You’ve probably seen the news stories about Donald Trump’s grammar and poor language skills. In a Carnegie Mellon study of speeches given by presidential candidates, Donald Trump came in at the fourth or fifth grade level.
I’m no fan of Donald Trump – but if you’re expecting me to criticize his poor language skills, you’re wrong. I think the study was based on some fuzzy thinking.
On the surface, it sounds impressive enough. Carnegie Mellon used a database of school essays to compare the grammar and readability of the candidates’ speeches: “The grammar reading difficulty measure is based on the one-to-three-level depth parse trees of the sentences. This means that the measure is based on typical grammatical constructions in sentences of each grade level.”
A report about the study in the Washington Post explained that “most candidates using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8, though Donald Trump tends to lag behind the others.” It all sounds very scientific.
So what’s the problem? Actually there are two problems. No – make that three.
First, speaking is different from writing. Comparing an impromptu campaign speech to the Gettysburg Address, which Abraham Lincoln labored over before he delivered it, is…nonsense.
Second, the study’s use of “grammar” is misleading. To the average reader, “grammar” refers to fragments, run-on sentences, fragments, and dangling modifiers, as well as mistakes in subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, and parallel construction.
But the Carnegie Mellon report uses “grammar” to refer to the level of sophistication in candidates’ sentences – the use of dependent clauses, for example. So readers are likely to come away with the impression that Trump makes numerous usage mistakes, when the truth is that he tends to speak in simple, straightforward sentences when he’s talking before a live audience.
I’ve read the speech that gave Trump his lowest score – his victory speech in Nevada on February 24. There are some fragments and clumsy constructions, but those sentences are typical of how people speak when they don’t have a prepared script: “All of these people – volunteers and they travel and they – and I say, “what are you doing?” “And representing some very, very wonderful children, Ivanka” [his wife].
The glaring grammar mistake I noticed was the use of an adjective (“terrific”) that should have been an adverb (“terrifically”) – but that’s a verbal habit typical of New Yorkers (as I know very well because I do it myself): “I think we’re going to do terrific.” There’s not a lot of sophistication – but victory speeches don’t require it.
Back to the study. What really bothers me is the implication that plain words and straightforward sentences represent a low level of discourse. I do workshops about business writing, and I spend much of the time pleading with people to use normal English to communicate with one another. Often the resistance is fierce. Why? Because they worry about being thought stupid if they say “now” instead of “at the present time” or “because” instead of “for the reason that.”
Here’s the truth: If you want to impress people, focus on your ideas, knowledge, and experience. You don’t need complicated syntax and fancy words.
And I can prove it!
“The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite short stories. I’ve taught it many times – it’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship and insight into human nature.
I just ran the first 400 words through some readability software. “The Killers” came in at…first grade level.
Doubt me? Here’s a sample:
The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.
“What’s yours?” George asked them.
“I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to eat, Al?”
“I don’t know,” said Al. “I don’t know what I want to eat.”
Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in….
Hemingway was able to write a brilliant short story without resorting to verbal fireworks – and you can learn from his example. When you have a writing or speaking task in front of you, make sure you have something worth saying. Trust me: The words and sentence structure will take care of themselves.