"Third (rate|grade)" corpus linguistics

« previous post | next post »

Did Donald Trump call Nancy Pelosi a "third rate politician" or a "third grade politician"? This question has come up in the mass media recently, and we discussed some phonetic aspects of the question earlier today.

Based on a quick corpus study, I conclude that the probabilities strongly favor "third rate".

Factbase finds 46 examples of Mr. Trump using "third rate" , all of them in the meaning "not at all good". The most recent example is at the 2020 Young Black Leadership Summit on 10/4/2019, speaking about Al Sharpton:

But, look, Al is a con man. We all know that. Just a con man. He's a con man. And he scared uh NBC into giving him a show. You know, they don't want to have any trouble. But he's a — just a, sort of a third-rate con guy. But here's Van Jones. Here's Van Jones. Van Jones: "I want to thank Al Sharpton.

The oldest one in the dataset seems to be this video from 2011:

So what happened, first you had a third-rate comedian named Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live get up, he was so nervous, he was so scared he had marbles in his mouth, and he said Oh Trump's candidacy is a joke, so you know that was it and everybody laughed

Search on the same site returns just four examples of Trump using "third grade". The most recent one is from an address to a joint session of Congress in February of 2017, where he's reading from a prepared speech, and uses "third grade" in a literal rather than figurative sense:

Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather. As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning — great learning center — with the help of a tax credit and a scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college.

The next two are from a speech given on November 4, 2015, and we're warned:

This was transcribed and punctuated by Factba.se's AI, Margaret, and automatically corrected based on her understanding of Donald Trump's speech patterns. It has not been edited by a human. Please double-check any quotes against the video.

Thus it's not surprising that there's actually only one example  — "Margaret" seems to have gotten confused and transcribed the same segment more than once — and that one example is a mistranscribed version of "third rate". Here it is:

Club For Growth, which is a third rate outfit, came to my office, asked me for a million dollars.
I said you are these p- I didn't even know who they are.
I don't even know how the meeting got set up.

The last one is from an interview, also on November 4, 2015, and it's also a mistranscribed version of "third rate". Here it is:

Michael DiAntonio wrote a third rate book.

(Note: the author's name is actually Michael D'Antonio…)

So to sum up:

  1. Donald Trump has a long and well documented history of using "third rate" as an adjective of deprecation.
  2. The only documented example of his use of "third grade" was in a prepared speech, no doubt written by someone else, where it referred to the literal third grade of elementary school.
  3. Therefore it's nearly certain that he referred to Nancy Pelosi as a "third rate politician", not a "third grade politician".



  1. Rick Rubenstein said,

    October 17, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

    I dislike controversy, so I'm going to assume Trump actually said "third grate". You know, kind of like "third rail". Makes perfect sense.

  2. WindowlessMonad said,

    October 18, 2019 @ 2:42 pm

    As in "Make America third grate again" ?

  3. Andrew Usher said,

    October 18, 2019 @ 6:19 pm

    It's funny, but you actually can hear a /g/ if you want to in the latter two clips. Is this a true acoustic phenomenon or just mental illusion? Does /dr/ sound like /dgr/ in some pronunciations?

    I don't think it can in mine, as I just listened to myself saying phrases containing 'third-rate' fast enough that /dr/ becomes the affricate, and could not hear /g/ nor any other sound within it, unlike Trump's speech above.

    So the mistranscriptions are excusable; 'third grate' isn't sensible and of course 'grate' and 'grade' would often be neutralised anyway.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  4. Jenny Chu said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 12:40 am

    Early in freshman year in college, I earned a few bucks participating in a study where I was asked to distinguish between fuzzy recordings of words where the final consonant was inaudible ("If Ned read tez [or tess?], Tom would be upset.").

    About a year later, when I had become a linguistics student, I was delighted to read the paper which resulted. Its conclusion was that vowel length was more important than final consonant voicing in distinguishing between the two.

    So … ?

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    October 22, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

    Nothing, because I was discussing the perception of the /g/, not the final consonant. The latter is inferred from the former because 'rate' and 'grade' are the only combinations that work here.

RSS feed for comments on this post