Day 6

Decoding the way Trump talks — and why voters either love it or hate it

The way Donald Trump talks has a ‘yuge’ effect on how people perceive him. Supporters find him appealing and relatable; opponents find him incomprehensible. As we head into the first presidential debate, linguist Jennifer Sclafani explains the idiolect of Donald Trump.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Jackson, Miss., on Aug. 24, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
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When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off at Monday's first presidential debate, it won't just be their policies that divide them. The candidates will also be separated by their vastly different styles of speaking.

Trump's critics have long criticized the Republican candidate for being incoherent.

Jennifer Sclafani is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, and she has been studying the language styles of the candidates. She tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that the accusation that Trump is incoherent is 50 per cent fair.

"I think this comment about him being incoherent comes from some of the features of his language," Sclafani explains. "He tends to use a more conversational style in many of his speeches and in the debates as well."

The 50 per cent that don't perceive him as incoherent find this to be a very relatable style of speaking.- Jennifer Sclafani

Sclafani is the author of The Idiolect of Donald Trump. The term 'idiolect' refers a form of language unique to each individual, and no two people speak in the exact same manner.

But Trump's style is particularly unique.

Incomplete sentences

Sclafani notes that Trump tends to use sentence fragments rather than speak in complete sentences.

"That leads some people to think that he sounds incoherent when he talks," says Sclafani.

"On the other hand, using a conversational tone is something that everybody does on an everyday basis, in everyday conversation. So the 50 per cent that don't perceive him as incoherent find this to be a very relatable style of speaking."

She also says some voters may find Trump appealing because "they're looking at someone who sounds like them."

Jennifer Sclafani is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "Talking Donald Trump: A Sociolinguistic Study of Style, Metadiscourse, and Political Identity." (Georgetown University)

Trump's regular use of this conversational tone is also creating an image of a candidate who is consistent, which appeals to voters, Sclafani says.

His speaking style also suggests his speeches are unrehearsed, which stands in contrast to Clinton's measured style. Being unrehearsed can also add to his 'common man' persona, suggesting that his speeches are from the heart.

But his critics argue that being unrehearsed shows that he is also unprepared and not giving much thought to his answers.

Discourse markers

Most candidates answer questions by beginning with 'discourse markers,' small words that are commonly used and make sentences sound more conversational.

"The most frequent word that starts a candidate's response is 'well.' Trump is actually less likely to start with 'well,' and he's more likely to launch right into his response," Sclafani says.

Using 'well' can make the answer appear better thought-out. By not using discourse markers, Trump's answers can seem rushed.

Repeating key words and phrases

Trump also tends to repeat certain catch phrases from his speeches, such as "make America great again" and "believe me."

The emphatic use of these repetitive phrases may lead somebody to think that he's got less substance, or his answers are less substantial because he resorts to the same words all the time.- Jennifer Sclafani

"'Believe me,' and especially as he says it, with emphasis at the end of his answers, can work toward the construction of an image of the candidate or of a brand of the candidate as recognizable and as consistent," says Sclafani.

That repetition can work to Trump's benefit, but it can also work against him.

"The emphatic use of these repetitive phrases may lead somebody to think that he's got less substance, or his answers are less substantial because he resorts to the same words all the time."

Comparing Trump to other candidates

Sclafani began her research with the Republican primaries in 2012 and has carried it forward since then. She says Trump differs from the previous GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and basically all of the levels she's studied.

Romney spoke in a linear style, using complete sentences and making use of discourse markers. But that style of speech also made him relatable to some voters, unlike Trump.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the James L. Knight Center, on Sept. 16, 2016. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Another difference is in how the candidates relate personal stories to their audiences.

"One thing that candidates do frequently in their speeches is that they bring up little stories about voters that they've met on the campaign trail, and they refer to them specifically by name, and tell their specific story," says Sclafani.

"Usually these are stories that a lot of voters can identify with."