Trump's incoherence

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During the 2015 presidential campaign, Geoff Pullum wrote about "Trump's aphasia", and I responded ("Trump's eloquence") that

[I]n 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.

Last Friday, an Australian journalist complained about the same sort of thing (Lenore Taylor, "As a foreign reporter visiting the US I was stunned by Trump's press conference", The Guardian 9/20/2019). The sub-head: "Despite being subjected to a daily diet of Trump headlines, I was unprepared for the president’s alarming incoherence."

She's talking about a recent tour of border-wall construction at Otay Mesa in California, and she summarizes her reactions this way:

In writing about this not-especially-important or unusual press conference I’ve run into what US reporters must encounter every day. I’ve edited skittering, half-finished sentences to present them in some kind of consequential order and repeated remarks that made little sense.

In most circumstances, presenting information in as intelligible a form as possible is what we are trained for. But the shock I felt hearing half an hour of unfiltered meanderings from the president of the United States made me wonder whether the editing does our readers a disservice.

This seems to me to be mistaking style for substance. Lenore Taylor may be someone who always speaks in fluent well-crafted formal paragraphs. But I suspect that if we recorded her giving some friends an impromptu tour of the building she works in, we'd find similarly "skittering, half-finished sentences". The problem — aside from the fact that she obviously doesn't care for Mr. Trump — is not so much that he's incoherent, at least at this event, as that he's using a relaxed conversational style where she expects a formal discourse. If someone wears jeans and a t-shirt at a business meeting — as often happens in tech industries — it may be because they're unserious and disrespectful, or even demented, but it's more likely because they come from a different culture.

Here's the first couple of minutes of Trump's part of the event in question:

the wall is thirty feet high
we also have eighteen foot wall
we have a combination of thirty feet and eighteen depending on the area depending on the um
uh on the importance
uh Tijuana is right over here
there're thousands of people over there
that had been trying to get in
uh tremendous cooperation from Mexico and
uh the president of Mexico is
been fantastic, all of Mexico's been fantastic
uh as you know they have twenty seven thousand soldiers
so in addition to the wall we have uh
soldiers now the wall's still obviously uh
a ways to go but we're building it at a
-neck speed I wanted them to show you the interior of
parts of the wall and what's inside of
each individual slat
and uh you'll see it's a combination of steel concrete
and as one of the folks here said it really is virtually impenetrable
uh any walls that were put up we can knock down very quickly very easily
this wall is not something that can be
really knocked down, I guess anything can, but this is very tough, and
uh it goes down six feet
it's three and four feet wide the concrete you can see it right here it's exposed
and I might ask general Semonite to say a few words about it
and I'd like to bring them right up look at the inner tube
to see what happens cause after the wall is up
we pour concrete
and concrete goes into the tube
and in addition to that we have rebar
so if you think you're gonna cut it with a blowtorch
that's doesn't work because you hit concrete
and if you think you're gonna
go through the concrete that doesn't work because we have very powerful rebar inside
so it's a very powerful
very powerful wall the likes of which probably
to this extent has not been uh
built before
this is an area because it's so highly trafficed this was one of the
most dangerous areas we have a double wall
we have a wall on both sides one is eighteen feet
that's your border and the other one is thirty feet
if they should be able to make that this is where people are waiting for them
uh it's very a very powerful
so general maybe you could take over for a couple of minutes and then I'll
take it back

It's clear enough what he means in that passage — and as in 2015, it would be a serious mistake to interpret his speaking style as a form of incoherence that will prevent him from reaching people who are susceptible to his messages.

I do see one interesting difference between the president's language in this recording and in other examples of his extemporized discourse that I've looked at. In the portion given above, he uses 14 filled pauses in 429 words, or 3.3% of his words (and he has a similar rate in the rest of the event). This is several times the rate that I've seen in earlier recordings — see "The narrow end of the funnel", 8/18/2016; "Donald Trump: Cognitive decline or TDS?", 5/23/2017; "Presidential fluency", 10/31/2017 — though it's still on the low side in comparison to other public figures. I suspect that the higher rate in this case is due to the constraints imposed by describing and explaining the physical environment, but a more extensive analysis of possible trends might be worth the trouble.

