Campaign Grammar

Teenie Matlock unpacks the "subtle but powerful ways that language influences how people think about political candidates and elections." The importance of grammar:

A few years ago, I began exploring the idea of grammatical framing. In an article with Caitlin Fausey, "Can Grammar Win Elections?" published in Political Psychology, we explored the consequences of tweaking grammatical information in political messages. We discovered that altering nothing more than grammatical aspect in a message about a political candidate could affect impressions of that candidate’s past actions, and ultimately influence attitudes about whether he would be re-elected.

Participants in our study read a passage about a fictitious politician named Mark Johnson.

Mark was a Senator who was seeking reelection. The passage described Mark’s educational background, and reported some things he did while he was in office, including an affair with an assistant and hush money from a prominent constituent. Some participants read a sentence about actions framed with past progressive (was VERB+ing): "Last year, Mark was having an affair with his assistant and was taking money from a prominent constituent." Others read a sentence about actions framed with simple past (VERB+ed): "Last year, Mark had an affair with his assistant and took money from a prominent constituent." Everything else was the same.

After the participants read the passage about Mark Johnson, they answered questions. In analyzing their responses, we discovered differences. Those who read the phrases "having an affair" and "accepting hush money" were quite confident that the Senator would not be reelected. In contrast, people who read the phrases "had an affair," and "accepted hush money" were less confident. What’s more, when queried about how much hush money they thought could be involved, those who read about "accepting hush money" gave reliably higher dollar estimates than people who read that Mark "accepted hush money."

From these results, we concluded that information framed with past progressive caused people to reflect more on the action details in a given time period than did information framed with simple past.