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English 101. Grammar can influence voters' perceptions of politicians.

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Politicians, Watch Your Grammar

As congressional midterm elections approach in the United States, politicians are touting their credentials, likability, and, yes, sometimes even their policy ideas. But they may be forgetting something crucial: grammar. A new study indicates that subtle changes in sentence structure can make the difference between whether voters view a politician as promising or unelectable.

Politicians know their choice of words matters—"estate tax" is more likely to garner popular support than "death tax" even though they're the same thing, a tax on inheritance. But despite citizens being "bombarded by political messages," says psychologist Teenie Matlock of the University of California (UC), Merced, researchers know little about the effect of "fine grained" details like grammar on voting preferences.

So Matlock and psychologist Caitlin Fausey of Indiana University, Bloomington, asked 188 students to read some sentences about hypothetical politicians. The students, undergraduates at UC Merced, first read about fictional politician Mark Johnson's infidelity and corruption. Half saw statements like, "Last year, Mark was having an affair with his assistant and was taking hush money from a prominent constituent." The other half saw this: "Last year, Mark had an affair with his assistant and took hush money from a prominent constituent." The difference is one of grammatical aspect: "was having" and "was taking" are known as the imperfect aspect, meaning an event may be continuing. But "had" and "took" are known as the perfect aspect, meaning the event is bounded in time.

Although the differences may seem subtle, they had a strong impact on the readers. More than three-quarters of students who read the imperfect aspect phrases said they were confident that Johnson would not be reelected, whereas only about half who read the perfect aspect phrases felt this way.

Grammar also skewed participants' estimates of how big the bribes were. When Johnson "was taking hush money," 58% of students guessed the bribe was larger than $100,000, but when he "took hush money," only 37% did.

Matlock and Fausey saw similar results when the sentences were slightly more complicated. This time, Johnson either "was removing homes and extended roads" or "removed homes and was extending roads." Students found the senator who "removed homes" more electable than the senator who "was removing homes"—56% said he would be reelected compared with 40% of those who read that Johnson "was removing homes."

In both cases, the perfect aspect—"had an affair" or "removed homes"—conveys a sense that the bad deed is in the past, says Matlock. That may make voters more likely to forgive these actions. On the other hand, imperfect phrases such as "was having an affair" and "was removing homes" suggest that the bad deeds may still be happening and, hence, that the politician is less electable. The imperfective phrasing conveys "longer lasting or more enduring" action or simply more of it, says Matlock, so the events seem more relevant in an upcoming election.

Matlock and Fausey saw the disparity only with negative behaviors. When an additional 166 students read perfect and imperfect aspect phrasing about Johnson supporting cancer research, for example, there was no difference in how confident the students were in their judgments of electability. Past research shows that people pay more attention to negative events, Fausey says, so voters may treat them as more important when forming impressions of a politician.

"It does appear that one can tweak messages in a minor way," Matlock says, and "evoke responses that aren't rational." Fausey says if we realize how "exquisitely sensitive" we are to language, "we're in a better position to be informed consumers" of political information. The duo will report its findings online 22 October in Political Psychology.

Political scientist Richard Anderson Jr. of UC Los Angeles calls the experiments "a really neat demonstration" of grammar's effect on politics. Still, he says that tailoring grammar in speeches or ads probably wouldn't have a big impact on elections "since both sides know to do it" and thus would cancel each other out. However, grammar could affect voter turnout, Anderson says, especially if politicians use it to make voters more comfortable with them.