May 06, 2004

Grammatical complexity and electability

The latest issue of The New Yorker has a Talk Of The Town piece by Ben McGrath about Kathryn Cason, who analyzes transcripts of interviews with political figures and examines the patterns of grammatical function words (coordinators, subordinators, prepositions, and such). On the basis of such analysis she claims to be able to predict electoral success.

Actually, the web site of her organization, the oddly named Requisite Organization International Institute, reveals (see this press release) that the relevant work was the dissertation research of Dr Alison Brause, who is not mentioned in the New Yorker piece (it says "Cason has discovered" and so on; it appears that should be "Brause has discovered"). Cason, via McGrath, appears to give a rather fuddled account of Brause's research. It appears to be this simple. If you use or you are doing declarative thinking. If you use and you are doing cumulative thinking. If you use if you are doing serial thinking. If you use if and only if you are doing parallel thinking. These indicate four successively more advanced levels of complexity of thinking, and the winner in a presidential race is always the more complex thinker. Bush is mainly cumulative, like Clinton, Mondale, and Nixon before him. But Kerry is serial, which is superior: Cason is 100% confident that he will win in November.

I have to tell you, I find myself skeptical about any simple counting of function words providing an assessment of a candidate's abilities in complex thinking, let alone his likely success in an electoral system where (to put it mildly) complex thinking doesn't always seem to be the foremost consideration. But who knows. It would be a major boost for the prestige and significance of my profession as grammarian if it were true. But there is a question about which way the causal arrow really points. Might candidates' electability be enhanced if they were taught to use more conditional adjuncts? Or is it just that the kind of people who know how to win in politics tend to be the sort who use complex syntactic structures?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 6, 2004 05:50 PM