Can grammar win elections?

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That's the title of a recent paper by Caitlin Fausey and Teenie Matlock that appeared in the journal Political Psychology. It's a heartwarming title, one that permits me to dare to dream of that better day when political parties will divert rivers of cash to linguistics departments, when a grad student will be able to defend a thesis on applicative constructions in East Asian languages one day and take up a lucrative job as Washington policy wonk the next, and when volumes by Noam Chomsky and Richard Montague will be pressed into the hands of military personnel charged with the task of winning the hearts and minds of residents in troublesome, volatile nations.

The paper stems from recent interest in the persuasion sciences about the fact that how a message is expressed often has a startling impact on the choices and behaviors of its audience. Most of the attention has been lavished on questions of lexical choice, or on whether a message is framed as involving gains rather than losses. But these are happy days, and persuasion research seems to be taking a more adventurous turn, with investigators beginning to tackle questions involving finer points of semantics and their grammatical correlates.

For instance, David Beaver recently posted here about a paper showing that, when people were asked to answer "How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?" they were quite a bit more likely to actually cast their ballot in the election than if they were asked "How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?" In the current brazenly-titled paper by Fausey and Matlock, the finding was that subjects expressed greater skepticism about political candidates when the politicians' sleazy actions were marked for imperfective aspect ("X was taking hush money") rather than for perfect aspect ("X took hush money").

The inspiration for the study, according to the authors, comes from work on the psycholinguistics of verb phrases and event representations. The linguistic notion of aspect captures the idea that in describing events and actions, we often encode information not just about the nature of an event or action, and whether it's located in the past, present or future, but also something about which component of the event is being described. For instance, the imperfective aspect (was building a house) emphasizes the ongoing nature of the action or event, while the perfect aspect (built a house) puts focus on its result or end state.

Different aspectual classes seem to change the psychological prominence of elements in an event. It so happens, for example, that the word hammer is more readily primed (i.e. subjects take less time to recognize the word) upon reading a sentence such as "He was pounding the nail" than upon reading "He pounded the nail" (Truitt & Zwaan, 1997)—this suggests that the concept of a hammer was more active in people's minds while reading the imperfective version. Similarly, Ferretti et al. (2007) discovered that an isolated phrase (was skating) primed a typical location of the event (arena) but only when the verb was marked as imperfective, and not in its past perfect form (had skated). On the basis of their own results on the effects of grammatical aspect on political opinions, Fausey and Matlick draw some general inferences about how imperfective aspect serves to highlight negative actions, and conclude that "grammar can influence electability."

Fausey and Matlick's study is intriguing, and I feel a warm flush of pleasure whenever psycholinguistic evidence breaks beyond the tight circle of language geeks who gather it, and finds a broader audience—I truly do. But before I go and advise political candidates to sprinkle some imperfective morphology throughout their attack ads against opposing candidates in order to make their indiscretions loom larger than life, I'd like to figure out exactly what it is I'm entitled to conclude from the study.

To give up some of the details of the experiment (there were actually two experiments reported, but I think that similar issues might arise for both): Each subject read a single short paragraph describing a fictional candidate. For example, one version of the description read as follows:

Mark Johnson is a Senator in the United States Senate. He is up for reelection. He graduated from the University of Texas, Austin with a degree in political science. Mark's first term as a United States Senator is almost complete. Last year, Mark had an affair with his assistant and took hush money from a prominent constituent.

An alternative version translated the critical last sentence into its corresponding imperfective form: Last year, Mark was having an affair with his assistant and was taking hush money from a prominent constituent.

There was also an orthogonal manipulation which resulted in versions in which the actions described in the last sentence were positive, as follows:

Last year, Mark rekindled his relationship with his wife and collected donation money for the American Cancer Society./ Last year, Mark was rekindling his relationship with his wife and was collecting donation money for the American Cancer Society.

After reading whichever version of the paragraph they'd received, subjects answered the following questions:
a) Will this candidate be reelected?
b) How confident are you about your decision regarding reelection? (using a 7-point scale)
c) Please estimate the total amount of hush money/donation money

For negative actions, subjects responded more often and with greater certainty that the candidate would not be reelected when the actions were marked for imperfective aspect. They also guessed the amount of hush money to be higher in the imperfective condition. When it came to the effects of aspect in describing positive actions, however, aspectual marking made no difference whatsoever.

The authors deal with this discrepancy between negative and positive actions by pointing to a tidy pile of studies showing that negative information is especially powerful in shaping attitudes or choices—perhaps, they propose, the more generally robust effects of negative information provided enough space within which to observe an impact of aspectual marking. Maybe.

But I'm guessing that this doesn't fully explain the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't effects of aspect. I suspect some of it comes from the fact that there really isn't a tidy relationship between grammatical aspectual markers and their psychological effects, because such markers are only one cue among many to the structure of events. In other words, I'd be willing to bet good money that blindly following a general rule of slapping imperfective markers onto an opponent's dubious actions would be about as effective a persuasive strategy as always using a passive construction to minimize your own errors—that is, useful in some situations, but irrelevant or even backfiring in others.

