Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Language Matters

Imagine: You are a superhero (or police officer). You arrive at the scene of an apparent accident, and are trying to find out what's going on. Was it simply that--a fluke accident--or it could have been the result of a nefarious act, an intentional crime? Believe it or not, the specific verb usage of the witnesses and/or victims might sway your judgment. Sounds far-fetched? Read on!

In one study, participants were asked to memorize the floorplan of a house, and then read a story about someone moving around inside that house. Some participants read the story in the imperfective form (e.g., "he was walking from the bedroom to the bathroom"), others in the perfective form (e.g., "he walked from the bedroom to the bathroom"). In the former case, readers were more likely to imagine the protagonist on the path--in the process of getting to the destination; in contrast, the latter case, participants were more likely to imagine the protagonist at his destination. (Morrow, 1990; Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998).

It turns out that descriptions using the imperfective are also better remembered than those that use the perfective. Thus, hearing about the man whose car was pushing another car off the road is more memorable-and will get people more immersed in the description--than will hearing about the man whose car pushed another car off the road. The imperfect verb form helps us imagine ourselves in the situation--to take the perspective of the protagonist.

Researchers William Hart and Delores AlbarracĂ­n recently undertook a series of studies examining the effect of using the imperfect verb usage. Specifically, participants were asked to read a one-paragraph description about a real crime that occurred as a result of a verbal dispute that ended with the victim being shot. Some participants read the description with imperfect verb usage ("he was pointing his gun"), other participants with the use of the perfect ("he pointed his gun"). Participants were then asked to imagine that they were the judge hearing the case and decide whether the protagonist has criminal intent to harm the victim. It turns out that participants who read the imperfect version--"he was pointing the gun"--were more likely to judge the protagonist as intending to cause harm. These participants also reported imagining the incident in more detail than participants who read the perfect version ("he pointed the gun").

It's not just that we are more likely to imagine ourselves when reading or hearing descriptions that use the imperfect form. With the imperfect form, the action isn't yet completed; "he was pointing the gun" leaves open the possibility that he might put the gun down (in contrast to "he pointed the gun" which is a completed action). And so because the action is still unfolding, the protagonist, in theory, has control over the situation; if the action continues, we are likely to infer intent-he wanted to keep pointing the gun.

This revealing impact of language has implications for our lives:

  • When reading or hearing about accounts of crimes in the news or as jurors, the verb tense used by the prosecution and/or defense may nudge us in to make judgments that we otherwise might not make, provided that circumstances and evidence are at least somewhat ambiguous.
  • In novels, we may be more engaged, or more quickly engaged, with stories that use a preponderance of the imperfect verb form; it is easier for us to imagine ourselves in the situation, and to feel that we are watching the novel's events unfold.


Hart, W., & AlbarracĂ­n, D. (2011). Learning about what others were doing: Verb aspect and attributions of mundane and criminal intent for past actions. Psychological Science, 22, 261-266.

Morrow D.G. (1990). Spatial models, prepositions, and verb-aspect markers. Discourse Processes, 13, 441-469.

Zwaan R.A., Radvansky G.A. (1998). Situation models in language comprehension and memory. Psychological Bulletin, 123, 162-185.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is

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