CMU Study: Candidates' Grammar at a 6-8th Grade Level

Donald Trump generally scores the lowest while Abraham Lincoln remains the benchmark.


Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute (LTI) recently completed an readability analysis of presidential candidates' speeches and found most were using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8.

A historical review of their word and grammar use suggests all five candidates in the analysis — Republicans Donald 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. 

A comparison of the candidates with previous presidents show President Lincoln led the group by using grammar at the 11th grade level, while President George W. Bush’s 5th grade grammar was at the opposite end of the scale.

“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.”

Based on vocabulary, campaign trail speeches by past and present presidents — Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack 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.

The complete study is available here.


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