Trump's eloquence

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Geoff Pullum uses terms like "aphasia", and phrases like "I don't think there's any structure in there", in describing a quoted passage from Donald Trump's 7/21/2015 speech in Sun City SC. But in my opinion, he's been misled by a notorious problem: the apparent incoherence of much transcribed extemporized speech, even when the same material is completely comprehensible and even eloquent in audio or audio-visual form.

This apparent incoherence has two main causes: false starts and parentheticals. Both are effectively signaled in speaking — by prosody along with gesture, posture, and gaze — and therefore largely factored out by listeners. But in textual form, the cues are gone, and we lose the thread.

There's another issue in this case as well. The segment in question takes place about 35 minutes into Trump's speech, and the earlier parts of the speech have featured repeated assertions and implications that recent American leaders are bad negotiators, and have therefore made bad deals with other countries, including Mexico, China, and Saudi Arabia. This is relevant to his candidacy because "The Art of the Deal" is part of his persona — and it's relevant to the the quoted segment, which is discussing another example, the nuclear deal with Iran. Because of this background, he can afford to criticize the nuclear deal in an allusive way without confusing his audience.

A youtube video of the whole 7/21/2015 speech is here, set to start at the place where the allegedly aphasic transcript begins. Watch and listen — or just listen to the audio clip below — and I think you'll see what I mean:

His parenthetical asides in this segment feature another of his frequent themes, namely the allegedly liberal media's lack of respect for his intellectual credentials.

I don't have time this morning to label this passage's false starts and parentheticals according to (for example) the SimpleMDE guidelines, but this would be a straightforward exercise. Overall, I think the passage is entirely comprehensible, and in the context of the speech as a whole, even eloquent. The false starts and parentheticals may actually make the speech better, at least for people who are open to liking Trump and endorsing his ideas, by giving an impression of enthusiasm and genuineness.

It would be a mistake to underestimate his considerable effectiveness as a public speaker, even if he doesn't speak in conventionally coherent textual paragraphs.

Update — For those who may not be familiar with Donald Trump's general speaking style, here's a 10-hour sampler:

Update — for more (than you probably want), see "Past posts on Donald Trump's rhetoric", 1/5/2024.



  1. Vaylon Kenadell said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 9:38 am

    No, Trump isn't eloquent; he attended the Abe "Grandpa" Simpson School of Storytelling:

    "We can't bust heads like we used to, but we have our ways. One trick is to tell them stories that don't go anywhere. Like the time I caught the ferry over to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for my shoe, so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them. 'Give me five bees for a quarter,' you'd say. Now where were we? Oh, yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. They didn't have white onions because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones."

  2. ThomasH said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 9:42 am

    I do not think Pullum's point was that the segment was not "effective," as apolitical speech, rather that it is impossible to logically agree or disagree with what is said. Personally, I take the failure to speak about politics in "conventionally coherent textual paragraphs" as a sign of either incompetence or a desire to mislead.

  3. JW said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    Anyone who's read Ulysses should have no trouble understanding that quote.

  4. joe said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 9:52 am

    Socrates had predicted that the richness of orality would be eclipsed if we considered the text alone as our source of knowledge. He predicted that "they will appear to be omniscient and generally know nothing. they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 10:15 am

    Before reading JW's comment, I sent the following note to my colleagues at Language Log headquarters:


    As a former English major (long ago), I'd like to ask how you think his stream of semi-conscious verbiage compares to stream of consciousness writing in, say, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

    Well, I was going to ask that, but then when I looked up actual examples of stream of consciousness writing, I can see that it does have structure. It's just spread out more freely than usual linear thought:

    Trump's verbiage is composed of phrases, clauses, and, at best, semi-sentences.


    Mark's post on the problems surrounding "transcribed extemporized speech" puts the matter in an entirely different light.

  6. qroqqa said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    And Socrates fought against the Persians too – the guys Trump mentioned.

  7. Ray said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 10:18 am

    "Overall, I think the passage is entirely comprehensible" — agreed, even before reading this post.

    what's fascinating to me is that slate is asking its readers to diagram trump's words — a clickbaiting grade school exercise which may say more about how anti-conservative republicans align themselves with grammar policing as a sign of higher intellect, and which feeds right into trump's assertion "if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you're a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number"!

  8. John Baker said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 10:19 am

    I am no fan of Trump, but I do think that Pullum was unfair here. This is not a single run-on sentence, but rather a number of sentences, some of which are false starts. Trump's discourse is digressive, so his argument is not well-constructed, but the digressions are important to his overall message, which is that he is a better negotiator than the negotiators who reached the Iranian deal. The central statement of the quoted passage is that the Iranians are great negotiators and just killed us (i.e., badly outnegotiated the American negotiators). To support this conclusion he points to the failure to include (the liberation of) four prisoners held by the Iranians in the deal, which he asserts would have been easy. His digressions include a discussion of his own qualifications and an explanation that he has to do this because supporters of liberal Democrats are constantly trying to tear down conservative Republicans.

