Say it With Style: The Use and Importance of Linguistic Style in Political Communications

Open Access
Mcmahon, Ryan B
Graduate Program:
Political Science
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 11, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Suzanna Linn, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Suzanna Linn, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Michael J Nelson, Committee Member
  • Burt Monroe III, Committee Member
  • Zita Oravecz, Outside Member
  • linguistics
  • part of speech
  • representation
  • US Senate
  • partisanship
  • identity
Studies of political communication and framing have, and continue to, focus almost entirely on what is said. Meanwhile, very little attention has been paid to how it is said. This dissertation examines how political identity is related to the style of politicians' language and why that matters. The first empirical chapter introduces part of speech tagging for the analysis of linguistic style, with an application to partisan noun use in presidential speeches and a new collection of U.S. Senate press releases. I discuss the decisions an analyst must make when studying linguistic style as manifest in grammar and demonstrate that context must be taken into account. In the second chapter I argue that grammar facilitates at least two types of stylistic framing and that, like content frames, the use of these frames differs by partisanship in a manner consistent with party principles. I show that Republican press releases are more likely to focus on the past and draw attention to individuals. Releases from Democratic senators, on the other hand, are more likely to discuss the future and focus on groups. Finally, in the third chapter, I conduct a survey experiment to assess how stylistic frames related to time (past vs. future) and subject-scope (individual vs. group) affect individuals' evaluations of a fictitious congressperson. Using a statement on a grant reauthorization law as the backdrop, I find that simple changes in verb tense and pronoun number can affect individuals' perceptions of the representative and that individuals' partisanship is an important moderator. Thus, this dissertation shows that political identity is associated with differences in how elites speak and that those differences matter when potential voters are evaluating candidates.