President Trump’s inauguration is wrapping up, but the protests are just getting started: In addition to those who headed to D.C. to protest today’s event, an estimated 200,000 people are expected to turn up for the Women’s March on Washington tomorrow, with smaller marches happening all across the country.
To put it another way: A lot of people are going to be making signs today. And as linguist Daniel Midgley explained today in Quartz, not all protest signs are created equal. “All in all, protest signs often allow relaxed grammatical regulation in the interest of brevity,” he wrote — after all, there’s only so much you can cram into a square of posterboard — but “while your sentences may be incomplete, your message shouldn’t be.”
But, he added, linguistics provides a few simple ways to make even the briefest of messages both powerful and memorable. They are: parallelism (using phrases with parallel structure, like “My body, my choice”); rhyming; referencing the personal attributes of the person you’re protesting against (a strategy that’s spawned my favorite anti-Trump sign to date, “We shall overcomb”); expressing incredulity (like this guy); and mirroring, or taking someone’s words and creating a new version (“This pussy grabs back”). And even in a protest, Midgley noted, messages of positivity can still be powerful, acting as “a way to reinforce the social norms of the community we share.”
Don’t worry too much about coming up with something original, though. The last strategy Midgley listed was repetition, or using your sign as one more instance of a common phrase (like “Love Trumps Hate”). Seeing the same messages popping up again and again in a crowd, he wrote, can make protesters feel more connected to one another, reinforcing the idea that they’re all on the same team — which, as Science of Us noted yesterday, is just one of the ways that being part of a crowd can change you for the better. A protest sign is a statement, but it can be a symbol of community, too.