Most presidential candidates speak at grade 6-8 level, study shows

March 16, 2016
Results of a Carnegie Mellon University readability analysis of speeches by US presidents and presidential candidates. Credit: Elliot Schumacher/Carnegie Mellon University

A readability analysis of presidential candidate speeches by researchers in Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute (LTI) finds most candidates using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8, though Donald Trump tends to lag behind the others.

A historical review of their word and use suggests all five candidates in the analysis - Republicans Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (who has since suspended his campaign), and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders - have been using simpler language as the campaigns have progressed. Again, Trump is an outlier, with his grammar use spiking in his Iowa Caucus concession speech and his word and grammar use plummeting again during his Nevada Caucus victory speech.

"Win," after all, is more likely to appear in 3rd grade texts than "regrettably."

A comparison of the candidates with previous presidents show President Lincoln outpacing them all, boasting grammar at the 11th grade level, while President George W. Bush's 5th grade grammar was below even that of Trump.

"Assessing the readability of campaign speeches is a little tricky because most measures are geared to the written word, yet text is very different from the spoken word," said Maxine Eskenazi, LTI principal systems scientist who performed the analysis with Elliot Schumacher, a graduate student in language technologies. "When we speak, we usually use less structured language with shorter sentences."

An earlier analysis by the Boston Globe used the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which is based on average sentence length and average number of syllables per word, and found Trump speaking at a 4th grade level, two grade levels below his peers. Eskenazi and Schumacher used a readability model called REAP, which looks at how often words and grammatical constructs are used at each grade level and thus corresponds better to analysis of spoken language.

Based on vocabulary, campaign trail speeches by past and present presidents - Lincoln, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama - were at least on the 8th grade level, while the current candidates ranged from Trump's 7th grade level to Sanders' 10th grade level. Trump and Hillary Clinton's speeches showed the greatest variation, suggesting they may work harder than the others in tailoring speeches to particular audiences, Schumacher said.

In terms of grammar, none of the presidents and presidential candidates could compare with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - an admittedly high standard, with grammar well above the 10th grade level. The current candidates generally had scores between 6th and 7th grades, with Trump just below 6th grade level. President Bush scored at a 5th grade level.

Analyzing campaign speeches is difficult because it often is hard to obtain transcripts of speeches, Schumacher said. It is possible to generate reliable transcripts from video using automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems, such as those developed at LTI, when the speech took place in a quiet environment, but he and Eskenazi opted not to use today's automated methods because they were likely to introduce errors in the noisy environment of campaign rallies.

Explore further: Kids' oral language skills can predict future writing difficulties

More information: The study is available online at reap.cs.cmu.edu/Papers/Technical_report_16-001_Schumacher_Eskenazi.pdf .

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13 comments

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dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (3) Mar 16, 2016
Reason: "You know how stupid the average person is? Well, half of them are even more stupid"
OdinsAcolyte
not rated yet Mar 16, 2016
They also think at the same level. Most people do so too.
Haven't y'all noticed?
compose
Mar 16, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
rderkis
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 16, 2016
I think simplicity of speech on Trumps part has to do with the press misquoting him. It seems he has to say something as simple and as often, in as many different ways as he can to make the press understand what he is saying. For example how many times did he have to say the ban on muslim immigrants would be temporary and they still sometimes misquote him on that subject?
I also wonder why these studies and articles are flourishing at this period in our election process, It's almost as if the journalists and other interested parties think we are dumb enough to believe they are legit. And not crude attempts to sway us to their beliefs.
I figure if a person has made it this far along in the election process they are worthy of my respect. They must be reasonably intelligent and able to convey their thoughts. I can't hate someone of their caliber based on nothing but envy or silly prejudice. Example (Their daddy gave them money etc.)
How many of us can say "My daddy never gave..."
baudrunner
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 16, 2016
President George W. Bush's 5th grade grammar was below even that of Trump.
"even"? Why all the negative hyperbole - across the board - concerning Donald Trump? Does America not have any confidence in a person who expresses best what America is really all about, like living the dream, becoming a billionaire through hard work and smart business acumen? Stop cutting him down - everybody! America needs him to be president, if only to demonstrate that the pursuit of the American dream is a valid approach to life that works best for those who are good at it. He SHOULD be president!
IronhorseA
3.4 / 5 (5) Mar 16, 2016
President George W. Bush's 5th grade grammar was below even that of Trump.
"even"? Why all the negative hyperbole - across the board - concerning Donald Trump? Does America not have any confidence in a person who expresses best what America is really all about, like living the dream, becoming a billionaire through hard work and smart business acumen? Stop cutting him down - everybody! America needs him to be president, if only to demonstrate that the pursuit of the American dream is a valid approach to life that works best for those who are good at it. He SHOULD be president!


All hail President Slum Lord ;P
rderkis
1 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2016
What kind of land lord are you? That's a real question not a attack.
Thirteenth Doctor
5 / 5 (5) Mar 17, 2016
becoming a billionaire through hard work and smart business acumen?


Yeah everyone gets a small loan of a million dollars from daddy to start adulthood.
rderkis
1 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2016
Yes, Thirteenth Doctor, I am jealous to! I only got $500
. That was 1% of my daddy's yearly income.
My best friend got $1,000. Which was 1% of his daddy's income. Thirteenth Doctor did your dad ever give you any money at all? I certainly hope it was not more than $500 (which I got) or I will be jealous and call you spoiled. :-)
jim_xanara
not rated yet Mar 17, 2016
Trump is way lower than that. He speaks to some long gone primal urge to kill the stranger, believe only what is on the table, strangle any dissent. Hunter Thompson captured his ilk well.


At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and a head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the South Wing of the White House and leaps fifty feet down to the lawn...pauses briefly to strangle the Chow watchdog, then races off into the darkness...towards the Watergate, snarling with lust, loping through the alleys behind Pennsylvania Avenue, and trying desperately to remember which one of those four hundred identical balconies is the one outside of Martha Mitchell's apartment....Ah...Nightmares, nightmares. But I was only kidding. The President of the United States would never act that weird. At least not during football season."
rderkis
1 / 5 (1) Mar 18, 2016
QUOTE
Trump is way lower than that. He speaks to some long gone primal urge to kill the stranger, believe only what is on the table, strangle any dissent. Hunter Thompson captured his ilk well.

Speaking of violence it sounds like you would like to kill him. Or at least silence his free speech. (Censorship)
Bongstar420
not rated yet Mar 20, 2016
Reason: "You know how stupid the average person is? Well, half of them are even more stupid"


LOL
baudrunner
not rated yet Apr 08, 2016
America definitely needs more viable political parties. Remember what Thomas Jefferson remarked to a colleague after signing the Declaration of Independence:
"The one thing I fear the most is the tyranny of a two-party system."

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