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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

Taking Framing to the Next Level

Grammatical aspect works as a framing device because it involves mental simulation of actions. In some cases it enhances simulation, and in others it diminishes simulation. A message like “was having an affair” should be worse for a candidate than a message like “had an affair” because it implies more immoral actions, and suggests that those actions may continue in the future. Metaphorical framing is effective for the same reason. People simulate movement and state change with figurative expressions, such as “America is on the way up” all the time. Campaign messages about forward movement into the future, turning things around or getting back on track are readily understood because they are grounded in people’s everyday understanding about how motion canonically works: along a path toward a destination.

2012-11MatlockF6.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageWhat next? There are many ways that grammar can influence information in the popular media. Grammatical information, such as which person is used—for instance, first person, second person or third person—may have important implications for how people think about or align themselves with political candidates, and so might modal auxiliaries, for instance, “Yes, we can” versus “Yes, we will.” And there are many more uses of metaphor in political races, including phrases that refer to battles (“Romney draws battle lines in GOP acceptance speech”), uncleanliness (“dirty campaign tactics”), and space (“Romney is distancing himself from Ryan’s Medicare cuts”).

The semantics of grammar and metaphor and their power in framing political issues is understudied. Differences in grammatical aspect or other grammatical forms may create wildly different inferences about when somebody will do something and in what way. And differences in metaphor can be used to magnify or enhance people’s attitudes about political candidates. We use grammar and metaphor all the time, but we have only begun to scratch the surface of how they shape our everyday thoughts and actions.


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