If you want to experience the whole Otay Mesa event, a recording is here:


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 5:55 am

    I am no fan of President Trump, nor do I see his wall as an enlightened move, but I am unable to criticise at least the first 6:30 minutes of the recording from the perspective of coherence. Compared to some of the other speeches of his to which I have listened, this was (IMHO) a masterpiece of apparently unscripted coherence, and he presented to camera with confidence and panache.

  2. Bill Benzon said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 6:21 am

    If I might indulge a current hobby horse, I've been playing with the idea that language is the simplest thing humans do that requires a computational account. From this premise it follows, for example, that however the minds/brains of chimpanzees, dogs, bees, ants, or c. elegans work, it's not through communication. Something else is going on, complex dynamics, for example. OK.

    I'm thinking that all these bumps, hesitations, fillers, whatever, of conversation betray the inner workings of these mechanisms. We've got, say, a dynamical system implementing a computational process, speech. And it doesn't always go smoothly. The right word or phrase isn't always available; it's not like they're all queued up just waiting to be entered into the speech stream. So the system has to hunt around looking for them. That is, we're listening to and making sense of our own speech via the auditory system even as the motor system is placing words into the speech stream.

    Now, when we write, he can clean things up so it appears perfect. The language computer can parse those sentences readily (that is, map words and phrases onto semantic structures) and it all makes sense. But we all know that writing can often be quite difficult. We have to do quite a bit of reworking to produce computationally fluid prose.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 6:50 am

    It's all a question of semiosis. Is he getting his meaning and message across?

  4. Andrew Usher said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 7:19 am

    This is less Trumpish than we're used to hearing from him, and more like a typical example of how anyone would speak in those circumstances. It can't be called outstandingly coherent, but not the opposite, either, and it should be remembered that (unlike in political speech) Trump is not an expert on what he's talking about, which may explain the differences.

    I can't help noting two things:

    – He uses the English (at least American English) pronunciation of 'Tijuana', which has just as much right to be in English as that of Paris, Madrid, or Berlin (all involving no change of spelling). I have to complain because many people that should know better criticise it, presumably due to having an 'extra' syllable – but it's that the Mexicans lost it, not that we added it! Cf. the normal American rendition of 'mademoiselle' in four syllables as would be very unlikely in spoken French.

    – A 'powerful wall' is an unusual phrasing. Could this be his failure in old age, as seems common, to be able to access the right words? (that, by the way, is not a criticism, nor a sign that he is incompetent). Power is not attributed to immobile objects in normal use. Similarly a 'powerful situation' is equally odd, and I think this is one of the things people have noticed about Trump's speech that marks it to them as less than coherent.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 7:30 am

    I should have, with my usual care, noted that 'power' in my last point excludes electrical power …

    As to the reasons for her writing this, in addition to the normal themes of journalistic cliche and political antipathy, it is very probable that she does not in fact know that she speaks with similar levels of incoherence. Most people do (I won't offer an opinion on myself, for reasons just stated!) but awareness of how one really speaks does not seem to be a natural phenomenon. This disconnect, I think, is slightly more common in women (who really speak less formally on average), and in cultures or communities where prescription about language use is stronger. The latter is notorious when visiting some countries, as I'm sure many here will at least have read about.

  6. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 10:22 am

    Professor Liberman's point–that Trump when he speaks isn't any more disfluent than most of us, and people just think he's incoherent because they don't like him–seems rather dubious to me. But I don't have the qualifications to argue it.

    I will say, however, that I think he's misrepresenting what Ms. Taylor wrote, and making her a bit of a straw man. She wrote, "In most circumstances, presenting information in as intelligible a form as possible is what we are trained for." In other words, as a journalist, she's quite familiar with the difference between spoken and written speech, and translating one into the other is a normal part of her job. I doubt that she herself speaks in fluent well-crafted formal paragraphs, or that she expects anyone else to.

    Is Mr. Usher really claiming that women speak less formally, and thus more disfluently, than men, and that they're less aware of it? Those are some, um, well, shall I say, questionable assertions.

