The verb form used to describe an action can affect how that action is perceived, according to William Hart of the University of Alabama. This could have serious implications during a criminal trial, possibly meaning the difference between a guilty and innocent verdict.
Hart was aware of existing research studies in different fields. One set of studies to do with language showed that if the progressive aspect is used ('was doing' as opposed to 'did') to describe an action, then that action is more vivid in the reader's mind. Other research studies, unconnected with language, had found that people who pictured an action more vividly were more inclined to think that someone had done it intentionally. So Hart and his colleague Dolores Albaraccin set out to discover if the language used when describing an action affected intentionality.
Volunteer subjects read a purported criminal report where the aspect of the verb varied (he was pulling out a gun vs he pulled out a gun). Those who read the progressive forms of the verb (was firing gunshots etc) thought that the perpetrator was pulling the trigger with more harmful intent than did those who read perfective verb forms (he fired gunshots).
Hart described it as 'startling' that the ability to think about other people's goals and intentions can hinge on one small point of grammar.
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