Memory for syntactic differences in mental illness descriptions

Emily N. Line, Samantha Roberts, Zachary Horne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The American Psychiatric Association recommends that practitioners discuss mental illnesses using person-first, or comparatively state-based language, rather than trait-based language. The aim of this initiative is to both avoid treating the symptoms of an illness as a defining characteristic of the people who experience these symptoms and to reduce the stigmatization of mental illness. However, some of the implications of these initiatives have not been tested. Here, we investigate one of these implications—people’s memory for changes in syntactic constructions in descriptions of mental illness. In three experiments, we observed that people form similar representations of state- and trait-based passages as reflected by their performance in two recognition tasks and a free-recall task. However, a fourth experiment suggested that participants’ memories of the exact syntax they read are not so degraded that they are unable to recover what they read when explicitly prompted. Altogether, these results suggest that some aspects of the person-first language initiative are likely to be transient.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMemory and Cognition
Early online date7 Sep 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Sep 2021


  • state-based language
  • person-first language
  • memory
  • stigma


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