Words Matter: A Linguistic Analysis of the Presidential Debates

"Word matter when you run for president," as Hillary Clinton reminded her opponent during the first presidential debate. Clinton was clearly admonishing Donald Trump for a season of off-the-cuff remarks and tweets which have been routinely misleading, false, hateful, derogatory, inflammatory, juvenile, and--most recently--"lewd." Trump's counter, at once boastful and inscrutable, is that he has ""the best words." Does he? Let's put aside the fact-checking for the moment and put this linguistic claim to the test.

Using the transcripts supplied by NPR, we first considered the candidates' ability to follow the social conventions of discourse. The most basic of these is that we take turns speaking. One would expect, in a relatively structured context like a debate, particularly one with a moderator, that these turns would be evenly distributed. However, in the first debate, Trump took 96 turns to Clinton's 71. This imbalance was exaggerated in the super-heated exchanges of the second debate, with Trump taking 70 turns to Clinton's 39.

Appropriate turn-taking also means not interrupting other speakers. Across the two debates, Clinton was interrupted almost twice as often as Trump was. The vast majority of the time (81% of interruptions), Clinton was interrupted by Trump, whereas Trump was interrupted by Clinton only 11% of the time (when Trump was interrupted, it was usually the moderator attempting to redirect or clarify Trump's answers).

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Keywords in this article

Keyword Sentiment Site Avg. Compared
conversational convention + 0.60 0.60
0.00
best words + 0.48 0.65
-0.17
relatively structured context + 0.36 0.36
0.00
Clinton + 0.07 -0.18
0.25
words + 0.05 -0.11
0.16
person plural pronouns + 0.00 0.00
0.00
person singular pronouns + 0.00 0.00
0.00
final debate + 0.00 -0.02
0.02
Appropriate turn-taking + 0.00 0.00
0.00
Word matter + 0.00 0.00
0.00
social conventions + 0.00 0.00
0.00
grammatical accuracy + 0.00 0.00
0.00
vast majority + 0.00 -0.07
0.07
person pronouns + 0.00 0.00
0.00
fragmented language + 0.00 0.00
0.00
sentence fragments + 0.00 0.00
0.00
Trump -0.14 -0.07
-0.07
debate -0.17 -0.06
-0.11
candidates -0.21 -0.08
-0.13
direct questions -0.21 0.01
-0.22
subordinate clause -0.26 -0.26
0.00
complex sentences -0.26 -0.26
0.00
Hillary Clinton -0.41 -0.30
-0.11
presidential debate -0.41 -0.13
-0.28
grammatical words -0.42 -0.42
0.00
Martha Raddatz -0.47 -0.07
-0.40
linguistic claim -0.64 -0.64
0.00
Donald Trump -0.68 -0.14
-0.54
off-the-cuff remarks -0.68 -0.47
-0.21
super-heated exchanges -0.71 -0.71
0.00

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