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The Power of Words




Admission Requirements



What is the difference between a minister saying that something is ‘possible’ or that it is ‘not impossible’? And what exactly is the rhetorical effect when someone says, ‘It’s not that I blame you for X; it’s just that…’, thereby actually blaming the addressee for ‘X’ (a figure of speech called ‘praeteritio’)? Researchers from various linguistic disciplines have found evidence that even the slightest difference in the formulation of an argument or standpoint can evoke a different effect in the reader/listener. In this course we will examine how a speaker can persuade the listener with a strategic choice of words. Speakers can ‘construe’ or ‘frame’ the same phenomenon in different ways (is a glass half full or half empty?), and these choices have rhetorical consequences. We will investigate the power of words by studying insights from (critical) discourse analysis, stylistics and modern persuasion research, and we will apply these insights to actual texts (e.g. political speeches, newspaper articles). Next to this theoretical component, students will practice through formulating the same text in different styles and learn to reflect on their own word choice.

Course Objectives

  • Knowledge of the most important theories on strategic word choice

  • Skill of using these theories for analyzing actual texts

  • Skill of using different styles and reflecting on them

Mode of Instruction

In each class we will discuss parts of books and articles. Active participation is paramount. The reading work has to be prepared by uploading weekly web postings; during class all students are expected to engage in discussions. We will apply the theoretical insights to actual texts, and students will practice different styles of writing. Each week a number of students will be asked to prepare and lead parts of the group discussions about the assigned literature.


Assessment: In-class participation
Percentage: 10%
Deadline: Ongoing Weeks 1-7

Assessment: Weekly web-postings (500 words)
Percentage: 25%
Deadline: Ongoing Weeks 1-7

Assessment: Group presentations (two per student)
Percentage: 25%
Deadline: Ongoing Weeks 1-7

Assessment: Final research essay (3000 words)
Percentage: 40%
Deadline: Week 8


The literature for each class will be placed on Blackboard. Students are required to print the compulsory literature themselves, and bring to class. In the case that material cannot appear on Blackboard due to copyright restrictions, a web link will be placed. Again, students will then need to retrieve and print the compulsory literature themselves.

Contact Information

Drs. Maarten van Leeuwen,

Weekly Overview

Week 1: Key concepts: style, framing and inherent argumentative force of language use
Week 2: Rhetorical force of Metaphor
Week 3: Attribute framing / Negation
Week 4: Nominalization and Passivization
Week 5: Speaker and audience construction: strategic use of pronouns
Week 6: Generating applause / Words that work
Week 7: Verbal certainty / General review
Week 8: Reading week (no classroom hours)

Preparation for first session

Homework for the first session will be published on blackboard, a week before the course starts.