Clinton versus Trump: a question of (language) style

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So, the first televised debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has taken place. Much has already been written about the two speakers – who scored the most points, who sounded most authoritative, whose gestures were the most statesmanlike, who interrupted who most. As a small contribution to this, I am going to look at Donald Trump’s two-minute answer to the second question of the debate, about the benefits or disadvantages of cutting taxes imposed on the wealthy. Trump’s answer in full is shown at the bottom of this blog. I am also going to compare Trump’s answer with Clinton’s response to the same question. Her answer is also shown at the bottom of this blog.

It has been said that Trump’s contributions to the debate sounded less prepared than Clinton’s. As I shall show below, there is evidence that he adopts a more informal speaking style than she does. This may be deliberate, or not. We know that hearers respond to modes of speech, such as accent, in ways that ascribe qualities to the speakers, and that this response is often subconscious. Speakers are said to ‘sound intelligent’ or ‘sound friendly’, and these perceived qualities often correlate with modes of speaking. We also know that politicians in recent years appear to have embraced the ‘sound friendly’ option rather than the ‘sound intelligent’ one, Blair’s verbless clauses being a case in point. It may be, then, that Trump’s speaking style deliberately sacrifices ‘intelligence’ for ‘matiness’, and that Clinton does the opposite. Alternatively, it could be that this is the only way he knows how to speak.

One known feature of informal spoken language is that it is complex in its clausal structure, with many clauses combining together, whereas speech that is more formal or writing-like has fewer clauses in combination (Halliday 1985). Trump uses long series of clauses joined together by subordinating conjunctions such as ‘because’. Here’s an example:

“[1]Instead of that they’re leaving our country to get their money [2]because they can’t bring their money back into our country because of bureaucratic red tape [3]because they can’t get together[4] because we have a President that can’t sit them around a table and get them to approve something.”

This is chain of effect-cause consisting of a main clause [1] and three subordinate clauses [2-4].

In the next example, there is no identifiable main clause:

“[1]And when these people are gonna put billions and billions of dollars into companies [2]and when they’re gonna bring two and a half trillion dollars back from overseas [3]where they can’t bring the money back [4]because politicians like Secretary Clinton won’t allow them to bring the money back [5]because the taxes are so onerous and the bureaucratic red tape so what- is so bad…”

There is a series of subordinate clauses (starting with ‘when’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘because’, ‘because’), but no main clause to attach them to.

We can compare this with Clinton’s speech. When she uses ‘because’ it is a single subordinate clause linked to a main clause:

“[1]you have what is called now the Trump loophole [2]because it would so advantage you and the business you do.”

Here clause 1 is the main clause and clause 2 the subordinate clause. When Clinton uses a ‘when’ clause, it’s also connected to a main clause:

“[1]when you look at what you’re proposing [2]it is as I said Trumped up trickle down.”

Here clause [1] is the subordinate clause and [2] is the main clause.

However, Clinton also uses an alternative way of expressing causality, in a single clause :

“I don’t see the changes in the corporate tax rates or the kind of proposals you’re referring to would cause the repatriation bringing back of money that’s stranded overseas.”

This is ‘simple’ in the sense that it can be summarised as ‘(I don’t see that) x would cause y’. The ’cause’ meaning is in the verb rather than in a conjunction – another feature of more formal language (Halliday 1985). Of course there is complexity here as well. The element ‘x’ is a long noun phrase: ‘the changes in the corporate tax rates’, coordinated with another one: ‘the kind of proposals you’re referring to’. The ‘y’ element is also a long noun phrase: ‘the repatriation of money that’s stranded overseas’. This kind of complexity is associated with written language.

More generally, when there are two alternative ways of saying something, Clinton often prefers the version that uses a noun whereas Trump prefers the ‘verb’ version. Again, noun use is associated with sophisticated, formal language, and verb use with simple, informal language. Here are some examples:

Trump: I’m getting rid of [VERB] the (corporate) interest provision

Clinton: …the changes [NOUN] in the corporate tax rates…

Trump: they’re going to bring [VERB] the money back

Clinton: the repatriation [NOUN] of money

Trump: it could be put [VERB] to use on the inner cities

Clinton: …the contribution [NOUN] we should be making…

Trump: they’re gonna expand [VERB]their companies

Clinton: Broad-based inclusive growth [NOUN]…

Of course, these aren’t the only differences between the two styles, and some others are also connected to levels of formality. On example is ‘vague language’ (Cutting 2007). Speakers, it is found, often use language that is imprecise in order to avoid sounding too assertive. Given that Trump does not seem to be avoiding assertiveness in general, however, it could just be that he prefers vague, general statements to precise ones. Here are some examples: ‘create tremendous jobs’, ‘billions and billions’, ‘is so bad’, ‘lots of money’, ‘approve something’, ‘and lots of other things’, ‘it would be beautiful’. Even when he is precise – ‘two and a half trillion dollars’ – he immediately undercuts the precision: ‘I happen to think it’s double that’. There are also vagaries of reference. In the utterance ‘…we have a President that can’t sit them around a table and get them to approve something’, it is not really clear who ‘them’ are. It seems to be ‘wealthy expatriates’, though it is scarcely credible that this is the case.

