Message Editing

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Message editing is the process whereby speakers review and sometimes revise a message plan prior to speaking. At lower levels of linguistic output, a not-yet-spoken clause might be checked for consistency with phonemic, syntactic, and/or lexical rules. At more abstract planning levels, the acceptability of a message plan could be assessed by comparing it against a set of editing criteria, and/or by anticipating outcomes of the message.

In order to investigate message editing at the phonemic and lexical levels, Motley and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments using laboratory-induced speech errors (Motley et al. 1983). In studies designed to elicit spoonerisms, for example, participants read aloud target word pairs, such as shoe store. When a target pair was preceded by a word pair containing a reversal of the initial phonemes in the target pair (stoop short), participants often produced a spoonerized version of the target pair (stew shore) (Motley 1985). Spoonerized versions more often contained lexically legitimate words than lexically anomalous words (“lexical bias effect”). To explain these findings, as well as other contextual influences on lexical selection, Motley et al. (1983) proposed a model of pre-articulatory editing. The model holds that the everyday production of errorfree speech relies on an editor that reviews message plans for linguistic legitimacy prior to output. If the editor detects a linguistically anomalous construction, the plan may be vetoed or repaired.

In the mid-1980s, the notion that speech efficiency is due to pre-articulatory editing began to give way to the view that lower-level planning “decisions,” such as lexical selection, are often determined by the activation levels of nodes in an associative network. In a review of evidence from naturally occurring and laboratory-induced speech errors, Motley (1985) notes that speech errors at phonemic, lexical, and syntactical levels can result from highly activated competing output plans. He concludes that initial lexical selection depends on the activation levels of nodes in a spreading activation lexicon. As nodes do not exist for lexically anomalous items, the system is biased toward the production of speech errors containing lexically legitimate items (also see Dell 1986).

The editing of message plans at abstract, tactical levels of representation has been the focus of a program of research on cognitive editing conducted by Hample and Dallinger. In a typical study, participants read messages (arguments) that might be used to seek compliance in a hypothetical situation and indicate whether each message is acceptable. They also indicate reasons for finding messages unacceptable. The reasons (editing criteria) have been assessed using open-ended questions, checklists, and rating scales. Hample and Dallinger have found that the editing criteria fall into seven general classes. An argument might be rejected because it would not work (effectiveness criterion); is too negative (principled objection criterion); could harm the speaker’s image, harm the target, or harm the relationship (person-centered criteria); is false, or is irrelevant (discourse competence issues; Hample 2005). Most of the editing criteria have also emerged in think-aloud protocols.

Cognitive editing research indicates that the frequency of use of editing standards depends upon both the individual and the situation. For example, use of the effectiveness, harm-toother, and principled objection criteria, as well as the number of messages endorsed, are influenced by gender, verbal aggressiveness, and interpersonal orientation (Hample & Dallinger 1987). A secondary analysis of data from nine earlier studies showed that situational features, such as target dominance, relational consequences, and resistance, influence the use of editing standards and the likelihood of endorsing messages (Hample & Dallinger 2002). In requests following a rebuff, editing standards appear to change, such that aggressive messages are viewed as more acceptable. A comprehensive discussion of cognitive editing research and its relation to cognitive theory and other lines of inquiry is provided by Hample (2005).

A third approach to the study of message editing has explored factors that influence whether speakers become aware, prior to speaking, that a message would have an unwanted outcome. A cognitive model developed to account for such processes is described by Meyer (1997). The model holds that linguistic actions in message plans can become matched to the action components of implicit action-consequence rules. Once such a rule is activated, activation spreading from the action component makes the consequences of the action more accessible. Accessible consequences can activate beliefs about the relevance of the message to the speaker’s goals. Such knowledge is initially activated preconsciously. The likelihood of becoming consciously aware of the knowledge is thought to increase with its level of activation and available processing capacity. The model predicts a positive relationship between the situation-specific importance of a secondary goal and the likelihood of realizing that a not-yet-spoken message would conflict with the same goal. Meyer (2005) found partial support for this relationship.


  1. Dell, G. S. (1986). A spreading-activation theory of retrieval in sentence production. Psychological Review, 93, 283–321.
  2. Hample, D. (2005). Arguing: Exchanging reasons face to face. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Hample, D., & Dallinger, J. M. (1987). Individual differences in cognitive editing standards. Human Communication Research, 14, 123–144.
  4. Hample, D., & Dallinger, J. M. (2002). The effects of situation on the use or suppression of possible compliance-gaining appeals. In M. Allen, R. W. Preiss, B. M. Gayle, & N. A. Burrell (eds.), Interpersonal communication research: Advances through meta-analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 187–209.
  5. Meyer, J. R. (1997). Cognitive influences on the ability to address interaction goals. In J. O. Greene (ed.), Message production: Advances in communication theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 71–90.
  6. Meyer, J. R. (2005). Effect of secondary goal importance on the anticipation of message outcomes. Southern Communication Journal, 70, 109–122.
  7. Motley, M. T. (1985). The production of verbal slips and double entendres as clues to the efficiency of normal speech production. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 4, 275–293.
  8. Motley, M. T., Baars, B. J., & Camden, C. T. (1983). Experimental verbal slip studies: A review and an editing model of language encoding. Communication Monographs, 50, 79–101.

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