Reasonable Doubt

Demonstrating how subtle features of language might influence juror decisions

Posted Feb 26, 2014

By Andrew M. Sherrill, M.A. (guest contributor) and Joe Magliano, Ph.D.

A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.” – Robert Frost, American Poet

Psychologists have long been interested in how language can affect human thought. If language can indeed affect the way we think, it is easy to speculate upon misuse of language to influence and even coerce others. This notion was famously explored in George Orwell’s novel 1984 and does have some empirical support.

In a classic example relevant to eyewitness testimony, Loftus and Palmer (1974) had participants watch a video of a fender bender. Participants judged the speed of the car as faster when asked, “How fast was the car going when it smashed the other car?” as opposed to, “How fast was the car going when it hit the other car?”

The same video was interpreted differently by a simple change of a word in the question. Perhaps even more surprisingly, participants who heard the question with “smashed” were more likely to incorrectly remember that there was broken glass.

Can lawyers manipulate jury decisions with the words they use to describe a legal case? Intuition says yes, and recent research shows that even subtle features of language can affect how people think and feel about a legal decision.

Hart & Albarracín (2011) conducted a study exploring this issue with a seemingly subtle feature of language called grammatical aspect.

Grammatical aspect helps us convey whether events are ongoing or completed. If I say, “I was walking to the store,” I am using an ongoing (or imperfective) grammatical aspect, which implies that I’m somewhere en route to the store. This may further imply that I’m going to talk more about what happened on the way to the store.

If I say “I walked to the store,” I am using a completed grammatical aspect (or perfective), which in this case puts me at the store. The listener would expect me to talk about events that happened at the store and would be surprised if I talked about what happened on the way to the store.

The interest of Hart and Albarracín (2011) on the role grammatical aspect in legal judgments likely stemmed from several studies that demonstrate that it affects how we comprehend and reason about language (e.g., Madden & Zwaan, 2001; Salomon, Magliano, & Radvansky, 2012). However, their notion that aspect could affect evaluation of legal arguments was quite novel.

In their study, they had people read a short description of a murder and varied whether the actions of the murderer were described with an ongoing grammatical aspect (was pointing, was shooting) or with a completed aspect (pointed, shot). Remarkably, they found that participants felt the murder was more intentional when described with an ongoing aspect. This suggests that perhaps grammatical aspect could be used to sway jurors when making decisions regarding first- and second-degree murder.

To further explore the idea that aspect might matter in legal context and in light of the second anniversary of the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, let’s examine the defense attorney’s interrogation of John Good, the only third-party eyewitness. After the defense attorney described Martin as “raining blows” on Zimmerman, he attempted to confirm John Good’s account of the incident with the following dialogue (

Defense attorney: “That’s when you saw him striking down?”

Eyewitness: “That’s what it looked like, arm movement going downward.”

Defense attorney: “How many times do you think, if you had to guess?”

Eyewitness: “I have no idea. As soon as I saw the movement going downward, that’s when I turned around and went back inside.”

Defense attorney: “That’s when you knew it was very serious?”

Eyewitness: “Yes, it looked like it was getting serious and wasn’t someone playing around.”

Notice that John Good testified to witnessing only one possible punch. He left the scene as soon as he saw “arm movement going downward.” Isn’t it interesting that the defense attorney described Martin’s actions as being in progress rather than being complete? The attorney could have said, “That's when you saw him strike down?” But does that seem as violent as “striking down?” By using the latter phrase, doesn’t it seem like there was more than one blow delivered by Martin?

We invite you to read Zimmerman’s account of the events in his police interrogation: You will notice that he also tends to describe Martin’s actions with an ongoing aspect and his own with a completed aspect.

In collaboration with Dutch psychologists, Rolf Zwaan and Anita Eerland, we became interested in further exploring the possibility that grammatical aspect could affect judgments of first- and second-degree murder.

We are particularly interested in situations in which the violence is allegedly provoked, as was argued in Florida vs. Zimmerman. But our interest in this issue is not motivated by that case. Our study does not examine Florida vs. Zimmerman. Because the study is still ongoing, we hesitate to describe it in detail at this juncture. However, our results suggest that the grammatical aspect used to describe a provocation plays an important role in how people understand and evaluate a case with respect to whether a first- or second-degree murder verdict is warranted.

To be clear, we are not claiming that only one critical phrase (“striking down”) swayed the jurors of Florida vs. Zimmerman. However, it is possible that courtroom dialogue in general is littered with many strategically selected linguistic features that result in mental images that favor one side over the other. This image may or may not reflect the actual events.

So, George Orwell appears to have been onto something, but perhaps he would be surprised about the research on grammatical aspect. Even subtle features of language can have profound effects on how we think and feel, which in a legal context might affect legal decision-making.

Were George Zimmerman and his lawyer explicitly aware of their subtle use of grammatical aspect and its potential impact on the jury? Probably not.

But we think that many people intuitively know how to use subtle and not-so-subtle features of language to affect how others think and feel. An interesting question is raised as to whether we can protect ourselves from these manipulations so that we can make rational decisions given the facts at hand and especially in the context of being a juror.

Andrew Sherrill, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in the clinical psychology program of Northern Illinois University. He researches how victims, perpetrators and third-parties anticipate, comprehend and respond to provocation and trauma.

Joe Magliano, Ph.D., is a Presidential Research Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. He teaches courses about cognitive psychology and the psychology of language. His research focuses on how we understand narratives across different media (text, film, graphic narratives) and how we can help struggling readers.


Hart, W., & Albarracín, 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.

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589.

Madden, C. J. & Zwaan R.A., (2003). How does verb aspect constrain event representations? Memory and Cognition 31, 663-672.

Salomon, M. M., Magliano, J. P., & Radvansky, G. A. (2013). Verb aspect and problem solving. Cognition, 128, 134-139.