Winning elections with grammar

We all know politicians craft their messages carefully. As the saying goes, it’s not what you say but how you say it.

It raises the question: Could something as simple as grammar be the deciding factor in an election?

That’s what psychologists Teenie Matlock and Caitlin Fausey sought to answer in a recent study. As it turns out, grammar has a major impact on voting behavior.

In the study, college students were divided into two groups and presented with information about a fictional senator. Group 1 received sentences like, “Last year, Mark Johnson was having an affair” and “Mark was taking hush money.” Group 2’s sentences were worded slightly differently, like “Last year, Mark Johnson had an affair” and “Mark took hush money.”

The first phrase, “was taking,” is written in what is known as the imperfective aspect, while the second one, “took,” is written in the perfective aspect.

The difference might seem inconsequential, but more than 75 percent of students who read the imperfective sentences were confident the senator would lose the election. Less than half of the students who read the perfective sentences thought he would lose.

The underlying motivation is how we interpret the imperfective tense. Saying someone “was having an affair” emphasizes the ongoing nature of the affair, while saying he “had an affair” emphasizes the end result.

Matlock and Fausey’s study dealt with a hypothetical candidate, but a different study from this summer demonstrated the real-life implications of a simple linguistic tweak.

Shortly before the 2008 presidential election, Stanford University psychologist Christopher J. Bryan surveyed groups of Californians who were unregistered to vote.

In a questionnaire, one group was asked the question, “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” The other group was asked the minimally different, “How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”

The effect of using the noun “voter” instead of the verb “vote” was immediately apparent — 88 percent of the noun group said they were interested in registering, while only 56 percent of the verb group said they were.

And sure enough, those results translated to actual votes. On the day before election day, Bryan called 133 registered voters and asked them the same questions. After the election, he used state records to discover a whopping 96 percent of the “be a voter” group had entered the polling booth, compared to 82 percent of the “vote” group.

As Bryan explained, framing the question with the noun-oriented “be a voter” brought the subjects’ personal identities into play. It made them reflect on who they were as people, and more importantly, who they could be. The verb-oriented “vote” doesn’t carry these moral implications.

Are you a smoker, or someone who smokes? A Shakespeare reader or someone who reads Shakespeare?

It’s a matter of who we are versus what we do.

And it’s one of the linguistic cues that could help determine who becomes your next council member, mayor or president.

Mark Abadi is a senior linguistics major from Charlotte. Contact him at abadi@email.unc.edu.

Thanks for reading.

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