Linguistic Research Finds Presidential Candidates Speak at the Level of Kids in Grades 6-8

March 18, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/wikimedia (CC by SA 3.0)

And Donald Trump fared even worse.

Many people joke about the intelligence levels of presidents and presidential candidates, but researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute (LTI) decided to review the language and grammar of presidential candidates to see how they matched up next to kids in grade school.

After a historical review of the vocabulary and grammar use of Republicans Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the researchers found that most candidates use language typical of students in grades 6 to 8. Trump fell just below the 6th grade level.

Further, they’ve been using simpler language as their campaigns have progressed.

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"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," Maxine Eskenazi, LTI principal systems scientist who performed the analysis, said in a press release. "When we speak, we usually use less structured language with shorter sentences."

The researchers compared the current candidates with previous presidents, finding that President Lincoln outshone all of them by flaunting grammar at an 11th-grade level. President George W. Bush’s grammar, however, was below even that of Trump, weighing in at a 5th grade level.

When looking at vocabulary, the researchers found that campaign trail speeches by past and current presidents — Lincoln, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama — were at least at an 8th grade level. The current candidates varied, ranging from Trump’s 7th grade level to Sanders’ 10th grade level.

The Flesch-Kincaid readability test is based on average sentence length and average number of syllables per word, and an earlier analysis by the Boston Globe used that model to gauge the candidates’ speaking levels — Trump was found to speak at a 4th grade level, two grades below his opponents.

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When it came to grammar, none of the presidents and presidential candidates came close to performing as well as President Lincoln did during the Gettysburg Address, with grammar well above the 10th grade level. Again, the current candidates performed with scores between 6th and 7th grades, except for Trump who fell behind at just below the 6th grade level.

Interestingly, Elliot Schumacher, a graduate student in language technologies who worked on the study, says that Trump and Hillary Clinton’s speeches showed the greatest variation, which suggests that they may work harder to tailor their speeches to particular audiences.

There’s still months to go before we’ll know who the next President of the United States will be, but one thing’s for sure: all candidates have to step up their linguistic skills if they want to come anywhere close to Abe Lincoln.

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