Tracey J. Riley and Alex C. Yen
Although accounting is typically seen as a numbers-oriented discipline, with an emphasis on quantifying economic events and activity, the nexus of language and accounting, specifically the role of language in communicating corporate accounting results, has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years. This is because quantified accounting results (e.g., earnings per share, sales revenue) are rarely communicated in isolation. Rather, they are usually accompanied by a non-quantitative narrative, such as an earnings press release, a corporate annual report, or the president’s letter, which, along with conference calls and content at corporate websites, we collectively refer to as “accounting narratives.” These narratives allow management to elaborate on and contextualize the financial performance of the company. However, because they are not as extensively regulated as the financial statements and are not standardized, these narratives can also be used by companies for impression-management purposes, to obfuscate (poor) performance and to “spin” the financial results to the companies’ favor.
Research into accounting narratives dates back to 1952 and has focused on a wide variety of features of narratives and on how those features affect financial statement readers’ (most notably, investors’) reactions. The earliest studies focused on accounting narratives’ readability by performing a syntactic analysis to assess the cognitive difficulty of written passages. This line of research has found that accounting narratives are syntactically complex and difficult to read and that management intentionally makes bad news less readable in order to strain the readers’ cognitive processes and lead to lower comprehension of the bad news. In addition to this evidence of obfuscation, researchers have found support for managers engaging in attributional framing, which is the tendency to attribute positive outcomes to actions within the company and negative outcomes to actions external to the company (e.g., the government or the weather) in an effort to influence readers’ perception of good versus bad news. More recently, researchers have found that managers use syntactic (sentence structure), semantic (word meaning), and metasemantic (abstract versus concrete construal) manipulation and make broad stylistic choices such as emphasis, length, and scenario form. In terms of how those features affect the readers of the narratives, readers (most notably, investors) have been shown to respond to length and readability; level of negativity; words pertaining to risk, uncertainty, credibility, commitment, and responsibility; justifications of excuses of poor performance; optimistic and pessimistic tone; vivid versus pallid language; internal versus external attributions; and use of self-references.