More specifically: Imperfective morphology is actually ambiguous between two kinds of event structures. It can mark events as being in progress. For example: I was holding my breath; or I was driving home; or I was building a house. These phrases represent events or activities that were ongoing at some particular time in the past—the events may or may not have ever come to a satisfactory conclusion. For instance, I may never have made it home, and the house may never have gotten built. But the imperfective can also be used to express events that happened repeatedly or even habitually. For example: I was taking art classes, I was using foul language, I was dating that morose painter, all of which suggest events that successfully happened more than once. So, imperfective morphology maps onto more than just one kind of event.

The direct objects themselves often provide a clue as to whether the event is progressive or habitual, but not always—sometimes extra information in the sentence or the general context is needed for clarification. For instance, drinking beer can be understood either as progressive or habitual:
I was drinking beer in the bar when my sworn enemy crashed through the door.
I was drinking beer in those days, but I've since moved on to hard liquor.

Getting back to Fausey and Matlick's paper. I think this is important, because my sense is that the positive and negative versions of the experimental items may actually lend themselves to different readings of the imperfective phrases. For instance, rekindling a relationship is something that normally takes some time, so it's easy to see this as an event in progress that may or may not have had a successful outcome:
Last year, I was rekindling my relationship with my spouse, but we never quite managed to succeed.
But it's a bit harder to get this reading for having an affair—alas, perhaps due to the fact that infidelity takes much less time and effort to accomplish than renewing a marriage. It seems decidedly odd to say:
Last year, I was having an affair with my assistant, but we never quite managed to succeed.

(I think the contrast is less sharp in the case of collecting donation money versus taking hush money, but still possibly there—at the very least, I'd want to empirically satisfy myself that this ambiguity has been controlled for.)

This means that the observed effects of aspectual morphology on attitudes could have been different for positive versus negative actions not because the imperfective generally makes the activity itself more salient (though it might), but because very different inferences are involved in the specific examples that were used. The phrase having an affair as compared with had an affair suggests that the illicit sexual activity happened more than once—an amplification of the bad behavior. But when you compare was rekindling his relationship with his wife to rekindled his relationship with his wife, the imperfective could well be attenuating the positive behavior rather than amplifying it, because it leaves open the possibility that the attempt failed.

So a note to political strategists and speechwriters: Sorry. A quick and dirty grammatical rule of thumb is unlikely to do the trick. Orchestrating the desired effects in the minds of voters may turn out to involve, unfortunately, more nuanced efforts. You'll likely have to hire a trained semanticist to your campaign team. And do some more studies. Might I suggest an increase in funding to linguistics departments?


  1. Get out the grammatical vote - jason swadley said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    […] Get out the (grammatical) vote: […]

  2. Janice Byer said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

    Maybe we'd have more confidence in the paper's conclusions if it were titled: "Last November, grammar was winning elections".

  3. Rubrick said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    …but it never quite managed to succeed.

  4. Matthew Watson said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

    Very nice article—I enjoyed it.

    The difference in the marriage examples is actually in the verb, not the syntax/morphology. To "rekindle" means to begin a (higher level of) relationship. To "have" an affair means to be in the midst of a relationship. A relationship that was just beginning may never have succeeded. A relationship that was solidly happening did succeed, at least to some extent.


    "Last year, I was rekindling my relationship with my spouse, but we never quite managed to succeed."

    "Last year, I was kindling an affair with my assistant, but we never quite managed to succeed."

  5. Trish said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    "…very different inferences are involved in the specific examples that were used. The phrase having an affair as compared with had an affair suggests that the illicit sexual activity happened more than once…"

    This is a bit of an exaggeration. Do you really think people, given the statement "X had an affair with Y", are likely to infer a one-off sexual encounter between X and Y? I think the word affair suggests the illicit sexual activity happened more than once, regardless of aspectual morphology.

  6. Satyabroto Banerji said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    Would Hispanics, Semites, blacks, Aleutians, first generation immigrants, software engineers, and citizens without higher education all respond in the same way? How do semantics and linguistics compare with keeping poll promises? I do wish that grammar and literature are better funded, but doubt that an appeal to politicians could work.

  7. Alex said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

    Last year, Mark had an affair with his assistant and took hush money from a prominent constituent.

    Am I the only one that balks at Mark taking hush money? In that situation, wouldn't you normally pay hush money rather than take it (assuming you were so ethically inclined)?

  8. marie-lucie said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

    Last year, he had an affair with his assistant:

    Therefore, the affair is over, he has moved on, and we can focus on the present and future without stopping to dwell on the unsavoury past.

