Linguists Determine the Best Way to Give Directions

Clarke et al., Frontiers in Psychology (2015)
Clarke et al., Frontiers in Psychology (2015) /

Clarke et al., Frontiers in Psychology (2015)


Giving directions often involves landmarks. “Turn left at the clock tower,” “head straight until you reach the bridge,” “look for Waldo under the red-and-white beach umbrella.” A new study from linguists and a psychologist from the University of Aberdeen, The Ohio State University, and the University of Edinburgh underlines how important these recognizable visual cues are in giving directions. In fact, people understand directions best when they begin with mention of a landmark, according to the research, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The researchers analyzed a dataset first collected as part of a 2013 study: 1672 descriptions of where to find Waldo in images from Where’s Waldo (better known outside North America as Where’s Wally), generated by 152 participants. For the present study, the researchers examined the word order used by speakers to direct the listener to find a target. They found that people described landmarks that were easier to see early in the sentence before they mentioned the hard-to-find target: “At the upper right, to the left of the sphinx, the man holding the red vase with a stripe on it.”

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers wanted to see how word order affected people’s understanding of directions. They asked 32 participants to listen to audio recordings of instructions helping them find Waldo. They found that people could find Waldo easier if the easy-to-find landmark object was mentioned first in the sentence, rather than after. So, “Next to the sphinx, Waldo is holding a vase,” is more effective than the more linguistically common phrase, “Waldo is holding a vase next to the sphinx.” Proper word order, they discovered, could speed up searchers by 10 percent.

"Listeners start processing the directions before they're finished, so it's good to give them a head start by pointing them towards something they can find quickly, such as a landmark,” co-author Micha Elsner, an assistant professor of linguistics at The Ohio State University, says in a press release.