From reader Brad D:
You've been doing some interesting studies of Trump's speech patterns, and I wonder, have you done an analysis of his overall word choice since he started running for President? Watching him speak in interviews, I often get the impression that he's translating his thoughts into small words so as not to seem to be speaking over the heads of his supporters (kind of like a political "Thing Explainer"). I'd be interested to know if there's any truth to that.
Brad added in a later note:
His overuse of simple adjectives does appear to be fairly consistent. "Good", "bad", "big", "smart", and "stupid" are the ones I notice most, but perhaps it's simply that he uses them when another word would be more precise.
I agree that Mr. Trump tends to use common words, adjectives and otherwise, more than other politicians do. But this doesn't seem to be something that he's done recently so as "not to seem to be speaking over the heads of his [political] supporters". For example, consider this YouTube clip where he's being interviewed by his adult children on "Aspects of Real Estate":
Here's a transcript of his first turn with the adjectives bolded:
Well I have a lot of good people that work for me and they bring lots of proposals to me, and I'm a big believer in looking at lots of different things so you have a choice, you have a menu, it's like going to a fine restaurant,
usually the better the restaurant the more things you see on the menu, you have a menu of things,
and then you choose the one or two or three that you like.
I know people that look at one deal and they do that one deal and they don't see
a big display in front of them
and usually that one deal doesn't work out so well
so I like to have a big choice, a big variety, it's very important to me,
and then I'll choose a percentage of them
that I think are good.
You get to see a big beautiful menu and that's what I like.
… "good", "big" "different", "fine" [restaurant], "important", "beautiful", …
Or the verbs: "have", "work", "bring", "look", "go", "see", "choose", "do", "think", "like", …
As Brad wrote, the use of common words — like "menu of things" rather than "menu of alternative items" or even "menu of choices" — works well with Trump's habit of repeating phrases, and with his self-presentation as a frank, plain-spoken person.
When I have a few spare minutes, I'll try looking at the cross-entropy of Trump's speech relative to unigram or bigram distributions in general English text, and at the compressibility of those speeches. I suspect that both measures would confirm Brad's perception that Trump's vocabulary is skewed towards more repetition of words that are more common (and thus also shorter), compared to his peers in politics. But I don't think that this is a recent adaptation to his chosen political audience.
And it's interesting that Trump's spartan linguistic style is so different in character from his taste in interior design:
Historically, taste in language and taste in design have changed in parallel. As I wrote in "The evolution of disornamentation" (2/21/2005)
I'm sure it's not an accident that Adolf Loos wrote Ornament and Crime a few years before William Strunk advised us to "omit needless words" in The Elements of Style (first published in 1918). Nor is it just a coincidence that E.B. White rewrote and republished Strunk's pamphlet in 1958, a few years after Rudolf Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read (1955) and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1957). There's more on the relationships among Viennese intellectuals, progressive politics, plain buildings and plain writing in a blog entry by Francis Morrone entitled The Word (and World) Made Flesch.
Donald Trump clearly breaks the connection. Is this special to him, or a more general trend?