Riddled with sentence fragments and passive voice, Donald J. Trump’s speeches during the 2016 election cycle read at a fourth-grade level. But despite his inability to communicate clearly according to conventional academics and grammarians, Donald J. Trump is President of the United States of America. Nearly half of the American population believes in him, believes in his ideas, and believes in what says. What about Trump’s communication style works for him? And what about his rival’s communication style—Hillary Clinton’s—fails her on the national stage?
Embedded into Trump’s language are tools for capturing the American audience’s attention long enough for him to challenge the status quo and simultaneously escape the responsibility of explaining how he plans to fix the said status quo. In this way, his simple sentences, informal register, hyperbole, linking verbs, passive voice, and vague pronouns work to his advantage. Trump’s communication style creates a vision of a relatable and energetic Trump presidency for the American people.
By contrast, the complex, formal, tame, abstract, and hopeful aspects of Clinton’s language fail her. Though, I’m sure, Clinton’s linguistic tendencies are useful for communicating to foreign dignitaries and crafting nuanced policies, they do not translate to as broad of an audience as Trump’s; they less effectively grab and hold American’s attention, and they fail to defend the status quo from Trump’s attacks. Clinton’s communication style creates a vision of a detached and sluggish Clinton presidency.
The Linguistic Proficiency of Donald Trump
Trump’s closing statement in the third presidential debate of the 2016 election is a perfect example of his natural language when speaking directly to the American people. Explaining the context of the candidates’ closing statements to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, moderator Chris Wallace says:
You had not agreed to closing statements, but it seems to me in a funny way that might make it more interesting because you haven’t prepared closing statements. So I would like for each of you to take—and we're going to put a clock up—a minute as the final question, in the final debate, to tell the American people why they should elect you to be the next president.
Trump had no forewarning of the closing statement he was prompted to give (unless Wallace was lying, of course). Moreover, Wallace’s question orients Trump toward not Clinton, or the moderator, but toward the American citizens watching at home. After Clinton gave her closing statement (“reaching out to all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents” to stop Trump), Trump responded:
She's raising the money from the people she wants to control. Doesn't work that way. But when I started this campaign, I started it very strongly. It's called Make America Great Again. We're going to make America great. We have a depleted military. It has to be helped. It has to be fixed. We have the greatest people on Earth in our military. We don't take care of our veterans. We take care of illegal immigrants, people that come into our country illegally, better than we take care of our vets. That can’t happen. Our policemen and women are disrespected. We need law and order, but we need justice too. Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs. I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos that she can do for ten lifetimes. All she's done is talk to the African-Americans and to the Latinos, but they get the vote and then they come back, they say “we’ll see you in four years.” We are going to make America strong again and we are going to make America great again and it has to start now. We cannot take four more years of Barack Obama, and that's what you get when you get her.
The short, simple sentences, informal vocabulary, and hyperbole of Trump’s statement ensure that it appeals to a wide audience with potentially short attention spans. Consider the phonological makeup of his closing statement: 92% (18/217) of the words he uses are two or fewer syllables. And excluding his repetitions of proper nouns like “America” and “Latinos,” just ten words in his statement have three or more syllables. Overall, Trump shortens phrases and uses contractions to reduce the number of syllables in the piece. What could be “The United States” shortens to “America”; what could be “It does not work” translates into “doesn’t work”; and what could be “do not” and “she has” become “don’t” and “she’s.” This sort of simplicity is also present in his lexicon: His register is remarkably informal in this statement and void of political jargon for a presidential debate, which appeals to a broad audience. When relating Hilary Clinton to Barrack Obama, for instance, instead of saying that the two people are “similar,” or that the two people have “similar policies” or “dispositions,” he says that Barrack Obama is “what you get when you get her.” Trump’s vocabulary continues the theme of simplicity through repetition. Rather than vary his word choice, for instance, he says the words “strong” and “great” and “America” several times over.
Also contributing to the relatable, I-could-have-a-beer-with-him effect of Trump’s short, simple vocabulary is the hyperbole of the piece, which grabs his listeners’ attention. Consider how he refers to the military, for example: “We have the greatest people on Earth in our military” (emphasis added). For the piece, the abstract superlative “the greatest” is not enough to strongly convey the quality of military persons for Trump; thus, he puts “the greatest” on a concrete, planet-sized scale: “Earth.” Consider also his exaggerations when talking about marginalized communities: “You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs. I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos that she can do for ten lifetimes.” In this utterance, he evokes a gunshot, deals only in absolutes (“no”), and places the topic (marginalized communities) in the context of not one, but ten human lifetimes. For example, rather than saying marginalized communities live in communities with high crime rates, he brings his listeners into an extreme, concrete example: being shot by a gun. When Trump talks about the jobs and educational level of marginalized communities, his language implies that not one person who is African American and Latino has a job or has attended school: “no education,” “no jobs.” Finally, disparaging Clinton’s skills within the context of one human lifespan is not enough for the piece to convey the magnitude of Trump’s attack; instead, he says that Clinton’s skills are inadequate over the scope of ten human lifetimes. These examples of Trump’s hyperbole explain his ability to capture the attention of his audience: Most of what he refers to is larger than life itself.
