Donald Trump and the Fourth-Grade Vocabulary: The Social Use of “Short,” “Medium,” and “Long” Words


 As anyone who is not a zombie knows, there has been quite a bit of commotion in the 2016 presidential race. The Republican primary contest has expanded to 17 candidates, but only one is getting headlines in the media: Donald Trump.Trump has been sucking all the oxygen out of the political space for a couple of months now. His rivals are struggling to make it to an actual vote–anywhere.

A couple of days ago, a linguistic analysis of Trump’s speech came out, and it wasn’t pretty: Trump, the headline ran, speaks at a 4th grade level! How was this determined? Well, there is actually a tool, called the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, that uses a mathematical formula to determine the school grade level of a person’s vocabulary in reading or speaking. The more education a person has (and uses), the higher their level of vocabulary as reflected in (I kid you not) the number of syllables in the words.

Why is this?

Why do long words reflect a higher level of education?

It’s all about history.

Because our words come from different languages (primarily Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, and Greek), they are different morphologically (a long word meaning “shape” or formation”).

  • Some are very short, like the irregular verbs, which come from Anglo-Saxon and usually have only one or two syllables:
    • give, take, go, come, see, love, eat.
  • Some are medium length, like many French words:
    • proceed/procedure, remark/remarkable, inform/information.
  • And some are long, especially the words that come from Greek or directly from Latin:
    • analysis/analytical, diaphanous, plenipotentiary, perihelion
Native speakers understand that “long words” — words of many syllables — are indicators of a high education level. We joke about this frequently. People who use long words tend to be seen as pretentious–aspiring to a higher social rank by intimidating others with their vocabulary.
Conversely, a person who uses many short words shows either that he doesn’t know many long words or that he chooses not to use them.
Trump is not a stupid man. He knows long words. But he chooses not to use them.
More in the next post….stay tuned.

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