Loaded words

It’s striking how much more unreasonable you can make someone sound, simply by quoting them in a certain tone of voice. I’ve noticed this when I’m listening to someone describe a fight or other incident in which he felt that someone was being rude to him — he’ll relate a comment that the person made (e.g, “And then she was like, ‘Sure, whatever…'”) And when he quotes the person, he uses a sarcastic or cutting tone of voice, so of course I think, “Wow, that person was being obnoxious!”

But then I wonder: Can I really be confident that he’s accurately representing the tone of her comment? It’s pretty easy for someone to, intentionally or not, distort the tone of a comment they’re recounting, while still accurately quoting the person’s official words. Especially if they’re already annoyed at that person. So to be fair, I try to replay the comment in my head in a more neutral tone to see if that makes it seem less obnoxious. (“Sure, whatever” could be said in a detached, I-don’t-have-a-strong-opinion-about-this way, just as easily as it could be said in a sarcastic or dismissive way.)

And there’s an analogy to this phenomenon in print. Journalists and bloggers can cast a totally different light on someone’s quote just through the word choice they use when they refer to the quote. Compare, for example, “Hillary objected that…” to “Hillary complained that…” The former makes her sound controlled and rational; the latter makes her sound whiny. The writer can exert an impressive amount of influence over your reaction to the quote, without ever being accused of misrepresenting what Hillary said.

One insidious example of a loaded word that I’ve found to be quite common is “admitted.” It’s loaded because it implies that whatever content follows reflects poorly on the speaker, and that he would have preferred to conceal it if he could. Take these recent examples:

“In his blog, Volokh admitted that his argument ‘was a joke’” (Wikipedia)
“Bill O’Reilly Admits That His TV Persona Is Just An Act” (Inquisitr)
“Paul Krugman admitted that the zero bound was not actually a bound” (Free Exchange)
Kennedy admitted that ‘the end result’ under his standard ‘may be the same as that suggested by the dissent…’” (Basman Rose Law)

I investigated the original quotes from the people whom these sentences allude to, and as far as I can tell, they gave no sense that they thought what they were saying was shameful or unflattering. The word “admitted” could just as easily have been replaced by something else. For example:

“In his blog, Volokh clarified that his argument ‘was a joke.’”
“Bill O’Reilly Says That His TV Persona Is Just An Act”
“Paul Krugman explained that the zero bound was not actually a bound”
“Kennedy acknowledged that ‘the end result’ under his standard ‘may be the same as that suggested by the dissent…’”

Suddenly all the speakers sound stronger and more confident, right? This isn’t to say that the word “admitted” is never appropriate. Sometimes it clearly fits, such as when someone is agreeing that some particular point does, in fact, weaken the argument she is trying to advance. But in most cases, reading that someone “admitted” some point can subtly make you think more poorly of him without reason. That’s why I advise being on the lookout for this and other loaded words, and when you notice them, try mentally replacing them with something more neutral so that you can focus on the point itself without your judgment being inadvertently skewed.

24 Responses to Loaded words

  1. Cory Albrecht says:

    Problem is, almost any word can be a loaded word given the proper context, and not always negatively loaded. “Admitted” could, potentially, be a positively loaded word when describing somebody making a public act of contrition – admitting to something makes you a better person whereas merely conceding to having done something, well, not so much.

    • I like to use words like “admit” and other generally negative-loaded words in an ironic context. For example “I’m sorry but I have to admit that I grotesquely underestimated your stupidity” or “I failed to take into account what an idiot he is.”

  2. Julia Galef says:

    Is that really a problem? Seems like it should be pretty obvious from context.

    • Cory Albrecht says:

      I’m just a little skeptical that context will always be obvious enough. As Andrew T says, the quote is sometimes the context so things get a little confusingly circular. The type word choice you describe is sometimes done intentionally as a sly way to inject bias into the reader’s opinion and give lip service to unbiased reporting at the same time. Other times it may be unconscious but still showing a bias.

      If you didn’t know that the news outlet was pro-FreeBSD and the person being reported about was pro-Linux, you might not realize that the word in question was chosen with or to invoke some bias. It’s a critical piece of context you might not have.

      I mean, look how often we have honest misunderstandings between people not trying to subtly bias their listener’s opinion.

  3. harmamae says:

    Good strategy. Quotes can be easily misrepresented by the context they are put in. I never noticed that about the word ‘admitted’ before.

  4. I remember often hearing my grandmother complain about different events at work as a child (probably younger than ten, based on when she retired). Invariably she used the same meanish sarcastic voice to re-tell what this-or-that co-worker had said—and at the time I actually thought that it was always the same co-worker, thinking that the voice was a reasonably correct imitation… Later, obviously, I understood that this was just my grandmother’s way of bringing over how mean and unreasonable, in her impression, the co-worker involved in that particular event had been.

    The odd uses of “admitted” have long annoyed me too. In particular, it seems that everytime a famous woman (or, occasional, famous man) makes a statement concerning her private life, this is considered “admitting” something—even when that something is not in anyway embarrassing, harmful, or otherwise something that she could be expected to keep silent about.

  5. asdsd says:

    The life story of my borderline personality mother.

