What Is Donald Trump Actually Saying?

Published August 18, 2016
Updated February 10, 2017
Published August 18, 2016
Updated February 10, 2017

What are Donald Trump’s garbled, rambling, grammar-school level speeches actually saying? Linguistics experts attempt to explain.

Finger Up

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesDonald Trump delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

There is something about the way that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks that makes many people want to listen. He’s made a number of discredited claims, spewed divisive rhetoric, and gone so far as to publicly suggest that someone should shoot Hillary Clinton.

Yet his words have inspired some 40 percent of Republican primary voters to stand behind him and secure his place as the party’s nominee for president. Regardless of how frequently he is ridiculed or whether or not he’ll get your vote, it’s impossible to deny that Trump’s patois will remain a defining element of 2016.

“Looking at Trump from the outside of America is fascinating,” Simon Raybould, a public speaking trainer and author from England, told ATI. “He’s saying — or rather not quite saying — what people feel they need to hear. It’s resonating with a sense of alienation, of frustration, and of anger. In many ways, Trump isn’t the problem — he’s a symptom.”

Whether you agree with Trump or not, his speaking methodology helps reveal just what’s making so many Americans so angry — and makes for an interesting linguistic case study.

The Power Of Positive Ambiguity

Mouth Open

Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesDonald Trump gives a speech outlining his vision for tax reform at his skyscraper on Fifth Avenue on September 28, 2015 in New York City.

Trump only lightly touches on specifics when making a speech or answering questions about policy.

“When we look at word-for-word transcripts of what he says,” Raybould said, “it doesn’t actually make sense a lot of the time. Much of what he says is so grammatically unsound it doesn’t actually mean anything in any literal sense.”

In that lack of structure, however, lies Trump’s power. People can find their own meaning in Trump’s words, and if something he says is deemed too offensive, like in the aforementioned Clinton shooting comment, he can simply claim that his words were misconstrued.

Furthermore, Trump uses simple grammatical structures to get his point across. An analysis of political language done by Elliot Schumacher and Maxine Eskenazi from Carnegie Mellon University found that Trump uses grammar at the same level as a fifth grader. For comparison, Ronald Reagan used grammar equivalent to a ninth grade level and Barack Obama uses grammar equivalent to an eighth grade level.

Trump also steers toward the simple when it comes to word choice and sentence configuration.

“For example, we would expect that we could see the word ‘win’ fairly frequently in third grade documents while the word ‘successful’ would be more frequent in, say, seventh grade documents,” Schumacher and Eskenazi write. “We would not see dependent clauses very often at the second grade level whereas they would be quite frequent at the seventh grade level.”

Ultimately, considering both grammar and language, the media feeds off Trump’s positive ambiguity because there is no set way to interpret his statements.

“He’s almost guaranteed headlines, as people and the media argue back and forth about whether he was right or wrong but, critically, it means he can simply deny any interpretation of what he’s said that isn’t convenient to him in the future,” said Raybould.

“But because retractions don’t get coverage, and people have heard what they want to hear, he gets the best of all worlds — popular appeal, media coverage, and no responsibility.”

Nickolaus Hines
Nickolaus Hines is a freelance writer in New York City. He graduated from Auburn University, and his recent bylines can be found at Men's Journal, Inverse, and Grape Collective.
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