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The simple language trick that may help Republicans—but not Democrats

Words matter—just not how you think.


Andrew Couts


Posted on May 31, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 4:53 pm CDT

There may be more genius to the way Donald Trump speaks than even his most fervent supporters realize.

A study released on Tuesday by the team behind Grammarly, a writing and grammar app, found that both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have simplified their language over the past 50 years, according to the company’s analysis of general election debate transcripts dating back to 1960. But only Republican candidates have seen their polls numbers rise in conjunction with the falling complexity of their language—and Trump uses the simplest language of them all.

Grammarly’s analysts found that, since the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and then-incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon, presidential candidates have significantly reduced their use of long sentences, sentences with non-restrictive clauses, proper complex adjective order, and other elements of complex language. 

Former President George H. W. Bush took election language off a proverbial cliff during the 1992 election against then-challenger and former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, with only 6.3 percent of Bush’s sentences counting as complex, according to Grammarly. All candidates before Bush fell into the 11-17 percent range, with conservative icon President Ronald Reagan ranking among the most complex speakers on the list at 17.2 percent.

The general election with the least complex language from candidates of both parties came in 2004. Democratic candidate John Kerry, now secretary of state, used complex sentences just 5.6 percent of the time, Grammarly found, while only 4.4 percent of then-incumbent President George W. Bush‘s sentences counted as complex. 

All of which brings us back to Trump. With Trump’s overall polling average at 34 percent, according to the HuffPost Pollster average from July 1, 2015, to May 8, 2016, his sentences are complex just 3.3 percent of the time, lower than any other candidate on the list. 

This finding lines up with a December 2015 analysis of Trump’s language by writer Evan Puschak, aka YouTube‘s The Nerdwriter. Puschak studied a 220-word answer to a question Jimmy Kimmel asked of Trump’s policy proposal to restrict Muslims from entering the United States. Of those 220 words, 172 of them were just one syllable. The answer also shows how Trump maintains a basic sentence structure and regularly repeats key words like “problem.”

Further corroborating Trump’s speech tendencies, a mid-March study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute (LTI) found that Trump’s grammar was typical of students ages 11 and under, while his opponents’ grammar was slightly more complex (ages 11-14), and they used higher-level vocabulary (ages 13-16).

Trump’s challengers, of course, sounded nothing like the businessman and former reality TV star—perhaps to their own detriment: Grammarly’s analysis found that the more complex a 2016 Republican presidential candidate’s sentences, the lower his poll numbers. 

On the Democratic side, however, the opposite was true: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who used complex sentences 7.87 percent of the time, consistently polled higher (51.9 percent) than rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose sentences were complex 5.51 percent of the time, and who had an average poll rating of 31.6 percent. (The LTI study, it should be noted, found that Sanders’s grammar was generally more sophisticated than Clinton’s.)

The Grammarly analysis also found the issues most common among the parties’ candidates. Jobs and the economy took the top two spots, respectively, for both Republicans and Democrats, but then things diverged. Republicans focused far more on taxes and immigration, while Democrats put their energy into healthcare and education—not exactly a shocking revelation, but it’s revealing nonetheless. 

Of course, sentence length and adjective use plays only one small part in shaping a candidate’s overall public image. Trump is likely not the Republican presumptive presidential nominee simply because he uses less-complex language than his opponents. But it certainly hasn’t hurt.

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*First Published: May 31, 2016, 7:00 am CDT