  7. Thomas Shaw said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

    I tend to agree that Trump's competency as a speaker of English is just fine (partly because I found Prof Liberman's languagelog posts on the subject convincing). Meanwhile, the things that he uses English to say are often rambling, full of off-topic asides, and sometimes self-contradictory. In other words, I think there's plenty to criticize about his speeches, even if criticism of his fluency is misplaced.

    Meanwhile, I share Morten Jonsson's skepticism about Andrew Usher's claims of gender difference in awareness of language.

  8. Rachael Churchill said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

    I think the convention of transcribing speech in lower case with no punctuation adds to the impression of incoherence, because it evokes the way uneducated people sometimes write, or the way authors have characters write if they want to convey that the character is stupid.
    (I know there are reasons for this convention; I'm just observing a possible unintended effect of it.)

  9. Tom Dawkes said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 1:23 pm

    On the pronunciation of Tijuana as Tiju-ana we might compare the very common (over)pronunciation by English speakers of Italian words with 'ci' and 'gi' followed by a vowel, so that we hear Gi-ovanni and ci-abatta, where the Italian is [jo] and [cha]. It's a matter of knowing the language's spelling conventions, as well as local variations: cf, Birmingham as pronounce in the UK and the USA.

  10. Joe Fineman said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 7:52 pm

    When I was an undergraduate in southern California (1950s), we all pronounce "Tijuana" in four syllables, but we also knew that "Tia Juana" means "Aunt Jane" & were apt to attribute the mispronunciation to that resemblance.

  11. Julian said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 8:04 pm

    @victor Mair
    Yes. 'coherent' in the sense of 'getting the message across' and 'coherent' in the sense of 'avoiding disfluencies' are different meanings

  12. Julian said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 8:14 pm

    Andrew usher : 'awareness of how one really speaks does not seem to be a natural phenomenon.'
    My job involves listening closely to a lot of disfluent speech. From being sensitized in this way I tend to notice the disfluency in my own conversation. It can be a bit disconcerting. Did I just say … Am I really so …. Surely not!

  13. Bloix said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 8:38 pm

    Lenore Taylor is a reporter who listens to a lot of extemporaneous speech by political leaders. In Trunp's case, she had never heard him speak before, and had only read reporter's versions of his speech. In person, she found him far more incoherent than the reportage had indicated.

    Now Mark Liberman tells us that Trump's "apparent incoherence" is only present in transcripts, which are shorn of the signals of prosody, gesture, and gaze." SHE WAS LISTENING TO HIM SPEAK. So we can discount that part of the apologia, can't we?

    Then we are told that she is offended by his informality, not his substance. SHE IS AN AUSTRALIAN. You want to go more informal than Australia?

    Trump when speaking in public does not want to be understood literally. He wants his hearers to take his meaning when he has never directly expressed it. He speaks like a man who doesn't want his fingerprints on his own words. I have a lot of experience reading transcripts of words spoken by crooks – more than you do, I have no doubt – and the good ones know how to make their meaning clear without saying anything clearly. Trump is a criminal and unsurprisingly he talks like one.

  14. AG said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 10:56 pm

    Is the problem here that some people are using "incoherent" to mean speech which actually can not be understood by an audience in any meaningful way, like some kind of word salad, while others (like myself and, I assume, Taylor) are thinking of it here more as meaning something like "illogical; very confusing; nonsensical in content"?

    This is the video I show students to demonstrate Trump's usual combination of being staggeringly incoherent (in the logic sense) while simultaneously utilizing a barrage of rhetorical techniques that could persuade a susceptible target audience:

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 6:37 am

    Yes, as I alluded to at the end of my last, what people mean by 'incoherent' is an issue. What I take as the normal meaning is unable to articulate what one means to, unable to communicate like a normal person, as due to illness, intoxication, or great emotional distress. Trump isn't particularly incoherent in that sense, and he would never have been elected if he were.