    Last year, he was having an affair with his assistant:

    This sentence takes us back to the time when the affair was going on, and the imperfective keeps our attention there, dragging us down to the level of the sleazy details whether we like it or not.

    Last year he collected/was collecting donations for the cancer society

    The effect is positive either way: we mention a nice start which anticipates a promising future, raising our expectations of the candidate, or we receive a boost to our own feelings from our positive estimation of his charitable actions and their anticipated positive outcomes.

  9. Glenn Bingham said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

    I agree with your observation that having an affair requires multiple encounters, but might it still be a matter of aspect? Affair–the kind one has, not the kind one holds or attends–is marked with iterative aspect (or something similar). Indiscretion is unspecified for iterativity, so we have:

    X suffered a momentary indiscretion with her secretary.
    *X suffered (or had) a momentary affair with her secretary.
    X enjoyed a long-standing indiscretion with her secretary.
    X enjoyed a long-standing affair with her secretary.

    If you feel #3 is not grammatical, then "indiscretion" is marked [-iterative].

  10. Trish said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    Interesting point. I think I would characterize the difference between affair and indiscretion as +continuous vs. +discrete. I'm not sure I would call that difference one of aspect, but if it is then it would be lexical aspect and not morphological aspect. Is there a difference in terms of cognitive resonance? Maybe. I mean, one difference is that morphological aspect can be toggled, so to speak. It's a little more difficult to do that with lexical aspect, and that was sort of the point of my first comment: changing the aspect of the preceding VP doesn't change "affair" from one category of event (continuous) to a different category of event (discrete).

  11. Graeme said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 7:50 am

    Even leaving aside the alleged power of negative over positive political advertising, the study involves chalk and cheese. Rekindling suggests a marriage on the rocks; collecting donations could be scout style. Neither relate much to fitness for office, for a citizen invited in a rational setting to reflect objectively on that concept.

    Taking 'hush money from a constituent' sounds immediately damning, if not criminal.

    The only interest here is whether and why 'was doing X' is more emphatic than 'did X'. It's easy to speculate that 'was doing' hints at 'and still may be doing'. On the other hand the definiteness of the perfect tense may strike some listeners as proof beyond doubt, whilst a few might read the fussier imperfect form as slightly equivocal. Julie's point about the nature of the action in question is a fair one: 'I slept through the storm' implies I was unaware of the whole storm; 'I was sleeping through the storm' leaves room to have me fitfully aware of it.

  12. Charidan said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    @Matthew Watson

    The other difference to take into account here is the subject of the second verb.

    "Last year, I was rekindling my relationship with my spouse, but we never quite managed to succeed."

    "Last year, I was rekindling my relationship with my spouse, but I never quite managed to succeed."

    The same goes for the affair:
    "Last year, I was kindling an affair with my assistant, but we never quite managed to succeed."

    "Last year, I was rekindling my relationship with my spouse, but I never quite managed to succeed."

    By making it a mutual action or an individual action very much changes the meaning of the sentence, although I'm not sure exactly how. In termsof the marriage, the use of "I" seems to make Mark a sad sop who doesn't know when to quit, but in the affair it turns the joint misconduct of Mark and his assistant into solely Mark's fault, as he was trying to go after her and possibly force her into the relationship, but didn't succeed.

  13. Mar Rojo said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 3:41 am

    Trish said: "I think the word affair suggests the illicit sexual activity happened more than once, regardless of aspectual morphology."

    I agree with her.

  14. Glenn Bingham said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

    Lexical aspect, yes.

    The continuous/iterative difference seems a matter of perspective. An affair is steady with the same partner on the side, but interspersed among times spent with a spouse/significant other. If there is no spouse at home, then it is just dating. If there are numerous amorous partners, then it is sleeping around. An affair requires an at-home other and a steady extra partner over a period of time that marks a series of intimate events. (Other views welcome.)

    Isn’t the time frame what separates the meaning of the following? Here are some first attempts.
    Relationship [+durative] [-iterative] “out of the house”
    Affair [+durative] [+iterative] “on the side”
    Fling [-durative][-iterative] “quick, and soon dissolved”
    Orgy [-durative][+iterative] (for completeness—maybe)
    Indiscretion –not marked for durative or iterative so each of the above can be characterized as indiscretions without conflict.
    Tryst –not marked for iterative (???)

  15. David said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

    "Last year he was collecting donations for the cancer society."

    Did they actually get there?

  16. Michael Drake said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

    "Can Grammar Win Elections?"

    In this political climate? Only if he vows not to impose a syntax.

  17. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

    […] Language Log, Julie Sedivy wondered if grammar can win elections; Mark Liberman wondered about sugar “wight”, and the phrase, the most number of; and Victor […]

  18. Valentine said,

    September 25, 2011 @ 4:48 am

    A bit late, but I found this amateur comic on phrasing to be interesting commentary on this phenomenon as well.

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