Talking Trump: literally speaking

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump asserted his commonality with ‘the ordinary American’ through his use of language: he used a relatively small vocabulary, chose informal grammatical structures, and showed little concern for self-censorship. In his inaugural address he combined this populism with some of the tropes that are the conventions of political speeches.”  


President Trump’s inaugural speech is short and grammatically simple. The speech is 1471 words long, compared with 2404 words for Barack Obama’s inaugural speech in 2009. Trump’s speech has 143 (non-embedded) finite clauses against Obama’s 171. Trump’s clauses are shorter with  the average number of words per finite clause at 10.28 for Trump and 14.08 for Obama. Trump uses 184 verbs (5.7% of the total word count) while Obama used 329 (13.6%). The explanation for these differences is that most of Trump’s sentences are straightforward in their structure, consisting of either one clause or simple linked clauses, such as

(1) Politicians prospered…

(2)…but the jobs left…

(3)…and the factories closed

He does occasionally make his utterances more complex by using relative clauses:

(4)…to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before

or non-finite subordinate clauses:

(5) We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own

or sentences beginning with ‘what’ that contain multiple verbs:

(6) What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people

but these are very much in the minority. As a consequence, there is an average of only 1.28 verbs per finite clause in Trump’s speech. In Obama’s speech there is an average of 1.92 verbs per finite clause, the higher number accounted for by sentences such as (verbs underlined):

(7) What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

The simplicity of Trump’s grammar lends itself to that hallmark of the political speech: parallelism. This is sometimes straightforward repetition:

Together we will determine the course of America
  we will face challenges
  we will confront hardships
But we will get the job done

He also, however, uses the more distinctive positive-negative pattern:

  Positive   Negative 
A small group has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost 
Washington flourished   but the people did not share in its wealth
Politicians prospered   but the jobs left
      and the factories closed

As is the case with Obama’s inaugural speech, Trump identifies problems with America’s institutions and infrastructure: ‘shuttered factories’, ‘dissipated’ wealth and confidence, ‘depletion’ of the military and ‘disrepair and decay’ of infrastructure. Where Trump’s language is different is his use of the imagery of personalised violence and theft, with the ordinary citizen cast as the victim of these acts: people are ‘trapped in poverty’, children ‘deprived of all knowledge’; crimes have ‘stolen too many lives’ and ‘robbed our country of … potential’; wealth ‘has been ripped’ from homes, the whole being summarised as ‘this American carnage’. He is different too in assigning volition and responsibility, not only to a failing school system and to gangs and drugs, but to a general American ‘we’: ‘we’ is the subject of verbs that construe actions benefitting other countries and penalising the US. This section of the speech uses the positive-negative parallelism noted above, making an overt causal link between US actions overseas and a reduction in standards of living at home:

We have enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry 
We have subsidised the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military
We have defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own
We have spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay
We have made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon
The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world

It is remarkable, looking at Obama’s and Trump’s speeches together, how many of the same themes they draw upon. Both signal a new start after past failures. Both target education and industry as key concerns, though only Obama singles out healthcare and the environment. To illustrate the difference between them, we can consider the sections of each speech that deal with terrorism.

Obama: And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken - you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

Trump: [We will] unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.

Trump’s statement is shorter and simpler. It consists of two clauses (verbs underlined) linked by ‘which’. Obama’s statement has eight verbs and includes coordinated, projected and embedded clauses.

Trump identifies his target as Islamic, whereas Obama avoids this. Obama addresses terrorists as ‘you’ but Trump ‘others’ them, both by avoiding ‘you’ but also by creating a dichotomy between them and ‘the civilised world’. Obama uses the word ‘defeat’ but Trump uses the stronger ‘eradicate…from the face of the earth’. Obama is the statesperson, Trump the ordinary guy.