Settawat Udom / Shutterstock.com

Word order makes a difference, according to a new study.

Giving verbal directions is a dying art, now that most of us navigate by smartphone. But sometimes there’s no substitute for human instructions to get you oriented and on your way—and according to linguists, not all directions are equally helpful.

People often describe destinations relationally, mentioning the target and a landmark to help orient the listener—for example, “the bakery is next to the car wash.” Research has shown that people prefer to name landmarks that are larger and easier to see. A new study conducted at the University of Aberdeen tested whether the order of words in the description also affects a listener’s ability to find a given destination.

The investigation built off of data from a previous study, which demonstrated that people tend to mention the most visible objects earlier in verbal directions. These visually salient landmarks are considered “common ground,” or within the body of knowledge shared by both speaker and listener. In a separate experiment at the University of Aberdeen, researchers gave participants four different types of spoken directions to find a target within images from “Where’s Wally” (“Where’s Waldo,” in the U.S. and Canada):

  1. TARGET: “At the upper right, the man holding the red vase with a stripe.”
  2. LANDMARK: “At the upper right, the sphinx.”
  3. LANDMARK PRECEDES: “At the upper right, to the left of the sphinx, the man holding the red vase with a stripe on it.”
  4. LANDMARK FOLLOWS: “At the upper right, the man holding the red vase with a stripe to the left of the sphinx.”
“Where’s Wally” image used in the study. (Frontiers in Psychology)

The study measured participants’ response times to the different directions and found that the figure with the vase was easier to find when the larger element, the sphinx, came first in the description. But saying the landmark first won’t work every time—in fact, the fastest response times were recorded for target-only descriptions, suggesting that the man with the vase was obvious enough that the relative descriptions (“left of the sphinx”) were overly specific. The key is to mention the easier-to-find object first, whether that’s the target or the landmark.

The researchers observe that this study has direct applications for artificial intelligence—for instance, imagine Siri scanning for landmarks in a scene and pointing them out to you first.

But the tip also comes in handy when you’re stopped for directions on the street. Start with what’s most salient to you, and work from there.

Top image: Settawat Udom / Shutterstock.com

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