The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump speaks like a sixth-grader. All politicians should.

More than 40 percent of Americans have only basic literacy skills. Candidates need to be able to talk to them.

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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In March, a Carnegie Mellon University study confirmed what any casual observer of the primaries already knew: Donald Trump uses the simplest language among the candidates and Bernie Sanders the most complex. The study received widespread media coverage. Mashable noted, “Donald Trump might have trouble if he ever appears on ‘Are you smarter than a fifth grader?’” New York magazine posted a video with the smirking caption: “Donald J. Trump has the grammar of an 11-year-old. That’s not opinion. That’s research-proven.”

Trump may be the presumptive GOP nominee, but he’s no Shakespeare. His phrases are basic and repetitive: “We weren’t expected to win too much, and now we’re winning, winning, winning the country. And soon the country’s going to start winning, winning, winning.” No matter what happens in the campaign, the former reality-TV star won’t win any Toastmasters awards.

But when Trump uses simple words, he’s only doing what every politician should. It’s time to stop sneering — at least at his words.

When speaking to or writing for a broad audience, it’s a best practice to speak at an eighth-grade reading level. More than 40 percent of Americans have only basic literary skills, according to a 2003 assessment. And even highly educated people prefer to read below their formal education level.

A presidential candidate wants to be understood by all voters, from immigrants whose first language isn’t English to those with advanced degrees in linguistics. Trump rarely uses speechwriters, yet he’s grasped one of their principles: It is more important to be understood than to use $10 words. The simple way Trump speaks does not make his supporters think he is speaking down to them. The opposite, in fact, appears to be true. “He’s . . . talking to us not like we’re stupid,” one supporter said in a focus group conducted in December.

Research suggests that public speakers’ precise words are less important than their body language, tone and brevity. Most of the words in a speech don’t register in the brains of listeners, who are more likely to remember the general tone of a speech and how it made them feel.

Still, in a contest for memorable words, Trump often bests his opponents. Compare Trump (“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country”) with his likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton (“We will throw the book at China for their illegal actions”).

If a real estate agent’s adage is “location, location, location,” a communicator’s is “know your audience.” Legal, scientific and academic audiences require highly technical and complex language to precisely convey a speaker’s meaning. But politicians do not speak to these specialized communities. They speak to all Americans, and, for the most part, they know that this requires simple language. The Carnegie Mellon study found “most candidates using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8, though Donald Trump tends to lag behind the others.” Sanders was the only candidate whose speeches were at a 10th-grade level, making him a notable outlier.

In the study, George W. Bush’s fifth-grade-level grammar was the lowest of the presidents examined, but Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s grammar wasn’t remarkably higher: close to an eighth-grade level. While the different tools used to measure this produce slightly variable results, the Flesch-Kincaid index, the most widely used test to assess readability, put Obama’s most recent State of the Union address at an eighth-grade level. Bush’s 2001 State of the Union address scored the same, though his 2005 State of the Union came in at an 11th-grade level. (Surprising, perhaps, from the man who once said, “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”)

Even 16 years after he left office, Clinton stands out as a master of public speaking. Consider this, from a Memphis speech in 1993: “Sometimes, there are no answers from the outside in. Sometimes, the answers have to come from the values and the love and the stirrings and the voices that speak to us from within.” These are eloquent and moving lines. And though they come in at a sixth- or seventh-grade reading level on the Flesch-Kincaid index, no one would describe them as dumbed down.

Changing the political landscape doesn’t require sophisticated language. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan loaded the cannons of the culture wars when he declared that “there is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.” These blunt sentences, written at a fifth-grade level, helped push issues such as abortion, gay rights and religion center stage.

Even Trump’s language is often more powerful than his critics admit. “It is a beautiful thing to watch and a beautiful thing to behold,” Trump said this past week, after winning the Indiana primary and effectively clinching the Republican nomination. “We are going to make America great again.”

At a South Carolina campaign rally in December, Trump defended one of his favorite words. “I know words; I have the best words. . . . But there is no better word than ‘stupid.’ ” Forget how cavalier and blustery he sounds when challenging the intelligence of people who stand in his way: From a linguistic perspective, Trump is right. Why say “idiotic,” “misguided” or “disingenuous” when plain old “stupid” will do?

New York magazine’s video called Trump’s low-level readability “a little mind-blowing.” It also showed a clip of Hillary Clinton stating, “Tonight, it’s clearer than ever that this may be one of the most consequential campaigns of our lifetimes.” That sentence is at a 10th-grade reading level. It has the same meaning if edited to “Tonight, it is clear this may be one of the most important campaigns of our lives,” a simpler sentence at a sixth-grade reading level. In this case, simpler language does not render the sentence less meaningful. It only makes it easier to understand.

No one in the press should find Trump’s “low-level” grammar to be “mind-blowing.” Most U.S. publications, including NPR and the New York Times, keep their writing at an intermediate reading level, according to Google’s reading level scores. Nitpicking Trump’s grammar while using similar language themselves shows a deep cynicism and an eagerness to play to their audiences’ desire to feel superior to Trump and his supporters.

The Flesch-Kincaid index measures Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” at a fourth-grade reading level. William Faulkner famously insulted Hemingway by saying, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway countered: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

Politicians want to evoke big emotions. They are better at doing so when they emulate Hemingway rather than Faulkner. Trump will never send anyone to the dictionary, but why would he want to?

This does not mean Trump is a perfect public speaker. He is at times nearly incomprehensible. It can be impossible to sift through his sentence fragments and run-on sentences to find the ideas they contain. In many cases, they don’t communicate ideas; they communicate feelings, and often ugly ones.

But I can’t fault him for using simple words — it’s what every public speaker should do. Those criticizing him for it reveal their own ignorance, not his.