a video. It’s a subtle but powerful difference: an indefinite article (a) versus a definite article (the). But it was enough to alter people’s perceptions of what they had seen.

Finally, the meat of the article covers how leaders can promote feelings of responsibility and control in their teams by encouraging them to change the way they talk about an action. Rather than turning to the leader/manager/whatever and asking how to do a task or fix a situation, the employee/team member/whatever can instead share their intended response, and the leader can either agree, give suggestions, or ask questions. It’s really quite a smart tactic, since it’s proactive (it shows consideration of the best action and a willingness to be responsible) and not face threatening (it offers a possible action that’s still open to negotiation).

The second article is about a study conducted by several linguists on the language used in restaurant reviews. They found that, “sexual words were used in reviews of expensive restaurants, whereas drug-related words were used in reviews of cheap restaurants.” They also found that, “reviewers of more expensive restaurants were more eloquent and expansive in their reviews,” and they suggested that reviewers were hoping to that this eloquence would project an image of a more well-educated, well-off individual, similar to the expected clientele of the expensive restaurants. Finally, they discovered that critical reviews “employed language related to traumatic experiences,” and used the pronoun “we” more often than “I” (which was used in more positive reviews).

I’ve come across other studies of advertising language that discuss how luxury products tend to use ads that are more syntactically complex, and on some level it makes sense to me that food, sex, and drugs all involve the human body, and are somewhat comparable in that sense. Not to mention the fact that cheap food is often less healthy (I’m thinking pizza, chicken wings, cupcakes) and therefore not good for your body, much like drugs. So the interesting question is: how intentional were these word choices?

These nuances of language are what we sociolinguists think are fascinating, since they can reveal so much about the mindset and intention of the speaker, even without their conscious awareness.

What other language subtleties do you find interesting or note-worthy? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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11 thoughts on “Why Our Word Choices Matter

      1. When you say you need help in editing, do you mean you’re looking for blog posts that talk about editing? Or you’re looking for some editing help on a particular piece? I guess I’m a bit confused as to what you’re looking for.

      2. Thank you for requesting my assistance with editing. Unfortunately, I’m unable to take on any additional projects at this time. However, if you’re looking for editing help, may I offer a few suggestions? First, you could try posting a request for editing help on Elance. Or another option could be posting on a local university’s job board–students are always looking for part-time/freelance work, especially those who may have an interest in a career in publishing. I hope that helps, and best of luck with your writing!

      3. Elance is a website where people look for or post jobs for freelance work–one time jobs rather than steady full-time employment. The website is http://www.elance.com.
        For posting on local university job boards: some schools have job posting boards where students can search for jobs posted by local companies (and people). I’m not sure if every school has that option, but it’s worth investigating. You can try searching for a job board on each university’s website, or maybe start with a google search for the university’s name and “job board” or “student job board”? You may need to do a little digging, as each school will probably be different.

      4. I’m sorry, but there seems to be a misunderstanding. The sites I mentioned were suggestions for where you could post a job notice, so you could hire someone to help you with your editing. From your latest comment, it sounds like you’re looking for something else.

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