    Calling Trump a 'salesman', as that video does, is more fair and accurate than calling him a 'criminal' as our resident Trump-hater did above. (Though it is distressing to hear anyone mention 'Fleisch-Kincaid' seriously!) His rhetorical strategy, which must be largely of his own making, is quite intelligent and effective. Of course, as you point out, it's logically abominable, but who ever gets elected to any important office by sticking to logic?

    Julian: Yes, think about it, don't worry about it, normally.

    As for my mention of a gender difference, it wasn't meant to be authoritative. It was only my personal experience and a few anecdotal data; I had, though, I suppose, some belief that someone else might be able to speak with more authority on that question.

  16. BZ said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 12:26 pm

    Wow, this is a throwback to Trump's pre-politics speech. The type I hear in old interviews clips which are sometime played to illustrate his view on policy back when he wasn't running for office. He sounds downright normal. In fact, the only trait of his that I notice in the whole clip is the "very powerful wall the likes of which probably to this extent has not been built before" part. And honestly I'm no longer sure whether this particular feature of his is really new or whether he always said things like that.

    What does this mean? Does Trump consciously choose to speak in a way that is so negatively perceived? Is it that he only has problems with prepared remarks?

  17. Ray said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 4:19 pm

    all this reminds me of when a guest on a late nite teevee show recites the lyrics of a pop song with a straight face and get laffs laffs laffs

  18. Philip Anderson said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 7:16 am

    People certainly don’t speak as coherently as a written text reads, but this is generally skated over subconsciously by a listener (whereas reading a detailed transcript can be painful). But in this case it’s clear that the journalist was listening, but still struggling:
    “hearing half an hour of unfiltered meanderings”.

    So is there something in Trump’s speeches which gets his message across to his target audience, while leaving others looking for meaning? The former are satisfied with isolated buzzwords, slogans and images, the latter want a logical sequence? To answer Victor Mair’s question, maybe he is getting the message but not the meaning across.

  19. Trogluddite said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 4:06 pm

    @Philip Anderson
    Your second paragraph reminded me of neurologist Oliver Sacks' essay "The Presidents Speech". He describes there the reaction of his patients to one of Ronald Reagan's speeches. He noted that aphasic patients found the President's non-verbal communication amusing because his body language and prosody seemed exaggerated almost to the point of self parody. At the same time, many of the patients with visual or cognitive deficits which prevented them from reading non-verbal and/or prosodic cues found the speech unconvincing because his words seemed to them vague and lacking internal logic.

    As an autistic person, I fall somewhat into the latter category, and I am well aware that my analysis of utterances is more linguistic and literal than my peers, and that they are often responding to other, apparently more emotive, cues which are far more ambiguous to me. So I would answer "yes" to both of your questions – the message lies in the integration of multiple channels of communication, not the words alone, and the weight given to each source is likely to be affected both by our cognitive style and by confirmation bias.

  20. Andrew Usher said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

    And of course the words themselves don't communicate only by their literal meaning. That must be as so any of his words are just filling time …

  21. Bloix said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 6:22 pm

    "Calling Trump a 'salesman', as that video does, is more fair and accurate than calling him a 'criminal' as our resident Trump-hater did above."

    This is Trump talking to the president of Ukraine about their mutual dissatisfaction with the former US ambassador to Ukraine, a high American diplomat and the embodiment of the United States overseas: "Well, she's going to go through some things."

    Does that sound like a salesman? Or does it sound like a mobster who is wary about the possibility that the line might be tapped? The man literally talks like a mafioso.

  22. JPL said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 8:57 pm

    I don't know about transcription, I like Mark's method of transcribing as free verse, but whenever I hear Trump saying anything in the press sprays, in interviews or meetings with politicians or the press, when he needs to give an account of events, etc., his verbalizing seems to me incoherent, meaningless, not normal and deficient in many areas, such as giving reasons for actions or policies, or stating general principles (which I don't think he is capable of doing) and so forth. (This hasty description does not even come close to capturing the incoherence of what he expresses.) I would hope his supporters are not responding to what he is actually saying. His speech in the video seems almost normal in that unchallenging context. Anyway, here is an article by Henry Farrell in support of Bloix's characterization: "He speaks like a man who doesn't want his fingerprints on his own words".