By taking choice words and phrases that connote corruption and chaos and equating them to existing institutions with primarily linking verbs, Trump’s piece effectively challenges the status quo. When referring to Hillary Clinton, Trump chooses content words like “control” and “money.” When referring to the state of the country, he chooses content words like “depleted,” “illegal,” “disrespected,” and “disaster.” His use of derivational affixes such as il– and dis– convey a fallen state—a status quo of un-greatness—which sets him up to later associate himself and his vision of the country with the promising content words “strong” and “great.”
These contrasting content words would not have as strong of an effect on his audience without his syntactic style. By repeatedly using auxiliary and linking forms of the verb be—in contrast to active verbs— he connects the concept of disorder to the status quo. For example, instead of commenting about a specific aspect of “inner cities” or the “military”, he says: “Our inner cities are a disaster” and “Our policemen and women are disrespected” (emphasis added). These simple sentences that link inner cities and police officers to disaster and disrespect ignore nuance and multiple perspectives; they reduce complex issues to simple, absolute descriptors and convey that the state of the union is “bad” (to borrow another word from Trump’s lexicon).
In addition to challenging the status quo, Trump use of passive voice, paired with vague pronouns, allows him to escape the responsibility of explaining how the reality he describes actually functions, or what steps are possible for improving that reality. Consider the following strings of sentences. String 1: “We have a depleted military. It has to be helped. It has to be fixed.” In string 1, the auxiliary word be is followed by the past participles “helped” and “fixed”—Trump never indicates, however, who or what type of process will help or fix the military. This passive construction allows him to build credibility by pointing out a problem (funding the military) without taking on the responsibility of offering any actual solutions.
String 2: “They have no education. They have no jobs. I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos than she can do.” Here, again, Trump points out a problem (minority communities have difficulties obtaining an education and finding employment). His syntax sets him up to demonstrate how to fix this problem: I will do “X” for African Americans and Latinos, he could say. But instead of inserting his plan for how he intends to solve problems for minorities, he employs the vague pronoun more. This vague pronoun communicates to his audience that he knows how to address difficult issues in society, without placing him with the responsibility of articulating his plan of action. What will he do? More than Clinton. The vague pronoun more communicates that whatever he will do will be beneficial because more carries with it a positive affective meaning.
The Linguistic Failure of Hillary Clinton
How does the rhetoric of a thirty-year politician fail in comparison to language used by a real-estate developer with no political experience? A closer look at Clinton’s response to Wallace in the same context, under the exact same constraints as Trump during the third debate, explains Clinton’s rhetorical failure: Patterns in Clinton’s language translate to a smaller audience and less effectively hold Americans’ attention. Moreover, her language associates her with the disparaged status quo, rather than defends the status quo from Trump’s attacks. Her statement, just moments before Trump:
Well I would like to say to everyone watching tonight that I'm reaching out to all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents, because we need everybody to help make our country what it should be, to grow the economy, to make it fairer, to make it work for everyone. We need your talents, your skills, your commitment, your energy, your ambition. You know, I've been privileged to see the presidency up close, and I know the awesome responsibility of protecting our country and the incredible opportunity of working to try to make life better for all of you. I have made the cause of children and families, really, my life's work. That's what my mission will be in the presidency. I will stand up for families against powerful interests, against corporations. I will do everything that I can to make sure that you have good jobs with rising incomes, that your kids have good educations from preschool through college. I hope you will give me a chance to serve as your president.
In contrast to Trump’s accessible—albeit choppy—language, Clinton’s longer sentences, more formal vocabulary, and underwhelming adjectives appeal to a smaller audience and longer attention spans. Trump fires off sentences like a machine gun in his allotted time, uttering twenty to the audience in total. By contrast, Clinton hands the audience just eight sentences to consider. Within these sentences, 92% of Trump’s words are one or two syllables, but eighty-six percent of Hillary’s words meet the same criteria. In contrast to the mere ten words that reach three or more syllables (excluding proper nouns) in Trump’s 217-word response, twenty-one of Hillary’s 171 are three or more. The phonological makeup and length of Trump’s sentences simply take less energy listen to.
