The Importance of Word Choice when Developing Questions

Posted on January 20, 2014 by David Kovalsky

imagesAKQ1ZA01Clarity is key when creating open ended (comment) questions.  It is very important to use words that will not be misinterpreted by the person reading the question. Misinterpreting even one word can change an individual’s entire understanding of the question. In developing surveys both through school and in my professional career, I have noticed a few common errors that can be avoided with better word choice.  The first problem being that an individual may not understand a word in the question, and therefore the survey taker may try to draw meaning from the rest of the sentence.  This can lead to survey takers answering in a way other than what was intended, therefore skewing the results of that particular item.

The second issue that may occur is an individual may read a word wrong if it is similar to another word. This also can lead to participants answering questions counter to the intended response. Some examples of this are a person reading the word “compliment” as “complaint” and “discuss” as “disgust”.  If misreading words of a particular question becomes a common occurrence, the question essentially becomes useless because the responses cannot be separated from the people that read the question correctly and the ones that did not.

In order to increase clarity and response rate of open ended questions I provide a few recommendations.  Also provided are a list of homonyms, homophones, and homographs (words that sound or look the same as other words) that can assist in determining if any words in the question may be misread.


1) Use simple words that everyone understands.  If a word seems too complex for the audience, try looking for synonyms that might be easier to understand as an alternative.

2) Use words that won’t be misread as another word.

3) Test your survey with a sample of people who will actually be taking the survey during the administration period.


Homonyms, homophones, and homographs:


About David Kovalsky

David Kovalsky has been an Intern at TNS Employee Insights since July 2013. Since joining, he has assisted project managers with survey preparation, quality checking, and project design. David earning his Bachelor’s in Psychology from Aurora University, and is currently attending Elmhurst College to receive his Master’s in Industrial and Organizational Psychology in May 2014.

What Others Are Saying

  1. Wheeldo January 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    This is one of the insights we did not see in our game where we share training insights and rate each other’s ideas. This is surely helpful when conducting live training or even online – we rarely question clarity and rather take it for granted. Thanks. For all who would like to share their insights, welcome to take part in

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