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Among Presidential Candidates, Trump Uses the Simplest Language

That holds for both vocabulary and grammar.
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Donald Trump. (Photo: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump. (Photo: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

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"This was an amazing evening," Republican front-runner Donald Trump told an audience in Miami Tuesday night after winning that state's primary. "Florida was amazing."

Simple, short, declarative statements—which is to say, typical Trump. A just-published analysis of selected speeches by five major presidential candidates finds the real-estate mogul uses the simplest sentences.

It also finds that, in terms of grammar, however, his addresses are at a more advanced level than those of President George W. Bush.

The analysis, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technology Institute, looked at a variety of speeches by Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio (who dropped out of the race Tuesday night). These included the speeches where they announced their candidacy; their standard stump speeches; and statements made following primary victories or defeats.

Researchers Elliot Schumacher and Maxine Eskenazi used a readability model known as REAP, which indicates where a given speech falls on a grade level of one to 12. This is based on both word choices and "typical grammatical construction in sentences."

Trump's use of language is significantly simpler than that of his competitors—a directness his voters clearly find appealing.

They found that, in terms of word choices, Sanders came out on top, speaking at over a 10th-grade level—just a bit below that of President Ronald Reagan. Rubio placed second (just below 10th-grade level), followed by Clinton and Cruz. Trump was at the bottom, speaking at a seventh-grade level.

In terms of grammar, Rubio scored highest, with his speeches averaging out at a seventh-grade level. Clinton, Sanders, and Cruz were all close behind; Trump again was at the bottom, speaking at just below a sixth-grade level.

Past presidents varied greatly in terms of grammatical complexity, ranging from the 11th-grade level of Abraham Lincoln's speeches to the fifth-grade level of those by Bush.

Among this year's candidates, the researchers found the one whose vocabulary level varied the most from one speech to another was Clinton. This presumably represents a conscious attempt to speak to certain audiences differently than others.

They also found all of the candidates except Trump started using simpler language as the campaign intensified, with notable dips between January and February of this year. Perhaps they felt the need to reach out to more people, or to present their appeals in more direct, uncomplicated terms.

The findings differ somewhat from an earlier analysis by the Boston Globe that used a different method, the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, to determine the grade level of each speech. In that analysis, Trump spoke at a fourth-grade level.

The Carnegie Mellon researchers argue that Flesch-Kincaid is useful for analyzing written texts, but fails to account for the fact that speeches designed to be spoken usually use "less structured language, with shorter sentences." REAP, they write, "corresponds better to an analysis of spoken language."

So Trump's speeches are apparently more complex than he was initially given credit for. Nevertheless, this new analysis confirms that his use of language is significantly simpler than that of his competitors—a directness his voters clearly find appealing.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.