WE SHALL OVERCOMB

A linguist explains how to write protest signs that everyone will remember

Obsession
Language
Obsession
Language

Language can be used to persuade, amuse, insult, and mobilize action. Few formats can accomplish these goals as ably or succinctly as the protest sign.

When you make a protest sign, you’re working with considerable linguistic constraints: Space is limited by what you (and your friends) can carry, and if you’re marching, your reader will have to absorb your message quickly, making sign-writing a tough task.

Fortunately, this is where linguistics can help. Whether you’re protesting US president Donald Trump, Brexit, or college-tuition hikes, certain syntactic and rhetorical principles make the best protest signs powerful and effective. Using the example of anti-Trump protests, the following list outlines some linguistic tips to making forceful and potent pickets.

Parallelism

Parallelism is a literary device that puts structurally similar items together. This makes a slogan more readable and memorable, as the similarity of the parts hammers the idea home.

NO RACISM / NO TRUMP
MY BODY / MY CHOICE

Rhyming

Rhymes are memorable and can help turn a sign into a chant. This is why epic sagas since the era of Beowulf have rhymed—the structure gave the bard a way to remember what came next. The meter of these phrases (what linguists refer to this as their “prosodic pattern”) also make rhyming slogans easy to remember.

CAN’T BUILD WALL / HANDS TOO SMALL
MR. HATE / LEAVE MY STATE

Personal attributes

Trump’s signature hairstyle and physical features such as his hands have come to symbolize his persona and politics. Using these personal attributes in a slogan employs a process linguists call “metonymy,” where a part stands for the whole. Metonymy works because it is easier to focus on a significant detail than on an entire person.

WE SHALL OVERCOMB
KEEP YOUR TINY HANDS OFF MY RIGHTS

Incredulity

The 2016 political climate, to many, has felt surreal—Merriam-Webster even made “surreal” their 2016 Word of the Year. Some of the most effective signs express incredulity about specific political agendas, leading those in agreement to shake their heads, commiserate, or laugh. These signs often use a conversational tone, are funny, and employ humor as a means to bring people together.

OMG GOP WTF?
I CAN’T BELIEVE WE’RE STILL PROTESTING THIS SHIT

Mirroring

Using someone’s own words against them turns tables; it’s a refusal to accept that someone or something owns a lexicon. Trump has brought a slew of words into the public lexicon. His dialogue makes words like bigly, pussy, wall, nasty, and unpresidented fair game for signs, along with his disconnected, free-flowing style of discourse.

MAKING AMERICA HATE AGAIN
MY PUSSY GRABS BACK

Positivity

Linguistics doesn’t just involve the words people use, it also covers pragmatics, which are the actions people try to accomplish with language. These actions include protest and complaint, but also encouragement and exhortation. Positive slogans are effective because they appeal to positive values; they’re a way to reinforce the social norms of the community we share.

WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS
OUR CHILDREN ARE WATCHING

Repetition

Repetition is reinforcement, and protest signs don’t have to be unique to be effective. Seeing someone at protest with an identical sign isn’t embarrassing—it’s a sign of kinship. Participants can use signs to communicate their membership in a group, so using catchphrases common to an issue can be more effective than writing a weaker, but original slogan.

NOT MY PRESIDENT
LOVE TRUMPS HATE

All in all, protest signs often allow relaxed grammatical regulation in the interest of brevity. But while your sentences may be incomplete, your message shouldn’t be. The challenge of making a protest sign is to make an economically worded slogan that both reflects your values, and is communicated in a smart, clever way.

You can follow Dan on Twitter at @talkrtr. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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