Framing political messages

An interesting piece by Teenie Matlock in the American Scientist:

Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor – How something is said may be as important as what is said. By Teenie Matlock

Millions of dollars are spent on campaign ads and other political messages in an election year, but surprisingly little is known about how language affects voter attitude and influences election outcomes. This article discusses two seemingly subtle but powerful ways that language influences how people think about political candidates and elections. One is grammar. The other is metaphor.


The semantics of grammar and metaphor and their power in framing political issues is understudied. Differences in grammatical aspect or other grammatical forms may create wildly different inferences about when somebody will do something and in what way. And differences in metaphor can be used to magnify or enhance people’s attitudes about political candidates. We use grammar and metaphor all the time, but we have only begun to scratch the surface of how they shape our everyday thoughts and actions.

The article includes a very detailed bibliography on semantics and framing:


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  • Barsalou, L. W. 2008. Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology 59:617–645.
  • Bizer, G. Y., and R. E. Petty. 2005. How we conceptualize our attitudes matters: The effects of valence framing on the resistance of political attitudes. Political Psychology 26:553–568.
  • Boroditsky, L. 2000. Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition 75:1–28.
  • Chong, D., and J. N. Druckman. 2007. Framing theory. Annual Review of Political Science 10:103–126.
  • Clark, H. H. 1973. Space, time, semantics, and the child. In Cognitive Development and the Acquisition of Language, ed. T. Moore, pp. 27-63. New York, NY: Academic Press.
  • Druckman, J., and M. Parkin. 2005. The impact of media bias: How editorial slant affects voters. The Journal of Politics 67:1030–1049.
  • Fausey, C. M., and T. Matlock, 2011. Can grammar win elections? Political Psychology 32:563–574.
  • Feldman, J. 2008. From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Freyd, J. J. 1983. The mental representation of movement when static stimuli are viewed. Perception & Psychophysics 33:575–581.
  • Gallese, V., and G. Lakoff. 2005. The brain’s concepts: The role of the sensory-motor system in reason and language. Cognitive Neuropsychology22:455–479.
  • Garramone, G. 1984. Voter response to negative political ads. Journalism Quarterly 61:250–259.
  • Gibbs, R. W. Jr. 1994. The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Klammer, T. P., M. R. Schulz and A. Della Volpe. 2000. Analyzing English Grammar, third ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Kourtzi, Z., and N. Kanwisher. 2000. Activation in human MT/MST by static images with implied motion. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(1):48–55.
  • Lakoff, G. 1996. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, G. 2008. The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
  • Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, G., and E. Wehling. The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic. New York, NY: Free Press.
  • Langacker, R. W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vol. 1: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Lau, R. R. 1982. Negativity in political perception. Political Behavior 4:353–377.
  • Lau, R. R., and D. P. Redlawsk. 2006. How Voters Decide: Information Processing During Election Campaigns. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Matlock, T. 2011. The conceptual motivation of aspect. In Motivation in Grammar and the Lexicon, eds. K. Panther and G. Radden, pp. 133–147. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Matlock, T. 2004. Fictive motion as cognitive simulation. Memory & Cognition 32:1389–1400.
  • Matlock, T., M. Ramscar and L. Boroditsky. 2005. The experiential link between spatial and temporal language. Cognitive Science 29:655–664.
  • Matlock, T., D. Sparks, J. L Matthews, J. Hunter and S. Huette. 2012. Smashing new results on aspectual framing: How people describe car accidents. Studies in Language 36:700–721.
  • Narayanan, S. 1999. Moving right along: A computational model of metaphoric reasoning about events. Proceedings of the Sixteenth National Conference on Artificial Intelligence, pp. 121–128.
  • Talmy, L. 2000. Toward a Cognitive Semantics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.