Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Enhancing the Semantic Experience

I was arrested (that would be in the sense "caused to stop") in the supermarket the other day when I noticed this sign, one of many that appear at intervals along aisles to help shoppers navigate:

I found it arresting because the verb enhance, when used as a marketing device in the form of the adjective enhanced, always intrigues me. What are the differences between enhanced and the newer (by about 100 years) but now more general adjective improved? Is every imperfect thing subject to both improvement and enhancement, or do we divide the work these words do in predictable ways?

I don't think a navigational sign that said improved water would work. Why? The shopper would think that the water wasn't great to begin with and that something had been done to it to make it marginally acceptable. Would you buy improved water? I don't think I would, unless it was the only kind going and sources of free water had been exhausted. To my mind, improved water would be something like NEWater. Enhanced water, on the other hand (if you buy the patter), takes something that we already regard as good and makes it better.

Anyone who, like me, is past the half-century mark will be aware that "new and improved" has been used so often and so long as a marketing slogan that it is surely no longer effective; it's merely a cliché. If you have not seen it plastered on the packaging of numerous products, you haven't been looking.

So is enhanced just an elegant variation devised to overcome the fatigue of overuse wrought by improved? The natural first stop in my investigations was Sketch Engine, a fantastic collection (regularly being enhanced, or improved) of large corpora, where I explored the differences in usage between these two verbs and their derived participial adjectives.

The first thing that jumps out, unsurprisingly, is that improve is four to five times more frequent than enhance in contemporary usage. This is in line with the notion, suggested above, that things in the world (few, surely) for which improvement is no longer possible may still be subject to enhancement — like water. But things in the world that are candidates for improvement, as we know through our daily trudging through it, are legion. Many people would surely welcome improvements to various experiences (commuting, sleeping, supermarket shopping . . .) before there is any talk of enhancement.

General differences in usage in contemporary journalism between improved and enhanced are subtle, with considerable overlap, but there's a clear preference for improvement to general things (performance, quality, service, condition) in contrast to enhancement to particular things (flavor, taste, reputation, beauty). The same pattern holds when the improvement or enhancement is modified adverbially: thus, things may be vastly, dramatically, or steadily improved, but are more likely to be surgically, digitally, or chemically enhanced.

A few things, however, are still at a stage of development where speakers are more likely to note their improved, rather than enhanced quality: stoves, latrines, and sanitation, for example. This seems refreshingly honest to me. I would be pleased to use an improved latrine and would not be particular about enhancements to it just now.

Some things are talked about often enough as being enhanced that they pop out in usage statistics. Have you heard the phrase "enhanced viewing experience"? It may ring a faint bell owing to its frequency. It took off in the late 1980s, appearing first in various industry conference reports, like this one, when high-definition television (HDTV) was being developed:

The phrase has been generally increasing in frequency since its introduction. The suggestion is that consumers in the 1980s enjoyed a TV viewing experience that was already good and HDTV was going to make it even better. Some of us would contest that, but given that the phrase seems to have been dreamed up by someone in private industry with something to sell, it makes sense that they chose enhanced rather than improved.

More broadly based samples of language (that is, from across the internet rather than just from journalism) reveal some other standout collocations. Breast enhancement is frequent enough to show up in usage tables, along with the items that are allegedly used to effect it: and pads. This will come as no surprise to any internet user who does not block ads or who cleans out their spam folder from time to time.

It's perhaps noteworthy that advertising aimed at men who would modify a part of their anatomy does not speak of enhancement; it speaks of enlargement. Would the notion of enhancement be lost on men in this context? It's hard to say, but let's just assume here that the advertisers know their audience.

We don't usually think of pronoun use as being semantically revelatory but in the case of these two verbs, it is: all of the reflexive pronouns collocate in statistically appreciable numbers with improve. Whether we talk about myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, or themselves, the standout verb is improve, never enhance. Proof, perhaps, of the experientially obvious fact that we may strive ever towards perfection but we never really get past the stage where improvement is desirable, to the point where we can start thinking about enhancements (except as noted, one paragraph above).

Finally, corpus data shows that for a couple of experiences that are already difficult to endure, enhancement doesn't make them better; it makes them worse. If you were on the receiving end of an interrogation or a punishment, which would you prefer: the regular or the enhanced version?

In Indian English, the term enhanced punishment is used to talk about more severe punishments decided by a court for particularly egregious crimes. The term enhanced interrogation techniques came into usage after the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001. A CIA operative, whose name will probably never be known, concocted the term to characterize interrogation techniques incorporating methods that apply extreme physical and psychological stress in order to compel detainees to cooperate. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that enhanced interrogation constitutes torture.

My hope is that you will leave this month's column with an enhanced appreciation of these two words in usage. If your appreciation is improved, that's a good thing too.

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Which Way Is Up?
A Recipe for Time Travel
Special Effects