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Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor

How something is said may be as important as what is said

Teenie Matlock

Framing with Grammar

Grammar is something we learned in elementary school. We learned that sentences have a subject, a verb and, in some cases, an object. We learned about irregular verbs, such as “went” and “flew.” We learned about parts of speech, including nouns, verbs and adjectives. We learned about active versus passive sentences. We learned that tense signals when events happened in time: past, present or future. And more. What we did not learn is that grammar has meaning, and that it is linked to mental experience and physical interactions with the world. Although grammar is poorly understood and uninteresting to folks other than linguists and grammar teachers, it plays a critical role in our everyday reasoning.

2012-11MatlockF2.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageGrammatical aspect occurs in English and many other languages. Its main purpose in a language is to express how events unfold in time. Grammatical aspect works with tense, modality and other systems in a language to provide the reader or listener with information about whether an event has started, whether it has finished, whether it has continued over a significant period of time and more. In English, a person can describe past events in a variety of ways. For instance, you see your friend Maria cycling one evening across campus, and the next morning you report, “Maria was riding her bike last night” or “Maria rode her bike last night.” Both statements are perfectly acceptable English, and express the same event. However, there is a slight difference in how the action is construed. With the former, which uses the past progressive grammatical form (was VERB+ing), the event is conceptualized as ongoing. With the latter, which uses the simple past grammatical form (VERB+ed), the event is conceptualized as an entire, completed event. This distinction is common across languages, even though it is realized in different ways. For instance, Russian has a more complex, nuanced aspectual system than English does.

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.

This effect of grammatical aspect is consistent with other research done in my lab, including a study with student collaborators on how people describe car accidents. In this study, to appear in Studies in Language, participants watched six videos of vehicle collisions on a computer screen. For example, in one video, a police car pursues a truck that swerves off the road and crashes into an overpass, and in another, a car sideswipes a van, which then smashes into a truck. After each video, one group of participants was presented with the prompt “Tell what was happening,” and another was presented with the prompt “Tell what happened.” Participants’ descriptions were recorded and analyzed. Those who read the past progressive prompt included proportionally more motion verbs in their descriptions, such as “drive,” as in “There’s a guy driving a truck,” and “come,” as in “Another car came,” than did participants who read the simple past prompt. These same individuals also mentioned more reckless driving phrases, such as “cut off,” as in “He tried to cut off the car next to him,” and “swerve,” as in “She was swerving.” The results suggest that tweaking grammatical aspect in an open-ended question or prompt can lead to differences in thinking and talking about events.

Using grammatical aspect to frame campaign information, positive or negative, appears to be an effective tool for influencing how people perceive candidates’ past actions. It may also be tweaked to invite inferences about what candidates will do in the future because it influences inferences about how events transpire.

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