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Political writing is a huge topic, of course, but I want to focus on one particular hazard that hopefully won’t come across as a purely partisan opinion. It has to do with slogans.

Noun verb ambiguity–the so-called “ambicategoricality problem”–is quite common in English. [1] This problem is particularly acute when the sentence is short and there’s less context to inform your interpretation, as is often the case with slogans or other advertising-type writing. There are two distinct problems with this kind of ambiguity: your readership may not understand what you mean, or they may interpret a meaning quite different from what you intended. If the readership is skeptical or outright hostile, misinterpretation is even more likely. Although a writer can’t be held responsible for misinterpretation, it’s a professional writer’s job to make misinterpretation as difficult as possible. Sometimes we fail.

One particularly glaring example of such failure has come up during the US Presidential race: a setting where readerships are inherently skeptical and messages relentlessly parsed. For months, one of the major party candidates—she shall remain nameless—is using a slogan that I literally cannot believe has been approved for use. It is, “Love trumps hate.”

Apart from the questionable wisdom of putting a version of your opponent’s name (albeit in lowercase) on your own signage, the ambicategoricality causes additional problems. This sign can be read in two different ways:

Love (n., subject) trumps (verb, present active) hate (n. direct object)
i.e. the quality of love overcomes the power of hatred. This seems to be the intended meaning.


Love (verb, imperative) trumps (miscapitalized and mispunctuated, but could easily be read as the possessive “Trump’s”) hate (n., direct object)
i.e. we, the sign-holders, recommend that you show affection for Mr. Trump’s hatred.

Slogan ambiguity can be effective when the possible meanings reinforce or complement each other. [2]  But in my professional opinion, this is a terrible slogan.

  • The apparent main meaning depends on uncommon vocabulary. “To trump” is a common term in card games but has an archaic feel and isn’t exactly everyday usage.
  • The alternative reading runs directly counter to the “main” reading
  • The alternative reading is more straightforward: it reads like a simple instruction (more appropriate for a sign) than the philosophical position of the main meaning.

So the main meaning requires some thought, while the alternative one jumps out at you and undercuts it. I’m not a hostile reader, and I have a hard time seeing the main meaning.

And that’s not even mentioning the typographic design, in which “Love” is in red and “trumps” in dark blue on a white background, with “hate” in lighter blue. So the most positive word, “Love” is printed most visibly, but in the color–red–associated with her opponent’s party. The crucial word “hate” appears with much less contrast. In certain lighting it’s possible to miss “hate” altogether, and just read “Love trumps”  The typography on the card reads as a sentence, but in the product description (and some knock-off versions) it’s written as “Love Trumps Hate”, which capitalizes “Trumps”, makes the ambiguity even more apparent, and makes the phrase even easier to mis-read.

To editorialize slightly, the weaknesses of this slogan mirror the weaknesses of its proponent: well-meaning but overly finicky, trying too hard to show cleverness, open to a completely destructive counter-reading. As a cultural artifact, it is fascinating. As a political slogan, it’s terrible. At the time of posting, some 48 hours before voting will be complete in the election, merchandise with this slogan is still available to purchase.

[1] For more on this ambiguity and how language learners come to disentangle it, see Conwell & Morgan, “Is It a Noun or Is It a Verb” Language Learning and Development, 8: 87–112, 2012

[2] As an alternative example, consider the Kentucky department of travel and tourism, whose brilliant slogan is “Unbridled spirit”. This references the two things for which Kentucky is best-known nationally: horse racing and bourbon, while also directly conveying an unrestrained, self-reliant mindset that’s perfectly aligned with the mission of a tourism board.