Oral vs. written rhetoric

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Megan McArdle ("Four things Democrats need to understand about beating Trump", WaPo 1/31/2020) has something important to say about the style of Donald Trump's extemporized speeches:

Trump is a good public speaker. “Nails on a chalkboard” doesn’t quite capture how educated urbanites feel about Trump’s speaking style. A closer analogy would be having your teeth drilled — without Novocain.

His fragmented sentences, simplistic formulae (see those insults above) and rambling style would drive them wild even if the content and partisan ID were more to their taste. They like “polished” candidates who speak in complete sentences that read well when written down.

Trump, by contrast, sounds like … well, actually, he sounds a lot closer to how most people talk than a “good” public speaker. He speaks in short sentences and uses a small vocabulary. He makes up names for stuff to aid listener memory. He repeats himself. He digresses at random.

Trump talks, in short, the way people talk when they aren’t expecting their words to be written down. This informal approach horrifies those of us who love reading enough to do it on weekends. But one way to think about this is that it is not so much the difference between good and bad; it is the difference between an oral culture and a written one.

Let's not put Trump in a class with Homer and other notable oral-culture figures. But we don't have to take that step to observe, as I did in "Trump's eloquence" (8/5/2015), that it's a bad idea to judge  extemporized speech in transcription form:

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.

For more on this issue, see "The narrow end of the funnel"  and "Internecine strife at Language Log?"  (8/18/2016).

[h/t Geoff Pullum]



  1. bks said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 10:06 pm

    Political content, but I think this is apropos:

  2. AntC said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 5:18 am

    What this educated urbanite (non-American) finds appalling is the non-stop outright lying; even multiple contradictory lies within the same sentence. That has nothing to do with 'oral culture'. What Trump says would be appalling coming from a drunken bigot in a bar. Sorry, McArdle is talking bollocks.

  3. Seth said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 5:46 am

    I don't think it's a matter of "aren't expecting their words to be written down" – she's doing an anti-elitist framing there. But there's definitely something very different about Trump's political speaking style. I'd say it's scripted in a way, but the audience is very different than the standard politician who is aiming their words at pundits. People have sometimes gone back a few decades to Trump's public appearances then, and noticed how different he sounds, much more "articulate". They then sometimes conclude he's in dementia now because of the difference. No, I think he's deliberately changed his style, to appeal to a different demographic. The best way I can come up to convey this is the wresting show business. There are extremely skilled writers involved in it – but it's generally not the same style as the politics show business. Trump's a sort of genre cross-over.

  4. Yerushalmi said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 5:55 am

    @bks: Am I the only one who thinks the sound design on that ad leaves a lot to be desired? Particularly in the last eight seconds, with the "whumps" of the text not really meshing well with the background music, followed by a final chord that suddenly shifts jarringly into a very-not-final chord.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 7:11 am

    I must confess, I didn't listen to the Mike Bloomberg video, but I did read a very large number of the comments that were added thereto, and what staggered me was the number of references to "ad". There was one reference to "advertising" but not a single reference to "advertisement" as far as I could tell. Has "advertisement" gone the same (lamentable) way as "technology", "application", etc., being invariably shortered to its first syllable by all but the most punctilious writers/speakers ?

  6. Scott P. said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 8:54 am

    And here I thought Cicero's Catilinarian Oration was the example of a product of an oral culture instead of a written one.

    [(myl) See here for a discussion of the parallels between Cicero's rhetoric and WWF promos.]

  7. Roscoe said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 9:15 am

    @Philip Taylor: Indeed; saying “ad” makes one sound like a member of the mobile vulgus who rides the omnibus.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 9:33 am

    Ah, οἱ πολλοί — I have always thought that it could not possibly be they to whom the good Lord was referring when he spoke of the poor "inheriting the Earth" …

  9. Bob Ladd said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 10:55 am

    Not quite sure if Philip Taylor would include all Americans as part of τῶν πολλῶν, but it may be relevant to his concerns that ad is far more common in American English than in the UK (and nobody says advert in the US).

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 11:57 am

    Two-thirds of my lifetime and nine presidential election cycles ago (i.e. spring of 1984), I saw then-candidate Jesse Jackson give a campaign speech. I was struck by the way in which various of his rhetorical tics that had seemed dopey and corny to my cynical teenaged self when I'd read references to them in news stories somehow felt resonant and powerful when experienced live and in person. Gary Hart (whom I'd seen speak a little earlier the same campaign season) did not have the same contrast — rather, his in-person effect was more or less the same as the effect of reading about him in the New Republic or some such dull-but-worthy publication. And it was of course noted at the time that Jackson came out of a very specific tradition of persuasive orality, namely the distinctive preaching style of some strands of black American Protestantism.

    Pres. Trump's rhetorical style is not often taken as preacherly, but its unusual (for a politician) degree of resort to personal invective does perhaps evoke another American tradition of orality that has I believe been the subject of some scholarly attention, viz. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dozens.

    [(myl) Or more exactly, the "promo":

  11. Viseguy said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 8:50 pm

    @Bob Ladd: I was hoping for some reassurance that the peeving — in this space, no less! — about words like "ad" and "tech" was meant to be ironic, but your post did nothing to dispel my fear to the contrary. That sort of thing (if indeed it was unironic) really makes this working-class kid from Brooklyn want to puke — oh, I'm sorry, chaps, I meant to say "vomit".

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 7:23 am

    As the author of the alleged "peeve", I can confirm without reservation that it was indeed completely lacking in irony. I feel no shame in seeking to preserve the beauty of our language, retaining far longer than most unabbreviated forms such as "technology" v. "tech", older forms such as "program" v. "app", nice distinctions such as "fewer" v. "less" (and "such as" v. "like" !), and even archaic spellings such as "shewn" . I too was once a "working-class kid", from Eltham (South-East London) but my mother (from an equally working-class background) was determined that I should speak properly and eschew the local patois and accent, and I was fortunate enough to have as my first boss a member of the minor landed gentry who spoke perfect RP and on whom I could then do my best to model my own speech.

    But I hope that you (Viseguy) will understand that the primary intent of my comment was not one of criticism per se — rather, it was a statement of genuine incredulity that not one commentator (of literally hundreds) saw fit to spell "advertisement" in full.

  13. Phillip Helbig said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 8:34 am

    "Not quite sure if Philip Taylor would include all Americans as part of τῶν πολλῶν, but it may be relevant to his concerns that ad is far more common in American English than in the UK (and nobody says advert in the US)."

    Of course, there it is ADverTIZEmnt.

  14. Talnik said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 5:19 pm

    Unfortunately, his inability to lie with the same eloquence as his predecessor is not an impeachable offense. He is taller, though…is that impeachable?

  15. Viseguy said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 9:08 pm

    @Philip Taylor: I'm glad that I wasn't mistaken about your unironic intent — English still works as a means of communication, hurrah! — and I genuinely appreciate your reply. I, too, feel strongly that the common language that divides us is beautiful and worth preserving. It's just that, with the passing of years, and by continually reading this blog, I've also come to appreciate that it refuses to be preserved in amber and will evolve and change — because that's what the people who speak it do — and that that, too, is something worth appreciating, even celebrating. And, perhaps for that reason, I'm not at all surprised that not one of those commenters saw fit to spell out "advertisement", nor am I dismayed by it. But I have no trouble seeing that your incredulity about it was genuine. And as for my earlier, "emetic" comment — fuhgeddaboutit!

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