So if Trump sounded as if he was thinking on his feet and had few facts at his disposal it could be because of his use of subordinate clauses, his avoidance of ‘noun versions’, and his use of vague language. If Clinton sounded precise and in charge of her material, it could be because she spoke in clause combinations that could be written as sentences. And if Trump sounded that a guy you’d like to have a few beers with, and Clinton did not, there could be the same explanation. Whether intelligence or matiness wins the election remains to be seen.

Cutting J. (ed.) 2007. Vague Language Explored. Palgrave Macmillan

Halliday M. 1985. Spoken and Written Language. Oxford University Press

The transcripts (transcribed by me from the BBC recording):

Trump: Well I’m really calling for major jobs because the wealthy are going to create tremendous jobs, they’re gonna expand their companies, they’re gonna do a tremendous job. I’m getting rid of the (corporate) interest provision and if you look it’s not a tax- it’s truly not a great thing for the wealthy, it’s a great thing for middle class, it’s a great thing for companies to expand. And when these people are gonna put billions and billions of dollars into companies and when they’re gonna bring two and a half trillion dollars back from overseas where they can’t bring the money back because politicians like Secretary Clinton won’t allow them to bring the money back because the taxes are so onerous and the bureaucratic red tape so what- is so bad- and so then what they’re doing is they’re leaving our country they’re believe it or not leaving because taxes are too high and because some of them have lots of money outside of our country and instead of bringing it back and putting the money to work because they can’t work out a deal to- And everybody agrees it should be brought back. Instead of that they’re leaving our country to get their money because they can’t bring their money back into our country because of bureaucratic red tape because they can’t get together because we have a President that can’t sit them around a table and get them to approve something. And here’s the thing. Republicans and Democrats agree that this should be done. Two and a half trillion. I happen to think it’s double that, it’s probably five trillion dollars that we can’t bring into our country Lester and with a little leadership you’d get it in here very quickly and it could be put to use on the inner cities and lots of other things and it would be beautiful but we have no leadership. And honestly that starts with Secretary Clinton.

Clinton: We’ve looked at your tax proposals. I don’t see the changes in the corporate tax rates or the kind of proposals you’re referring to would cause the repatriation bringing back of money that’s stranded overseas. I happen to support that in a way that will actually work to our benefit. But when I look at what you have proposed you have what is called now the Trump loophole because it would so advantage you and the business you do. You’ve proposed [segment not transcribed because it contains considerable overlap between the two speakers]. And when you look at what you’re proposing it is as I said Trumped up trickle down. Trickle down did not work. It got us into the mess we were in in two thousand eight and nine. Slashing taxes on the wealthy hasn’t worked and a lot of really smart wealthy people know that and they are saying hey, we need to do more to make the contribution we should be making to rebuild the middle class. I don’t think top-down works in America. I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their debt from college at a lower rate – those are the kind of the things that will really boost the economy. Broad-based inclusive growth is what we need in America, not more advantages for people at the very top.

 

2 thoughts on “Clinton versus Trump: a question of (language) style”

  1. Note that Trump’s ‘because’ clauses are not always subordinating. For example:

    Well I’m really calling for major jobs because the wealthy are going to create tremendous jobs

    The ‘because’-clause cannot be said to express the reason why Trump is calling for major jobs. It rather adds, logically loosely, additional information. Given the missing causality, ‘because’ acts, in syntactic terms, as a co-ordinating conjunction or, in pragmatic terms, as a discourse marker “often simply functioning as a continuation signal, introducing information that is loosely or not obviously connected to what was said before” (Stenström 1998: 143). This usage of ‘because’ has been observed for the spoken language, especially when the contracted form ‘cos’ is used. Hence, another bit of evidence for Trump’s colloquial ‘matiness’ style. (Side thought: why does ‘matiness’ remind me in this context of ‘madness’?)

    Stenström, A. (1998) ‘From sentence to discourse: Cos (because) in teenage talk’. In Jucker, A. H. and Y. Ziv (eds) Discourse Markers. Descriptions and Theory. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 127–46.

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