Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Speaking science: Watch your grammar, win an election?

More than most people, politicians are acutely aware that what they say and how they say it can affect their future success. But a recent study suggests that a tiny twist of grammar—one that they’re probably not aware of—could influence their electability.

The twist is the difference between the imperfective and perfective grammatical aspect. The imperfective aspect sounds like this: “Politician Mark Johnson was taking hush money.” It’s a fine-grained grammatical detail that emphasizes that an action is ongoing. You can compare that to the perfective, which would sound like: “Politician Mark Johnson took hush money.” The perfective emphasizes that an action is finished.

Psychologists Teenie Matlock of the University of California, Merced, and Caitlin Fausey of Indiana University, Bloomington, tested out the imperfective and perfective phrases about hypothetical Senator Mark Johnson on a group of UC Merced undergrads, to see if the twist made any difference in the students’ impressions of the senator. They found that in sentences containing negative information about the politician, the imperfective aspect made the students much more likely to believe that the politician would not be reelected.

It seems that the imperfective aspect subtly convinced the students that the senator’s bad behavior was ongoing, the researchers say. Undergraduates who read the imperfective phrases also thought that the senator’s sins were larger than those who read the perfective phrases; for instance, the imperfective readers thought that the senator had made off with a much bigger bribe.

Matlock and Causey only saw this effect when the news about the politicians was bad. Imperfective, perfective—it doesn’t seem to matter as much for potential voters when the politician’s past is a positive one.

But the researchers did note that grammatical cues could play up a negative action over a positive action when the two were described together. More than half of the students said a candidate who “removed homes and was extending roads” was electable, compared to less than half who heard about a candidate who “was removing homes and extended roads.” In this case, the imperfective drew attention to the negative (removing homes) in the second phrase.

Fausey says researchers aren’t sure whether speakers actively choose their grammar in this way. “It is possible that in prepared speeches and ads, writers would carefully choose the grammar that they use,” she suggested. “But we don't know yet if writers are consciously aware of this particular grammatical distinction when crafting messages.”

So far, Fausey and Matlock haven’t been approached by any political campaigns for grammar coaching. But Fausey thinks the grammatical distinction they studied could play an important role in journalism, advertising and a wide range of other fields.

What do you think? Do you see ways to use the imperfective and perfective to your advantage in your own speaking?

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this post to our regular series on the scientific research behind public speaking.)

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