Author Topic: Using grammar as a tool for persuasion  (Read 6023 times)

Joe Carillo

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Using grammar as a tool for persuasion
« on: October 18, 2023, 11:23:46 PM »
Most of us will be in familiar territory when we talk about using vocabulary as a tool for persuasion. To begin with, hardly ever are we neutral in our choice of words. As parents, we slant our words in particular ways to reinforce our parenting. Children do the same thing to get what they want or get away with their mischiefs. Our enemies do it to denigrate us in the eyes of others. Religious fanatics do it to make the faithful suspend their disbelief despite overwhelming evidence that they shouldn’t. Advertisers do it to make people part with their money gladly or without guilt. Ideologues and seekers of public office do it to prime up the public for their political agenda. With no exception, all of us subtly stamp our words with a personal bias to persuade others to believe what we believe and to do what we want them to do.

First on our language agenda is, of course, to label people, places and things. Depending on our intent, biases, or predispositions, for instance, a medical doctor becomes a “health professional,” “physician,” “cutup artist,” or “quack,” and a public relations man becomes a “corporate communicator,” “spin master,” “hack writer,” or “flack.” We do this not to denigrate people or fellow professionals per se, but only to quickly indicate in our minds our attitude and feelings toward them.

Using labels is only the beginning of how we slant our language. Even without meaning to and often without knowing it, we take recourse to idiomatic expressions, clichés, slogans and metaphors to drive home our point more efficiently. Most of us know, for instance, that “it’s water under the bridge” and “as sure as the sun sets in the west” are horribly timeworn clichés, but we continue using them compulsively to emphasize our point. We have no qualms of running clichés to exhaustion, unless we happen to be professional speakers or writers who must always come up with new ways of saying things as a matter of honor. In fact, the only time we get more circumspect about using clichés is when we write something for the public record or for publication under our names.

There are, however, two major disciplines that methodically and ruthlessly use clichés, slogans, and metaphors for mind-bending purposes: advertising and politics. Here, we enter that region of language where hardly anything said is exactly what it means literally. We come face-to-face with “double-speak” or rhetoric exploited to the hilt—language that sometimes teeters at the very outer edges of the truth and carried out by incessant repetition. Suasive diction, for good or ill, seeks to build niches in our minds for all sorts of marketing or political agenda. We need not dwell on them in detail here because we are relentlessly subjected to double-speak in the mass media every day. It’s enough that we are forewarned against taking them at their face value. As they say in Latin, caveat emptor, a warning against language that outwardly feels soft but that’s barbed all over inside.

These thoughts about advertising and politics bring us to the use of grammatical ambiguity as a tool for suasive diction. Remember how many of us routinely use “it”-cleft sentences to achieve emphasis? We “cleave” or split a single-clause sentence into two clauses for semantic emphasis, as in this statement: “It appears that our candidate will score a landslide victory.” This sentence construction is often designed to artfully hide the source of the statement of the “experiencer” to make the statement appear as a fact rather than a mere conjecture to give it the semblance of certainty. It is a deliberate distortion of language to create what we all know as the “bandwagon” effect.

To guard against the perils of suasive diction, we need to watch not only our own language but be ever vigilant of the language of those who would deliberately subvert truth to promote their agenda at our expense.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
Using grammar as a tool for persuasion      

This is a condensed version of an 808-word essay by the author that first appeared in this column on June 5, 2009.

Next: The battle for our minds      October 19, 2023

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« Last Edit: October 19, 2023, 07:59:13 AM by Joe Carillo »