Linguistics professor studies word choice in restaurant reviews

April 30, 2014, 2:35 a.m.
GEORGE MA/The Stanford Daily
GEORGE MA/The Stanford Daily

“Sinful,” “voluptuous” and “sexy” are all words used to describe the food at expensive restaurants while “addicting,” “crack” and “drug” are used to describe the food at cheaper restaurants, according to a paper published by Professor of Linguistics Dan Jurafsky and several other professors from Carnegie Mellon University.

The research team discovered similar trends throughout 900,000 Yelp reviews given to 6,584 different restaurants. For example, in descriptions of good food, they discovered that sexual words were used in reviews of expensive restaurants, whereas drug-related words were used in reviews of cheap restaurants.

Rich desserts including chocolate cake and truffles were associated with sensuality and often described with words such as “dark” and “romantic.” Foods like burgers, chicken wings and chocolate were often described with drug metaphors. Vegetables and fish were generally not described with such language, which was reserved for foods that seemed to be a “violation of cuisine norms.”

“The folk model of what we crave or are addicted to encompasses foods that are somehow considered inappropriate for a meal,” the study stated, specifically singling out “comfort food that we feel guilty for having but eat anyhow.”

Beyond word choice, the researchers found that reviewers of more expensive restaurants were more eloquent and expansive in their reviews.

“[This] suggests that reviewers are adopting the stance of the high socio-economic class associated with expensive restaurants,” the study stated. “The use of this higher level of educational capital is thus another way that the review offers a chance for self-depiction, in this case a way for the reviewer to portray themselves as well educated.”

The researchers also found that more critical reviews—those that assigned one star to a restaurant—employed language related to traumatic experiences more often.

When asked to describe events like the death of Princess Diana, a fire on campus or 9/11, people use words like “tragic” and “terrible,” in addition to the collective pronoun “we,” in their writings, according to research by UT-Austin Professor of Psychology James Pennebaker. Incidentally, similar words and styles were found in negative restaurant reviews on Yelp while positive reviews used first-person singular pronouns.

“People talk a lot in ‘we’ and ‘us,’ as though to appeal to the collective to get through the trauma,” Jurafsky said.

He also emphasized reviewers’ tendency to rate more than just a restaurant’s food. After looking at his own Yelp reviews, he discovered that even he had subconsciously written negative reviews based on service.

“I expected people to only comment on the food, but when people write one-star reviews, it’s always because there is a face threat,” Jurafsky said.

In the past, Jurafsky has worked on various other projects in computational linguistics and explored how language and food intersect. He also teaches an introductory seminar at Stanford called “Language of Food.”

Josh Freedman <’11 took Jurafsky’s class in 2008 and completed a final project on potato chip advertising that turned into a full research paper with Jurafsky’s help.

“[Jurafsky] has an extensive range of linguistics experience, from historical to analytical,” Freedman said. “The paper had a lot of shortcomings when I turned it in my freshman year, but with his help, I put that into a real study. He helped me look at the broader picture, which is why the paper was any good at all.”

Jurafsky is currently working on another research project about the language used in menus of different types of restaurants.


Contact Irene Hsu at ihsu5595 ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

Irene Hsu is a music contributing writer, and a former Deputy Desk Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She is a sophomore from San Jose, CA and is double-majoring in English and Symbolic Systems. Contact Irene at ihsu5595 'at'

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