Verb Forms Can Shape How People Perceive Intentionality

The verbs used to describe an action can influence how an action is perceived. In fact, the seemingly minor grammatical difference between the words "doing" and "did" can alter the very outcome of a criminal verdict, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.

University of Alabama researcher William Hart and colleagues asked volunteers to put themselves in the perspective of a judge as they read variations on case reports of a crime.

The reports, describing how one man shot another, were written with varying verb forms. In one write-up using the imperfective form of verb, the defendant in question "was pulling out his gun." In another, using the perfective form, he "pulled out his gun."

The volunteers, after reading the description that used imperfective verbs, reported that they perceived the defendant as more dangerous. When described in the perfective, the offender seemed less deliberate to readers.

Speaking on the findings, Hart noted that "when you describe somebody's actions in terms of what they're 'doing,' that action is way more vivid in [a reader's] mind." Research has found that clearly imagining an action may help a person think the act was intentional.

A grammar and spelling check of briefs and official communications may prove essential in shaping how people perceive intentionality and motivation. 

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