    However, the passage still has ambiguity. What was it that his uncle, the MIT professor, explained to him? He describes this as "nuclear is powerful" (most of us don't need an MIT professor to know this) and "the power of what's going to happen," which seems like a different concept. What does he mean when he says "it's not as important as these lives are"? Does he mean that the nuclear deal is less important than the lives of the four prisoners, or does he mean that the four prisoners, although important, are not as important as the lives put at risk by the nuclear deal? So this is a passage lacking clarity, even though much of his message comes through clearly to those willing to hear it.

    [(myl) I was also puzzled by the M.I.T. nuclear uncle business. "35 years ago" was 1980 — what could the uncle have explained to him then about the "power of what's going to happen" with nuclear technology that wouldn't have been obvious in 1950, or in any case that only an M.I.T. professor would have known about in 1980? Something, maybe, but what? Perhaps he explains it further in the rest of the speech, which I didn't listen to. Otherwise I'd classify it a rhetorical gesture aimed at further bolstering his credibility as a nuclear negotiator.]

  9. Ken Miner said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 10:37 am

    Yet Plato (who indeed makes Socrates seem suspicious of writing) wrote reams of stuff, carefully composed. It's a puzzle.

  10. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 10:56 am

    It's quite coherent it you just add a few phrases:

    My uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; [so I have ] good genes, very good genes, [I am] very smart, [I went to] the Wharton School of Finance, [a] very good [school], [I am] very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican [people assume you are dumb], if I were a liberal, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you're a conservative Republican they try [to make you look dumb]—oh, do they do a number [on you]—that’s why I always start off: [I] Went to Wharton, [I] was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my credentials all the time, because we're a little disadvantaged [as Republicans trying to seem smart]

  11. Guy said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

    I assume Pullum's claim that there was no structure and that this is "aphasia" was intended to be, and can only be, interpreted as hyperbole. The man's not saying "cabbage squid blue extreme run is fall". We have several full clauses, plenty of well-formed noun phrases, etc. And Pullum's no doubt knows this. What Pullum presumably is getting at is that there are a lot of false starts, various types of adjenct that don't clearly belong to any clause, and a lack of overall cohesion. These judgments are fairly subjective and so I really don't know how easy it would be to cherry pick passages like this in many other speeches. I imagine any long speech is going to have less-than-eloquent moments like this (I can't agree that this is eloquent as suggested here) so I wouldn't take this, in isolation, as evidence that Trump is a particularly poor speaker. That doesn't mean it couldn't be evidence in context. I haven't listened to Trump speak much so I couldn't judge.

    It does look to me that the perception of incoherence is buttressed by the fact that he seems to have lost track of his point. When he mentions his uncle he presumably intends to relate some anecdote about what he said and relate it to the nuclear deal, but then he goes careening off complimenting his own intelligence and complaining that everyone's unfair to Republicans.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    Re the nuclear uncle puzzle, the Shah's regime had various US-supported nuclear programs (see awesome vintage ad: that were officially for peaceful/non-military use only, but I expect many people knowledgeable about nuclear stuff (plausibly including the uncle in question) were wondering with varying degrees of concern circa 1980 what that might lead to in the hands of the post-Shah regime.

    But the wandering off topic plus the gratuitous "good genes" remark makes him sound almost like he's offering the fact being the nephew of an MIT professor as evidence of his own smarts, which seems defensive to the point of being counterproductive. And also embarrassing for Wharton (or Penn as a whole?) as an institution. Aren't alums trained to be arrogant enough to presume the world will accept the Wharton degree as sufficient proof of smarts on a standalone basis?

  13. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

    Hyperbole? From Geoff Pullum? Surely you can't be serious.

  14. Eric P Smith said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 3:01 pm

    I sat down to listen to the whole of your 10-hour sampler, but when I heard the vocal fry in the presenter's first syllable I changed my mind.

  15. Guy said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

    @Neal Goldfarb

    aɪ æm siɹiəs, ənd doʊnt kɔl mi ʃɚli.

  16. Rubrick said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

    More regurgitating of falsehoods. For the record, cabbage squid blue, whether extreme or more moderate run, is not and never has been fall.

  17. AntC said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 12:50 am

    With Trump and Sarah Palin as running mates, I imagine the late-night satirists would have an embarrassment of riches in the 'verbals', be it eloquence, aphasia, or plain Alaskan down-home nonsense.

  18. Trump’s incoherence? | Arnold Zwicky's Blog said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 12:08 pm

    […] a follow-up, "Trump's eloquence", Mark Liberman offered explanations for Trump's […]

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