A simple tweak in the tense of a verb could make the difference between electoral victory and defeat, according to a study by US researchers.
Imagine you encountered the following text: “Timmy Tucker is a senior politician. Last year Timmy championed human rights, and was fiddling his expenses.”
Now compare with this version: “Timmy Tucker is a senior politician. Last year Timmy was championing human rights, and fiddled his expenses.”
The researchers found that the imperfect tense (e.g. “was fiddling”) exacerbates the effect of a negative claim about a politician, compared with the perfect tense (e.g. “fiddled”). Fausey and Matlock aren’t certain why this is, but they think the imperfect tense gives the sense that an action is ongoing, whereas the perfect tense brings closure.
For an initial study, 354 participants were split into four groups, with each reading one of four versions of a description of a politician who was up for re-election. Participants who read a version in which the man was described as last year “taking hush money” were more confident that he wouldn’t be re-elected and estimated that he’d taken more money, as compared with participants who read a version in which it was written that last year “he took hush money”. This subtle change in verb tense made no difference to the verdict of participants who read a positive account of the politician (“was collecting donations” vs. “collected donations”).
A second study with a further 127 participants was similar except this time they all read a version that featured both a positive and negative claim about the politician. Those participants who read the description featuring a negative claim in the imperfect tense with the positive claim in the perfect tense (“was removing homes and extended roads”) were less likely to say he would be re-elected (40 per cent vs. 56 per cent), compared with those who read the same claims with the tenses the other way around (“removed homes and extending roads”)*.
“Because scandals involving political candidates are a hot topic in media coverage and campaign ads, insight into the power of the grammar used to communicate negative information will likely improve our understanding about how linguistic media shapes voting patterns,” the researchers said.
Fausey, C., and Matlock, T. (2011). Can Grammar Win Elections? Political Psychology, 32 (4), 563-574 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00802.x
*In this example, extending roads is assumed by the researchers to be a positive activity – environmentally minded readers might not agree with that assumption!