Clinton’s sluggish—albeit clear and well-thought-out—communication style continues into her syntax: While Trump consistently shortens phrases with nine contractions, Hillary keeps longer phrases and uses only four contractions in her piece. Both candidates have the same ratio of complex to simple sentences—roughly twenty-five percent—but the length of their sentences is drastically different: One reason that Trump is able to fire off so many sentences is because his utterances are short—some not being complete sentences at all, but rather fragments, such as: “Doesn't work that way.” Trump’s three longest sentences are thirty, twenty-three, and twenty-one words respectively; his shortest is just three words. In contrast, Hillary’s sentences are all complete sentences, which read like a slow-moving stream in comparison to the rapid-fire phrases said by Trump. Her three longest sentences reach forty-eight (twenty-eight percent of her passage!), thirty-seven, and twenty-eight words respectively; her shortest is triple the size of Trump’s shortest sentence at 9 words in total: “That's what my mission will be in the presidency.” Although Clinton’s longer sentences effectively group her thoughts and present them to the audience in cogent packages (an appeal to Logos, perhaps), they require the audience to digest a larger number of ideas and connections between ideas per sentence than Trump’s short sentences. In effect, the method in which Clinton groups ideas requires fewer, but longer, spans of attention than does Trump’s method.
Also contributing to Clinton’s failure to sustain her audience’s attention is her abstract word choice, underwhelming hyperbole—and her rhetoric of hope, which saddles her listeners with challenging, complicated responsibilities to consider rather than simple solutions. Clinton says in her perhaps least abstract utterance: “I will stand up for families against powerful interests, against corporations. I will do everything that I can to make sure that you have good jobs with rising incomes, that your kids have good educations from preschool through college.” Compare Clinton’s calm, even-tempered words in this string of sentences “good jobs,” “kids,” “education,” and “preschool” to the words that color Trump’s lexicon: “disasters,” “disrespect,” and “depletion.” It’s not a stretch to say that Clinton’s words would fit well into brochures at a doctor’s office, the DMV, or a nursing home, while Trump’s words read instead like breaking news banners (an appeal to Pathos, perhaps) on CNN or FOX.
As equally lukewarm as Clinton’s use of nouns is her use of adjectives, which—in contrast to Trump—remind Americans about the slow, challenging, and complex work the president (and the citizens by association) face during the next term. Take the following sentence as an example: “I know the awesome responsibility of protecting our country and the incredible opportunity of working to try to make life better for all of you” (emphasis added). Whereas Trump’s hyperbole succeeds with its concrete and larger-than-life contexts—e.g. “on Earth,” and “in ten lifetimes”—Clinton fails to capitalize on the hyperbolic value of the adjectives awesome and incredible by relating them to abstract, underwhelming contexts. She says the awesome “responsibility of protecting” and the incredible “opportunity of working.” The hyperbolic adjective awesome clashes with the mundane words responsibility and responsibilities: daily items on a check-list; unexciting, unglamorous work that Clinton must do to address problems as president. Paired with opportunities of working, the adjective incredible is no more effective at grabbing the American audience’s attention. While Trump talks about single-handedly solving disasters in his speech, Clinton hands the audience a different picture of her presidency: the opportunity of doing work, a lot of work—calling to mind responsibilities like burying her head in paperwork, listening to advisors, making decisions with no clear outcomes, and searching for solutions that may or may not exist.
On a morphological level, Clinton’s language fails most tragically. Whereas Trump’s response in the debate focuses on disparaging the status quo of the United States, the future-oriented verbs in Clinton’s response connect her to the status quo and instruct citizens to work toward progress. Clinton’s active verbs in the present and future tense—will, make, need, stand, do, and give—do not point to problems worth fixing about the status quo, nor do they defend the status quo against Trump’s attacks. Rather Clinton’s language skirts around the status quo by calling citizens to act: “We need everybody to help make our country what it should be … We need your talents, your skills, your commitment, your energy, your ambition … You know, I've been privileged to see the presidency up close.” Here, instead of building credibility by stating specific points about the status quo she sees as inadequate for the country, Clinton asks the audience to help her make the country “what it should be.” This vague language—what it should be—only supports Trump’s call for citizens to make the country “great” (another vague promise) and fails to push back against Trump’s assessment of the status quo.
Clinton makes her linguistic blunder worse by reminding the audience that she is a part of the failing status quo: she has “seen the presidency up close.” Take this utterance in the larger context of Trumps passage: In contrast to Trump’s message—which explains to the American audience why they should be angry about the status quo—Clinton’s message reminds the audience that she is a part of the inadequate status quo and that they, like her, have a lot of work to do over the next four years.
One reason Donald J. Trump is President of the United States is his off-the-cuff rhetorical ability. Academics can point to the fact that Trump’s response in the third debate can be read at a fourth-grade level and that Clinton’s response reads at a tenth-grade level; they can scoff at Trump’s sentence fragments, his reliance on passive voice, and his inability to articulate clear, logical plans. But his communication style proved effective in the pursuit of the highest office in the United States and will continue to prove effective now that he has reached that office.
As long as Trump is speaking directly to Americans—without any sort of mediated analysis—Trump’s language elicits feelings from the American public that he is poised to solve the ills of the United States. Though his unconventional communication style may appear to be a weakness, it legitimizes Trump as a relatable and capable leader.
“Full Transcript: Third Presidential Debate 2016." Politico. N.p., n.d. Web: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/full-transcript-third-2016-presidential-debate- 230063