Fourth grade

Newsweek reported last week – confirming what we all know – that Trump has the worst language skills of any of the last 15 presidents.

The analysis assessed the first 30,000 words each president spoke in office, and ranked them on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale and more than two dozen other common tests analyzing English-language difficulty levels. Trump clocked in around mid-fourth grade, the worst since Harry Truman, who spoke at nearly a sixth-grade level.

At the top of the list were Hoover and Jimmy Carter, who were basically at an 11th-grade level, and President Barack Obama, in third place with a high ninth-grade level of communicating with the American people.

I think the ones at the higher end pull their punches in the language department, i.e. they try not to talk over the population’s heads. We know Obama is very good at code-switching. I’m guessing that Hoover the engineer was lousy at code-switching in much the same way he was lousy at adapting engineer-think to the conditions of the Depression. In other words I really doubt that Harvard Law Obama has worse language skills than Hoover. At the other end though the effort is all to sound higher up the scale; I don’t think Trump is faking or code switching.

Factba.se has collected interviews, speeches and press conferences from previous presidents, using material publicly available from presidential libraries, and including the University of California, Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, which contains presidential press conferences going back to Hoover in 1929.

The website excluded communiques issued by the last two presidents on social media and limited the study to unscripted words uttered at press conferences and other public appearances.

The words were run through a variety of lexicological analyses, besides the Flesch-Kincaid, and the results were the same. In every one, Trump came in dead last. Trump also uses the fewest “unique words” (2,605) of any president—Obama was the best at 4,869—and uses words with the fewest average syllables, with 1.33 per word, compared to positively multi-syllabic president Hoover at 1.57.

“By every metric and methodology tested, Donald Trump’s vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse, than any President since Herbert Hoover, when measuring “off-script” words, that is, words far less likely to have been written in advance for the speaker,” Factba.se CEO Bill Frischling wrote. “The gap between Trump and the next closest president … is larger than any other gap using Flesch-Kincaid. Statistically speaking, there is a significant gap.”

Zero surprise there, but it’s nice to have it quantified.

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