Consider the following:

(1) Sally hates Mary.

  • a. How likely is this because Sally is the kind of person who hates people?
  • b. How likely is this because Mary is the kind of person whom people hate?

Thus begins the start of a great post over at Games with Words.

Sally hates Mary doesn’t obviously supply the relevant information, but starting with work by Roger Brown and Debora Fish in 1983, numerous studies have found that people nonetheless rate (a) as more likely than (b). In contrast, people find Sally frightens Mary more indicative of Sally than of Mary (the equivalent of rating (b) higher than (a)). Sentences like Sally likes Mary are called “object-biased,” and sentences like Sally frightens Mary are called “subject-biased.” There are many of sentences of both types.

Now consider:

  • (3) Sally hates Mary because she…
  • (4) Sally frightens Mary because she…

Most people think that “she” refers to Mary in (3) but Sally in (4). This is a bias — not absolute — but it is robust and easy to replicate. Again, there are many verbs which are “object-biased” like hates and many which are “subject-biased” like frightens. Just as in the causal attribution effect above, this pronoun effect seems to be a systematic effect of (at least) the verb used.

Both effects are called “implicit causality,” and researchers have generally assumed that the causal attribution effect and the pronoun effect are basically one and the same. An even stronger version of this claim would be that the pronoun effect relies on the causal attribution effect. People resolve the meaning of the pronouns in (3) and (4) based on who they think the cause of the first part of the sentence is. The causal attribution task in (1) and (2) is supposed to measure exactly that: who people think the cause is.

There is lots of evidence that people use any and all relevant information when they are interpreting language. Why aren’t people using the conceptualization of the world as revealed by the causal attribution task when interpreting pronouns? And what are people doing when they interpret pronouns in these contexts?

If all of the above is a bit too technical for you, here’s the distilled version:

Every word matters.  Even the small innocuous words that you might take for granted will deliver subtlety and nuance to the reader, whether you consciously intended them to or not. People have wildly differing Perceptual Positions in regards to how they view words, systems, the world.

Lawyers’ primary form of communication with clients, judges, other lawyers, is through the written word. Take the time to hone the craft. Weigh your words carefully and be cognizant of the the way your audience will receive them. What might seem clear to you is often obfuscated or misconstrued by someone else who brings with them a different perceptual position. As demonstrated above, slight alterations in phrasing and terminology can produce different interpretations by the reader.

An example from the master, Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never used.

Could you say as much in six words?

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