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That’s what David Donnell wondered about this article: Jack Shafer, “Donald Trump Talks Like a Third-Grader“, Politico 8/13/2015:

Donald Trump isn’t a simpleton, he just talks like one. If you were to market Donald Trump’s vocabulary as a toy, it would resemble a small box of Lincoln Logs. Trump resists multisyllabic words and complex, writerly sentence constructions when speaking extemporaneously in a debate, at a news conference or in an interview. He prefers to link short, blocky words into other short, blocky words to create short, blocky sentences that he then stacks into short, blocky paragraphs. […]

In the August 6th Republican candidates debate, Trump answered the moderators’ questions with linguistic austerity. Run through the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level test, his text of responses score at the 4th-grade reading level.

Ben Zimmer’s response, via Twitter:

Ben’s link is to “Another dumb Flesch-Kincaid exercise“, 10/26/2014 — if you don’t already know how superficial and stupid the Flesch-Kincaid numbers are, please read that post.

And because of the critical role of sentence length in the FK formula, a lot depends on how a transcriber chooses to render Trump’s characteristically parenthesis-heavy verbal style. Thus this passage from Time Magazine’s transcript of the first debate scores at the 5.8 grade level:

So I just want to say. As far as single payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland. It could have worked in a different age, which is the age you’re talking about here. What I’d like to see is a private system without the artificial lines around every state. I have a big company with thousands and thousands of employees. And if I’m negotiating in New York or in New Jersey or in California, I have like one bidder. Nobody can bid. You know why? Because the insurance companies are making a fortune because they have control of the politicians, of course, with the exception of the politicians on this stage. But they have total control of the politicians. They’re making a fortune. Get rid of the artificial lines and you will have yourself great plans. And then we have to take care of the people that can’t take care of themselves. And I will do that through a different system.

But punctuate it differently — and in my opinion more plausibly — and it scores at the 10.8 grade level:

So I just want to say, as far as single payer, it works in Canada, it works incredibly well in Scotland — it could have worked in a different age, which is the age you’re talking about here. What I’d like to see is a private system without the artificial lines around every state. I have a big company with thousands and thousands of employees, and if I’m negotiating in New York or in New Jersey or in California, I have like one bidder — nobody can bid. You know why? Because the insurance companies are making a fortune because they have control of the politicians — of course with the exception of the politicians on this stage, but they have total control of the politicians — they’re making a fortune. Get rid of the artificial lines and you will have yourself great plans. And then we have to take care of the people that can’t take care of themselves, and I will do that through a different system.

And just to underline why friends don’t let friends use Flesch-Kincaid, the ROT13 version of the same passage scores at the 3.7 grade reading level:

Fb V whfg jnag gb fnl. Nf sne nf fvatyr cnlre, vg jbexf va Pnanqn. Vg jbexf vaperqvoyl jryy va Fpbgynaq. Vg pbhyq unir jbexrq va n qvssrerag ntr, juvpu vf gur ntr lbh’er gnyxvat nobhg urer. Jung V’q yvxr gb frr vf n cevingr flfgrz jvgubhg gur negvsvpvny yvarf nebhaq rirel fgngr. V unir n ovt pbzcnal jvgu gubhfnaqf naq gubhfnaqf bs rzcyblrrf. Naq vs V’z artbgvngvat va Arj Lbex be va Arj Wrefrl be va Pnyvsbeavn, V unir yvxr bar ovqqre. Abobql pna ovq. Lbh xabj jul? Orpnhfr gur vafhenapr pbzcnavrf ner znxvat n sbeghar orpnhfr gurl unir pbageby bs gur cbyvgvpvnaf, bs pbhefr, jvgu gur rkprcgvba bs gur cbyvgvpvnaf ba guvf fgntr. Ohg gurl unir gbgny pbageby bs gur cbyvgvpvnaf. Gurl’er znxvat n sbeghar. Trg evq bs gur negvsvpvny yvarf naq lbh jvyy unir lbhefrys terng cynaf. Naq gura jr unir gb gnxr pner bs gur crbcyr gung pna’g gnxr pner bs gurzfryirf. Naq V jvyy qb gung guebhtu n qvssrerag flfgrz.

 



9 Comments

  1. Mara K said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

    On the other hand, friends do let friends use Rot13 ;)

  2. Mike M said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    Maybe that’s why Trump is doing so well despite all the reasons he should be floundering. He’s straight to the point– something reflected in the direct way he speaks.

