Slip of the tongue

December 08, 2004

Why is it that we can look at something, know what it is and still call a rose by a different name? Breaking from conventional wisdom, new research suggests that it isn't a rushed pace or distraction that makes us slip up, but rather a hiccup in how we plan what we're going to say that messes things up.

People usually look at things before they name them. For instance, before they say "a hammer," they look at the hammer for a second. But what about when they see a hammer and unintentionally call it "an axe"? Zenzi M. Griffin, Georgia Institute of Technology, assumed people made the mistake when they didn't look at the hammer long enough, which could reflect rushed word preparation, forgetting to check the name they had mentally prepared against the object, or paying too much attention to other objects.

But Griffin discovered that people who say "axe" when they mean "hammer" look at the hammer just as long as they do when they say "hammer." However, they look at the hammer longer after they call it "an axe," apparently as they prepare to correct their mistake. In her study, "The Eyes Are Right When the Mouth Is Wrong," Griffin concluded that, as with a gesture, a person's gaze may accurately reflect what he intends, even if his words do not. The study will be published in the December issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

Griffin had participants name two or three line-drawn objects or describe the actions in line-drawn scenes and measured their eye movements while they spoke. She identified 41 full or partial mistakes, indicated by participants saying something like "oops," or "no," or interrupting what they were saying.

Results showed that whether they identified the items correctly or incorrectly, the amount of time participants spent looking at the drawings beforehand was almost the same. This went against Griffin's prediction that people tend to misname objects because they don't look at them long enough.

These results have three implications: 1) word-substitution mistakes are more indicative of problems in planning speech than problems in thought or attention; 2) speech errors are not caused by a person rushing through word preparation or omitting a sub-process; and 3) looking at an object is not a guarantee that the person will say it correctly.
For more information, contact Griffin at or see A full copy of the article is available at the APS Media Center at

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.

Association for Psychological Science

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