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July 19, 2010

What is the person on the right in this picture doing? Is he accusing? Yelling? Protesting? Hating? Hot-headed? He looks pretty angry, but the person on the left seems to be supporting him…or is he? How we identify with this person impacts how we describe his behavior.

When we describe something, we use language to paint a picture for our audience. As we describe a situation or experience, how we felt about it is conveyed in the words we choose (i.e. “We went skiing. I had fun” vs. “Skiing down that hill was amazing”). Intentional or not, our audience takes away an emotional reaction to our experience. Many times, we know we’re sharing our emotions ( i.e. “I might be overly sensitive, but our waiter was a little…preoccupied” conveys our feelings about the service without openly criticizing it). However, we can also convey emotion through word choice without realizing it. If you describe the man in the picture as angry, you might disagree with his public behavior. But if you think he’s protesting something he believes in, then you might support his passion.

The issue of Marcellus shale has brought with it a new terminology that we’ve all had to learn. But descriptions of the processes involved are varied, and while they all roughly agree, there are marked differences in the descriptive words used. Let’s look at a few words and phrases that are used somewhat synonymously.


high volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing/hydraulic fracturing/hydrofracturing/fracking

advanced drilling techniques/improved drilling techniques




waste water/waste fluid/industrial waste



3-5 million gallons/3,000,000 to 5,000,000 million gallons


deep below Earth’s surface/underneath groundwater sources




natural gas/clean-burning energy source/fossil fuel


truck traffic/heavy loads

brought to/trucked to

drilling equipment/heavy machinery

# of wells/# of wellpads

These are just a few of the words or phrases used to describe the same thing. I’m certainly not an expert on language use, and I am not suggesting that any term is more “correct” than another. Independent of context, each term is an appropriate description of some part of the drilling process. But each term or phrase can give a subconscious, emotion-based subtext when placed in context for the audience.

As educators, we believe that in important scientific issues, like Marcellus gas drilling, emotions can detract from a scientific understanding of the issue. At PRI, we strive to use the least “emotionally-loaded” terms that we can to convey the science. We also recommend that you, the audience seeking information on this (and any) important scientific issue, be aware that subtle word choices can convey an emotional message (positive or negative), and keep that in mind when making scientifically informed decisions. Providing outreach on such a “hot button” issue in our community has allowed PRI educators to become more aware of these types of things, and I’m thankful to have this experience.

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