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Small Words, Big Impact: How the Words “Even” and “Only” Improve Memory

Por: | 31 de marzo de 2014


By Katharina Spalek, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Nicole Gotzner, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Isabell Wartenburger, University of Potsdam

Theoretical linguistics is a science that investigates the structure of languages, and linguists have formulated highly complex models of language. Do these models capture how language is used and interpreted by a speaker? Put differently: Do they have any ‘psychological reality’?

We tried to answer this question for a small linguistic domain, a class of words called focus particles. These are little, inconspicuous words like only or even. What function do these words have in our language? Let’s take some (adapted) examples from Eric Carle’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. If we say, “On Sunday, the Very Hungry Caterpillar only ate a green leaf”, the use of only implies that it didn’t eat anything else (in particular, it didn’t eat any of the crazy things that had given it a stomach ache the day before). If we use even and say, for example, “On Saturday, the Very Hungry Caterpillar even ate a gherkin”, we want to express, first, that it ate other things as well, and second, it was rather unexpected that it ate the gherkin. In these examples, ‘a green leaf’ and ‘a gherkin’ are the focus of the sentence. Focus is often defined as the informational centre of a sentence. Some linguistic theories say that focus indicates the presence of alternatives. This is true even without the addition of a focus particle. What the particle does is to establish a specific relation between a focused element and its alternatives. For example, in the case of only, the focus particle signals that all alternatives must be excluded. That is, if the caterpillar had eaten a leaf and a lollipop on Sunday, the sentence “On Sunday, the Very Hungry Caterpillar only ate a green leaf” would no longer be true.

We reasoned that because a focus particle establishes this specific relation between the focused element and the alternatives, the alternatives are somehow more relevant to a language user. What could it possibly mean if an alternative is more relevant in a conversation? A listener might process it deeper, and that, in turn, might cause him or her to remember it better when recalling the conversation at a later point in time. Therefore, we tested how well a listener remembers alternatives, depending on whether or not the element in focus was preceded by a focus particle. Our listeners heard little stories, like this one: “Mike received a parcel with shirts, trousers, and jumpers. He considered what he would like to keep. He only kept the shirts.” Critically, the third sentence varied in the different versions of the experiment — it said “only kept the shirts”, “even kept the shirts”, or “kept the shirts” (without a focus particle). We were interested in how well the participants in our experiments remembered the three things introduced in the second sentence, and in particular, how well they remembered the two things that were not mentioned again in the third sentence.

At this point, you might argue that it’s not very difficult to keep in mind three things. However, our participants listened to blocks of ten different stories and were only asked about them at the end of the block. And they did not know beforehand what they would have to remember about a given story. That is, we did not always ask them “What was in the parcel that Mike received?” We also asked, “Who received a parcel with clothing?” or “What piece of clothing did Mike keep?” That made the task considerably more difficult, and listeners tended to forget some of the details (on average, they remembered 68% of the alternatives correctly). Importantly, when the focused element was preceded by a focus particle, participants recalled seventy-one per cent of the alternatives, and when there was no focus particle, they recalled only sixty-five per cent of the alternatives. This does not look like a big difference, but statistical tests proved that it was not just a coincidence. The focused element itself (the shirts, in our example) was remembered equally well with or without a focus particle and it was remembered more often (80%) than the alternatives. This isn’t really surprising, because, after all, keeping the shirts was what this sentence was about, and the shirts were mentioned twice in the story. What is amazing is that someone who had heard that Mike “only kept the shirts” remembered that there were also trousers and jumpers in the parcel better than someone who had heard that Mike “kept the shirts”.

What’s the take-home message? First, it looks as if the linguistic explanation of what focus particles do is indeed psychologically real: focus particles signal a specific relationship between the focused element and its alternatives and, therefore, a listener better remembers these alternatives. Second, we have shown that focus particles are powerful devices that help structure information in a listener’s mind. So, the next time you have to prepare a speech, remember: not ONLY can big ideas sway your listeners — EVEN small words may change their minds! 

Katharina Spalek, Nicole Gotzner, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Isabell Wartenburger, University of Potsdam

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