  6. Frank says:

    It looks like journalists are pretty good at this: http://www.google.com/search?q=admitted&tbm=nws With the exception of a fluff piece (Lance Bass admitted he`s a `hopeless romantic`‎), `admitted’ is always used correctly, in stark contrast with blogs: http://www.google.com/search?q=admitted&tbm=blg

    This reminds me of the transparent, and entertaining, bias found in The Economist’s description of how people talk: http://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Aeconomist.com+snorted

  7. Andrew T says:

    @Cory, you and Julia are both right – I’d say the lesson is that the context defines which words are loaded and how, and then the word used frames the reading of the quote. (The quote itself can inform the context, of course, so it is a bit circular.)

    My favorite is when writers use loaded words for statements that are unambiguously innocent. There was a time when I read celebrity news blurbs on IMDB frequently, and it seemed like they would just use a random synonym generator for “said” every time they had a quote, leading to plenty of lines like ‘Matt Damon confessed that he had a great time working with Tom Hanks.’ Yeah, I’ll bet it took hours of interrogation to drag that out of him 🙂

  8. alex says:

    Similarly,

    “X claims that…”

    “X asserts that…”

    “X maintains that…”

    are all somewhat loaded relative to the more neutral

    “X argues that…”

    • Cory Albrecht says:

      To a skeptic and our love of evidence, I think that “$X asserts that…” will be seen as “$X has no evidence for $blank but still wants to claim it as fact anyways”. It’s not only context of the article you have to worry about, it’s also the mindset of the individual who is reading the article! 🙂

    • Joey Frantz says:

      I don’t agree that the latter is simply more neutral, because people often hold claims, make assertions, or maintain beliefs without arguing for them in any way. It annoys me when people say they “argue” for a certain idea when they really just assert it.

  9. Lauren says:

    The alternative words to “said” prose unit was the first thing covered in my 9th grade english class. It was also something emphasized in my high school newspaper class on almost a monthly basis. In my college creative writing class, words other than said were continuously praise. Is it any wonder that people use alternate words?

    In fact, words like admitted, blurted, yelled, bitched, etc. are purposefully used to give more information about the action of the story….be it news or narrative. The key, as you have so aptly pointed out is recognizing if that specific “said” word appropriatly describes the speaker’s actions.

    “…THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!”

    • At least when we look at journalism, the (usually excessive) wish not to repeat a word does far more harm than good, leading to awkwardly written and harder to understand texts. A particular problem (at least in Germany) is that articles written about a person fail to use a consistent designator for that person. For instance, an article on Usain Bolt (which should use a mixture of “Bolt” and “he”) could go through “Bolt”, “the world-record holder”, “the olympic champion”, “the sprinter”, “the Jamaican”, …, leading to both potential problems keeping track of who is referenced (seeing that other people are likely to be mentioned in the article—including other sprinters and Jamaicans) and to a sub-optimal information flow (because the information is not given where it should be given, but where it can be used as an excuse for not writing “Bolt” a second time).

      Specifically with regard to “said” and its replacements in fiction, I have recently heard the claim that it would better to use“said” without exception and to let the context and statements speak for themselves (rather than using “exclaimed”, “answered”, “snapped”, …). While this stance is too restrictive for my taste, a modification to from “without exception” to “in almost all cases” might work well. (Unfortunately, I do not remember who made the claim.)

      • harmamae says:

        I’ve also been told in fiction it is best to use “said” in most cases, since the reader will not notice the tag much and focus on the actual dialogue.

  10. Lauren says:

    **last line first paragraph** should be “praised”

  11. Max says:

    “Denied” is another big one, the opposite of admitted. Loaded words are fine if they describe the situation accurately, like when someone first denied doing something bad, but later admitted it.

  12. Mrs. Martinez says:

    Great post! Connotation is my favorite concept to teach. It is also one of the concepts that the majority of students tend to struggle with because of how abstract and meta it is. I suspect that the majority of American adults are completely unaware of the concept of connotation and how it affects their perceptions.

  13. Very true observation but there’s a lot of distance in between word choice and tone of voice. They are certainly both loaded but in different ways. You certainly describe both and I wouldn’t begin to argue; I agree with it all. I wanted to share an interesting first reaction you’ll enjoy, I bet. You said this:

    Compare, for example, “Hillary objected that…” to “Hillary complained that…”

    Then when I read what you said about it, I had to laugh because I’d read each in a different way than you described. I read the first as strong, confident and assertive, and the second as reasonable. Whiny was not on my radar.

  14. Would this also not depend on how the ‘reader’ reads such words? If he, for example, does not like the subject being talked about, he is likely to read the words in a sarcastic tone or with dislike, no and inflect his own (negative) opinion in the words, which may not have been intentioned this way in the first place?

  15. redjim99 says:

    Great subject this. We travel by ferry from France to the UK on a reasonably frequent basis, and for six hours read a variety of papers. It always amazes me to see the same story written-up with such a variety of slants.

    Words are dangerous, and should be used with care.

    Jim

  16. For a long time I thought that the Economist was a fairly liberal publication. Then I read Noam Chomsky’s assertion that papers intended for the hoi polloi could report the facts with any bias they liked, but the Economist’s clientele needed to know stuff that was closer to the truth!

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