Donald Trump, now with more filled pauses

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Today's shocking news story: "‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’: In extraordinary hour-long call, Trump pressures Georgia secretary of state to recalculate the vote in his favor", WaPo 12/3/2020. The full audio and transcript of the call is here.

But since this is Language Log, and not Political Chicanery Log, my take on the event is to observe a striking change in Donald Trump's speaking style.

In "Presidential Fluency", 10/31/2017, I wrote:

In a number of posts about Donald Trump's rhetorical style, I've noted how seldom he uses filled pauses such as UM and UH in spontaneous speech, compared to other public figures. For example, in "The narrow end of the funnel" (8/18/2016), I noted that filled pauses were 8.2% of Steve Bannon's words (in a sample passage from a panel discussion on The Future of Conservatism), and 4.0% of Hilary Clinton's words in a Vox interview, while three of Trump's unscripted rally speeches had between 0% and 0.05% filled pauses, and in a CNBC interview, Trump used 74 filled pauses in 5329 words, for a rate of 1.4%.

In that same post, I compared the filled pause rate in one of Trump's interviews (31 in 3625 words, or 0.9%) with the filled pause rate in one of Obama's interviews (158 in 3072 words, or 5.1%).

Now listen to the first couple of minutes of Trump's participation in the Georgia call:

OK, thank you very much. Hello Brad and Ryan and everybody, we appreciate the time and the call
um so we’ve spent a lot of time on this and
uh if we could just go over some of the numbers, I think it’s
pretty clear that we won 
we won very substantially uh Georgia
uh You even see it by rally size, frankly, we’d be getting twenty five thirty thousand people a rally and
uh the competition would get less than 100 people and it never made sense.
But we have a- a number of things. We have at least two or three- a- anywhere from two hundred fifty to three hundred thousand ballots were dropped
mysteriously into the rolls.
Much of that had to do with uh Fulton County,
which hasn’t been checked. We think that if you check the signatures- a real check of the signatures going back
in Fulton County you’ll find at least a couple of hundred thousand of uh forged
signatures of uh people with uh
that- whose- who have been forged
uh and uh we are quite sure that’s going to happen.
Another- uh another tremendous number, we’re going to have an acc-
accurate number over the next two days with
certified accountants
uh but an accurate number uh
will be given but it's- it's uh in the fifties of thousands
uh and that’s people that went to vote
and they were told they can’t vote because they’ve already been voted for, uh
and uh it’s a very sad thing, they walked out
uh complaining. But they- the- the number’s large, we’ll have it t-  for you, but it’s very s- it's much more than the
uh number of eleven thousand seven hundred and seventy nine that’s-
the- the current margin is only
eleven thousand seven seventy nine uh Brad, I think-
I think you agree with that, right? that’s-
that's something I think everyone- at least that’s a number that everyone agrees on.

In that much of the call, there are 21 filled pauses in 333 tokens (including 17 partial words or false starts), for a filled pause rate of 6.3%.

I don't have time to transcribe the rest of the call this evening — or more properly, dis-edit it, since the Post's transcription omits all the filled pauses — but skimming it, I'm predicting that the soon-to-be-ex-president's filled pause rate holds above 5% throughout.

What's the reason for this substantial increase in Trumpian UM/UH-ing?

It could be a difference in his psychological state, or in the topic, or in his relationship to the audience, or lots of things. I believe that I've noticed a change in this aspect of his speech over the past few months, but I don't have any numbers to back that up.



  1. John Shutt said,

    January 3, 2021 @ 9:38 pm

    One wonders whether his speech pattern would be the same in a phone call as in those other contexts. Admittedly, I'd suspect the answer is "yes", given his apparent psychology; but, still.

    [(myl) Certainly the fact that it's a phone call is another uncontrolled variable — but he has often phoned in to broadcasts throughout his career, without (as far as I've observed) a similar effect.]

  2. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 3, 2021 @ 9:59 pm

    Is it possible that, contrary to his normal speaking style, the president is actually referring to notes or other documents while he is speaking?

    [(myl) Probably, given all the numbers. But it's not clear why that would lead to more (rather than fewer) filled pauses.]

  3. Ed Rorie said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 7:40 am

    Talking about lots of numbers might lead to more filled pauses because he hasn’t memorized the numbers and isn’t comfortable with them. He seems to fill the pauses with “uh” and “um” more often when shifting his attention to the notes than when when he is simply looking into his own mind for something to say. Checking the notes for “facts” is probably more disruptive to the stream of his consciousness than cueing up a new prevarication or threat.

  4. MattF said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 11:00 am

    Well, Trump isn’t getting what he wants and isn’t hearing what he wants to hear. Could make a difference.

  5. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 3:39 pm

    It would not be totally out of the question that he's trained himself not to use filled pauses when speaking before an audience, but this phone call didn't tick his mental box of "speaking before an audience" the way that stump speeches, broadcast interviews, phone calls to Fox News, etc. do.

  6. John Shutt said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 12:16 am

    On consideration, the explanation for this seems pretty straightforward to me, based on my estimation of Trump's mental pathology. (Not grinding any axes here; only interested in explaining the observed phenomenon.) A normal person pauses from time to time because they're coordinating what they plan to say with their understanding of reality; even if they mean to lie, they plan out the lie relative to reality. (This is Harry Frankfurt's definition of lying.) Trump doesn't do that; he does not perceive saying things to be related to reality, but instead simply says whatever whim suggests to him, which needs no pauses for coordination with reality.

    What the observed phenomenon suggests, under this interpretation, is that when he does have some external storyline to coordinate with, it takes him about the same amount of time to do so as it does other people. Suggesting that, in this particular respect, Trump's mental processes are actually quite normal.

  7. Graeme said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 7:36 am

    You may need to compare the old tape or transcript of him being deposed.

    Here he was talking in front of three lawyers and one Sec of State.
    At least in chunks of the spiel he has purporting to make a case with factual claims or numbers.
    A million miles from his usual 1D cartoon assertions.

  8. Haamu said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 10:27 pm

    I like MattF's take on this, but would add a slight twist.

    Before seeing this post, I had noticed the filled pauses and surmised that this was Trump in a rare deferential mode: one of the few cases where he perceives himself to be on the short end of a power imbalance.

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