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 7:03 am

    Oh, I can readily believe something like that is true, I just can't tolerate Bloix's tone in doing so. As everyone knows, Trump is who he is, and we chose to elect that kind of person, for better or worse.

    I realise that I forgot to reply on 'Tijuana'. If anyone is still listening to that, I now will: Yes, the pronunciation does derive from 'Tia Juana', which does mean 'Aunt Jane', just as 'marijuana' means 'Mary Jane'. Both are folk-etymologies in Spanish surely from some Indian (native) word.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 11:55 am

    "Trump is who he is, and we chose to elect that kind of person, for better or worse" — I think you might perhaps now understand, Andrew, why I have a real problem with authors using "we" to mean "I, and my readers". YOU may have chosen to elect "that kind of person", but I certainly didn't, and I imagine that a significant fraction — perhaps even a majority — of readers of Language Log did not.

  25. Bloix said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

    "we chose to elect that kind of person, for better or worse"

    Hillary Clinton: 65,853,514 votes
    Donald Trump: 62,984,828 votes

    You want to say, "due to the ridiculously undemocratic electoral college system, which no one who hasn't been dead for 200 years had anything to do with, combined with a series of voter suppression projects made possible by a Supreme Court which effectively neutered the 1964 Voting Rights Act, a minority of people who were actually able to vote chose this president, for better or worse," that would be accurate, but there's no "we" about it.

    As for Tijuana, the inexhaustible Wikipedia tell us:

    "The city's name comes from the rancho that Santiago Argüello Moraga established in 1829 on his Mexican land grant, naming it Rancho Tía Juana… The first Spanish mission called the settlement variously as La Tía Juana, Tiguana, Tiuana, Tiwana, Tijuan, Ticuan, as well as Tijuana. While the Mexican city standardized to Tijuana, the American term for both the river and a U.S. settlement which is now part of San Ysidro remained Tía Juana until the mid-20th century.
    "The commonly accepted theory among historians is that Tía Juana, as Argüello named his rancho, is derived from the word Tiwan ("by the sea") in the language of the Kumeyaay—the original aboriginal inhabitants of the San Diego-Tijuana region."

  26. Bloix said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 3:42 pm

    Talking like a salesman:

    “I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” he continued. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

  27. Andrew Usher said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 6:11 pm

    (How about giving sources for your Trump quotes?)

    I've read that Wikipedia article (Tijuana). The point, confirmed there, is that the pronunciation with four syllables is historically justified, It is not a vulgar error as is widely stated and we have the right to go on saying it the way we always have.

    And then, the 'we' I used in the last post means the same as the 'we' above: the American people as a whole, which may not even include myself. That is different from the 'I and my readers' use, and I think it would not be confusing to Americans. Is that sense of 'we' not known to Britain?

    Yes, the electoral college system is stupid as every thinking person should be able to agree (it never did work as intended) and should be changed, but it's in the constitution and established. However, it's not valid simply to count 'who won the popular vote' and say that that person would have been President otherwise – because if the electoral college were abolished, and achieving the Presidency became a matter of winning people rather than states, candidates would campaign differently and some people would vote differently. The 'sore losers' never seem to take that into account. I can't say who would have won in that case and neither can you.

  28. Suburbanbanshee said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 10:41 pm

    I think that Trump's style of speech is more justly compared to the speech of other CEOs of his vintage than to the speech of persons in academia, normal politics, etc.

    As someone who has had to sit through a lot of business speeches, particularly from executives with strong sports backgrounds, I find it bizarre that so many people claim to find Trump's speech patterns unique or unprecedented. It's like listening to aliens discuss this strange American custom called "lunch." Nor is this the first time that this blog has chronicled such reactions to fairly common speech patterns.

    Linguists are not supposed to be provincial, much less naively unaware of broad swaths of normal speech. Yet a good chunk of professional linguists who comment on this blog apparently have trouble decoding anyone's speech if there is an (R) attached to their names, or if they don't come from a very restricted group of cities.

    There's personal likes and dislikes, and then there's language study. I hope people are more interested in doing honor to their field than in imitating high school cliques.

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