Word Order Matters When Giving Directions

A new study carried out by a group of psychologists and linguists from the University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh, and Ohio State University suggests that the order of words is of prime importance while giving directions to a person. Or if the target object is more prominent, start the sentence with target itself followed by other objects near it, like for instance, a landmark.

"Here we show for the first time that people are quicker to find a hard-to-see person in an image when the directions mention a prominent landmark first, as in "Next to the horse is the man in red", rather than last, as in "The man in red is next to the horse".

The findings could be useful in the field of human-computer communication and artificial intelligence.

The participants were then asked to explain, in their own words, how to find Wally (Waldo) quickly - not a straightforward task as each sketch had hundreds of items. As expected, the volunteers often opted to indicate the position of the human figure relative to a landmark object in the cartoon, such as a building.

The best word order for giving good directions was found by the team headed by Alasdair Clarke from the University of Aberdeen's School of Psychology.

Landmarks that stood out the most from the background - which were measured according to an imaging software they used - were more likely to be mentioned at the beginning of the phrase, while those that stood out little were typically mentioned after the target object (Wally).

Researchers noted that volunteers tended to use a different word order depending on the visual properties of the landmark.

The key to giving good directions might be all in the word order you choose. Elsner added if the target is easier to spot than the landmark, people should start their word order with the target. Telling the directions in reverse order, that is, "target-first-landmark-second", resulted in listener taking longer to find the object of interest.

Research published by Frontiers in Psychology found that to give people directions they are likely to remember, it is not enough to give the correct details - they must also be said in the right order in a sentence, reports EurekAlert! "But if the target your listener is looking for is itself easy to see, then you should just start your directions with that", concluded co-author Micha Elsner, assistant professor at the Department of Linguistics, Ohio State University in a recent statement. "A long-term goal is to build a computer direction-giver that could automatically detect objects of interest in the scene and select the landmarks that would work best for human listeners", says Clarke.

But while these findings may not drastically change the way you give directions to lost tourists, they could have some major implications for the development of automatic direction-giving computers.

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