  3. Adrian Morgan said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

    And in between this version scores at 8.7:

    So I just want to say, as far as single payer — it works in Canada, it works incredibly well in Scotland; it could have worked in a different age which is the age you’re talking about here. What I’d like to see is a private system without the artificial lines around every state. I have a big company with thousands and thousands of employees, and if I’m negotiating in New York or in New Jersey or in California I have like one bidder. Nobody can bid. You know why? Because the insurance companies are making a fortune because they have control of the politicians. Of course, with the exception of the politicians on this stage, but they have total control of the politicians — they’re making a fortune. Get rid of the artificial lines and you will have yourself great plans. And then we have to take care of the people that can’t take care of themselves, and I will do that through a different system.

    I once invented a self-reversing substitution cipher like Rot-13 that, as far as possible, preserves pronounceability — if not always in English then in some semi-plausible hypothetical language with its own digraphs. The results tend to look like something out of science fiction. The alphabet is uqxgopdjyhtnvlefbwzkamrcis and in this case gives us:

    Ze Y hazk rulk ke zui, uz puw uz zyldno fuiow — yk rewtz yl Xulugu, yk rewtz ylxwogyqni ronn yl Zxeknulg; yk xeang jumo rewtog yl u gyppowolk udo rjyxj yz kjo udo iea’wo kuntyld uqeak jowo. Rjuk Y’g nyto ke zoo yz u fwymuko zizkov rykjeak kjo uwkypyxyun nyloz uwealg omowi zkuko. Y jumo u qyd xevfuli rykj kjeazulgz ulg kjeazulgz ep ovfneiooz, ulg yp Y’v lodekyukyld yl Lor Iewt ew yl Lor Howzoi ew yl Xunypewlyu Y jumo nyto elo qyggow. Leqegi xul qyg. Iea tler rji? Qoxuazo kjo ylzawulxo xevfulyoz uwo vutyld u pewkalo qoxuazo kjoi jumo xelkwen ep kjo fenykyxyulz. Ep xeawzo, rykj kjo ocxofkyel ep kjo fenykyxyulz el kjyz zkudo, qak kjoi jumo kekun xelkwen ep kjo fenykyxyulz — kjoi’wo vutyld u pewkalo. Dok wyg ep kjo uwkypyxyun nyloz ulg iea rynn jumo ieawzonp dwouk fnulz. Ulg kjol ro jumo ke kuto xuwo ep kjo foefno kjuk xul’k kuto xuwo ep kjovzonmoz, ulg Y rynn ge kjuk kjweadj u gyppowolk zizkov.

    That’s Kwavf with his translator malfunctioning. Flesch-Kincaid score: 11.1.

  4. Geoff Nunberg said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 8:11 pm

    I get a grade 2.4 for Blake’s “The Tiger.” Feels wrong.

    TIGER, tiger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    In what distant deeps or skies
    Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
    On what wings dare he aspire?
    What the hand dare seize the fire?

    And what shoulder and what art
    Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
    And when thy heart began to beat,
    What dread hand and what dread feet?

    What the hammer? what the chain?
    In what furnace was thy brain?
    What the anvil? What dread grasp
    Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

    When the stars threw down their spears,
    And water’d heaven with their tears,
    Did He smile His work to see?
    Did He who made the lamb make thee?

    Tiger, tiger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

  5. Guy said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 9:09 pm

    The beginning of Beowulf, up to “þæt wæs god cyning”, scores 8.1th grade if I punctuate it so that every finite verb has one sentence (I don’t believe there are any embedded finites in there). This is much better than the first sentence of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” which is at a 48.5th grade reading level. That in turn is better to than the title of the song by itself, which is at the daunting 150th grade reading level.

  6. Rebecca said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 11:13 pm

    Just grabbing off the internet various “great opening paragraphs”, I find that the opening paragraph of “Tale of Two Cities” gets a score of 47.6 (!!), which also feels wrong. On the one hand, it’s not much more than a long laundry list with a period at the end – which ought to count as pretty easy, I’d think. But on the other hand, maybe grade level 47.6 actually is pretty light reading, because that’s an awful long time to still be in school.

  7. richardelguru said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 5:49 am

    “Gurl’er znxvat n sbeghar.”

    That’s easy for you to say!

  8. Rodger C said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 6:53 am

    If Kwavf is elected, I’m moving to Xulugu.

  9. Belial Issimo said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

    In Xulugu did Taqnuy Kwavf a stately fnouzawo gevo decree…

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