If you think the rhetoric from this year’s presidential election has sunk to levels you’d hear on a school playground, you may be right.
A new analysis from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh finds that most of the 2016 presidential candidates have been using the vocabulary and grammar of middle school students when giving speeches on the campaign trail.
And in a finding that may not surprise many, Donald Trump scored lowest in both grammar and word use among contenders on both sides of the party aisle.
However, all five candidates included in the analysis — Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio (who since dropped out), Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have used simpler language as the campaign has progressed, the analysis found.
Trump and Clinton’s speeches have shown the greatest variation in vocabulary, which suggests they are more likely to tailor their speeches to particular audiences, the researchers surmised.
Trump’s grammar reached its highest level in his Iowa Caucus concession speech, but nosedived again during his Nevada Caucus victory address.
Overall, the speeches of the current presidential candidates had language scores that settled between 6th and 7th grade reading levels, while Trump was just below 6th grade.
“Assessing the readability of campaign speeches is a little tricky because most measures are geared to the written word, yet text is very different from the spoken word,” said analysis author Maxine Eskenazi, a principal systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Language Technologies Institute. “When we speak, we usually use less structured language with shorter sentences.”
To assess the language skills of the 2016 presidential candidates, Eskenazi and graduate student Elliot Schumacher used a readability model that looks at how often words and grammatical constructs are used at each grade level.
Researchers also reached into the past with their analysis. Not surprisingly, they found that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address scored highest for grammar, with a Grade 11 level.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s speeches had the lowest score, with a 5th grade level.
In terms of vocabulary, the speeches of Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama struck at least an 8th grade reading level, the study found.
The research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders outlines speech and language development.