The Impact of Parenthetical Phrases on Interviewers’ and Respondents’ Processing of Survey Questions

Jennifer Dykema, Nora Cate Schaeffer, Dana Garbaski, Erik V. Nordheim, Mark Banghart, Kristen Cyffka


Many surveys contain sets of questions (e.g., batteries), in which the same phrase,
such as a reference period or a set of response categories, applies across the
set. When formatting questions for interviewer administration, question writers
often enclose these repeated phrases in parentheses to signal that interviewers
have the option of reading the phrase. Little research, however, examines what
impact this practice has on data quality. We explore whether the presence and
use of parenthetical statements is associated with indicators of processing
problems for both interviewers and respondents, including the interviewer’s
ability to read the question exactly as worded, and the respondent’s ability to
answer the question without displaying problems answering (e.g., expressing
uncertainty). Data are from questions about physical and mental health from
355 digitally recorded, transcribed, and interaction-coded telephone interviews.
We implement a mixed-effects model with crossed random effects and nested
and crossed fixed effects. The models also control for some respondent and
interviewer characteristics. Findings indicate respondents are less likely to
exhibit a problem when parentheticals are read, but reading the parentheticals
increase the odds (marginally significant) that interviewers will make a reading

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