Analysis: Reading between the lines of carefully chosen words

Is the referendum question proposed by Alex Salmond – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country” – a fair one? A leading linguist examines its syntax and choice of words:

The wording of a question like this is a delicate balance. Human beings are rational people who are not easily derailed in their opinions, but the more you load a question like this, the more of a chance there is that somebody is going to be affected by the wording.

At the start of the question, the use of the word “you” is very inclusive. It brings you, the person, into the question. Asking “do you” involves the voter being asked in a personal way. The word “agree”, meanwhile, is also interesting – most people want to agree most of the time. Having agree or disagree in a question is liable to set the tone of the question itself. Wording it “should Scotland be an independent country?” would be more objective, as well as being more economical. The words “do you agree” are not strictly necessary.

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There is an ambiguity in the use of the word “should”. It can be used in different ways – “it should rain tomorrow” as opposed to “you should not be eating chocolate for breakfast”. It is possible to read the “should” in the lateral way, in the sense that it has a moral overtone. But then again, if you have a question that starts with “do you agree that”, then I don’t know whether a verb could follow other than should.

The choice of “an independent country” is interesting. The choice of the word “country” – as opposed to state or nation for example. It’s a choice that has to be made but state is the most netural choice, whereas nation would be the least neutral, because nation would imply things about belonging that the word “country”, which is what has been chosen, does not necessarily imply. As far as “independent” goes, well, I think we have to take that at face value. It is the key word in the question. In fact, if you had to do away with all the other words and make this into a one word referendum question, you could simply ask: “Independent?”.

Professor John Joseph is head of English language and linguistics at the University of Edinburgh