How Grammar Affects Political Messaging

Cool article:

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…

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.

Read the whole article, Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor {american scholar}, to learn how to tweak the past during your next political campaign.

Pronouns as Judges of Character

Found this fascinating little gem on the NPR homepage today. It involves counting pronouns, and how we change or repetitions of them depending on the context. James Pennebaker, a psychologist and professor at UT—Austin, developed a computer program in the early 90s that parses “massive data sets and discern[s] patterns that no human could ever hope to match.”

They thought the program might be able to tell if people are lying, their class, and their gender based on language patterns alone.

The NPR article focused on transcripts recorded during a speed dating session.

“We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date — who will match — at rates better than the people themselves,” he says.

Specifically, what Pennabaker found was that when the language style of two people matched, when they used pronouns, prepositions, articles and so forth in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to end up on a date.

There’s lots more cool stuff in the article—including how to tell if the person you’re writing an email to is the one who holds the power in your relationship.

From “To Predict Dating Success, the Secret’s in the Pronouns” {npr}.

Word of the Year

Occupy is linguist Geoff Nunberg’s 2011 word of the year {npr}. In part for its flexibility as a verb, and in part due to Nunberg’s selection criteria, including an “item that shaped the perception of [an] important event.”

An excerpt:

Now, it’s true the protesters weren’t really occupying Wall Street in the old sense, taking it over the way workers in the 1930s occupied a factory or students in the ’60s occupied the dean’s office. This is a new meaning of the verb, for a form of protest adapted to the age of smartphones and Twitter, not to mention REI. Once the new occupy grew capital letters, you could export it to places that had no direct connection to finance, as franchises of the original: Occupy Oakland, like Macy’s San Francisco. They could have just been called protests, but it wouldn’t have felt as much like a movement.