Language Matters

How far does common understanding of the meaning of words intersect with the dictionary definition? This is a discussion which, at first glance, is obscure but the consequences of misunderstanding how individuals interpret a word can be serious.

This post is prompted by the results of a survey conducted by YouGov, the UK based polling organisation, on the subject of the UK's departure from the European Union, commonly referred to as "Brexit"*.

In mid 2019, the time at which this post is being written, the likelihood of the UK departing without a "deal" (in other words trading with the EU on WTO terms) increased. A poll from YouGov asked the public the following question:

"If Britain ends up leaving the EU without a Brexit deal, which of the below - if any - would you consider to be responsible?"

A number of potentially responsible parties were then listed. It's important to note that throughout the survey the word used is "responsibility".

The results of the survey were then summarised under the headline:

"Who would Britons blame for No Deal Brexit?"

No Deal.png

Responsibility vs. Blame: An example

Imagine you and others have been invited to dinner at the home of some friends, who have chosen and cooked the meal you're presented with. For the sake of argument, let's call these friends Kate and Dave.

At the end of the meal one of your fellow guests asks you, in front of the other guests, "Who do you think is responsible for providing this meal?" Your likely answer would be "Kate and Dave" (or, if you consider yourself to be something of a wit and are relaxed about not being invited back "Waitrose").

Now image that your fellow guest had asked you a different question, "Who do you think is to blame for providing this meal?" Would you answer the same way? I doubt it.

Responsibility and Blame are words that, in common usage, have different meanings. The former is neutral, the latter is negative.

Headline Writer Disease

So, why does YouGov switch from "responsibility" to "blame"? The dictionary definition of responsibility gives them a certain amount of cover:


Is it reasonable for YouGov to argue that, when reading the survey questions, respondents had "2" in mind and not "1"?

I would argue that, in the absence of any clarification questions, it is not.

Realising that "Blame" sounds so much more exciting, YouGov have simply crafted a headline which attracts more attention. This is commonly known as clickbait.

That's just marketing, right?

Making attractive pitches for services/products that might be considered by some to be rather dull, is a major component of effective marketing but the distance between the pitch and the reality must be reasonable.

The YouGov headline creates expectations that the survey detail cannot meet, this is not a good look. Do not do this.