Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor

Teenie Matlock in American Scientist:

20121091510119341-2012-11MatlockF2It is no surprise that language in political messages affect people’s attitudes about political candidates and more generally, elections. Just about anybody would form a low opinion of a politician who is described as a cocaine addict with a track record of accepting bribes, cheating coworkers and evading taxes by illegal means. What’s interesting is how language has this influence, especially when it comes to framing effects. Particlarly interesting is how the more subtle dimensions of language, including grammar and metaphor, can modify attitudes about political candidates.

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.

Grammatical 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.

More here.