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Can Grammar Win Elections?



The wording of political messages is known to affect voting behavior, including judgments about whether or not candidates will be elected. Yet the question remains whether voting behavior can be influenced by fine-grained grammatical details of political messages. In this paper, two studies examined how subtly different grammatical forms in descriptions of political candidates' past actions can affect attitudes about electability. Specifically, participants read about a senator who was seeking reelection and then indicated whether they thought the politician would be reelected. In Study 1, the senator had done either negative or positive actions, and these were described using imperfective (was VERB + ing) or perfective (VERB + ed) aspect. In Study 2, the senator had done a negative and a positive action, one of which was described using imperfective and the other with perfective aspect. Results revealed that imperfective descriptions of negative actions resulted in greater confidence that the candidate would not be reelected. Imperfective descriptions also led people to think that the candidate had done more negative action. When a negative and positive action were described together, grammar again influenced electability such that people reasoned in line with whatever action was highlighted by imperfective aspect. In both studies, subtle differences in grammar influenced whether people thought a political candidate would be reelected. These findings provide novel insights about how language can shape thought in the political realm.