“Dangerously ambiguous” adjectives could cost you money

I pick up writing advice in the oddest places. Most recently, I learned a valuable lesson about the power and fragility of adjectives while reading “Freakonomics.”

In a chapter on real estate agents, the authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, explain how commission structures create different incentives for agents and their clients. Your interest and your real estate agent’s interest are not always aligned. “When she sells her own house, an agent holds out for the best offer,” they write. “When she sells yours, she encourages you to take the first decent offer that comes along.”

How does a real estate agent encourage you to take the first decent offer without overtly appearing to do so? The agent uses “dangerously ambiguous” adjectives in for-sale ads, according to Levitt and Dubner.

“Certain words are powerfully correlated with the final sale price of a house. This doesn’t necessarily mean that labeling a house ‘well maintained’ causes it to sell for less than an equivalent house. It does, however, indicate that when a real-estate agent labels a house ‘well maintained,’ she may be subtly encouraging a buyer to bid low.”

What kind of words (and one punctuation mark) correlated with a lower sale price?

• Fantastic
• Spacious
• !
• Charming
• Great neighborhood

What kind of words correlated with a higher sale price?

• Granite
• State-of-the art
• Corian
• Maple
• Gourmet

As writers and editors, we can guess why certain words were associated with a higher sales price. “Granite,” “Corian,” and “gourmet” are specific and straightforward terms that describe physical attributes of a house.

“Fantastic” and “charming” are meaningless. “And an exclamation point in a real-estate ad is bad news for sure, a bid to paper over real shortcomings with false enthusiasm,” write Levitt and Dubner.

The lesson here is to use precise, direct adjectives or don’t use them at all. To do otherwise may send your readers an ambiguous message that is, at best, ignored, at worst, misinterpreted.

PR Daily readers, care to share your favorite specific, straightforward adjectives?


This article was first published on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.

Comments are closed.