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Analyzing Rhetoric By Grade Level Of Candidate Speeches

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Matt Rourke
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AP Images
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at a rally in Columbus, Ohio. Cruz's speeches typically range between a 6th and 7th grade vocabulary level.

How complex is the rhetoric in presidential candidate’s speeches? According to a recent linguistics study, a typical address utilizes language on a 6-8th grade level.  Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University Language Technologies Institute (LTI) conducted the analysis.  LTI principal systems scientist, Maxine Eskenazi, and graduate student in language technologies, Elliot Schumacher, joined Essential Pittsburgh to elaborate on their findings.

“We wanted people to decide what they think, just seeing this.  It could be useful for the candidates’ speechwriters.  It could be useful for the candidates to see exactly what they’re doing,” Eskenazi said.

The ongoing study was conducted by a tool typically used to help teachers find documents for children to read in schools on appropriate grade levels.  Using a collection of documents spanned over a ten year period, as well as state standardized test material, researchers have been able to notice trend, and assign grade levels grammatically and lexically. The idea to analyze presidential candidate speeches came as a natural next step, according to Eskenazi.

“What our study would show is that the grammar that is used in the speech of various candidates could easily be understood at a specific grade level,” Schumacher explains.

Eskenazi says their technology used for analyzing the speeches is the first automatic readably measure of its kind. 

The team reports Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton speaks at an 8th grade level, utilizing dependent clauses to structure more complex sentences. Her counterpart Bernie Sanders scores on a 7th grade level grammatically, but has a 10-11th grade level lexicon.

While Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in at a 6th grade speech level for this study, his speech levels spike dramatically depending on his situation.

“If we look at how much his level changes from one speech to another, we see that it changes a lot.  He’s adapting to the people he’s talking to,” Eskenazi says.

The team says President Abraham Lincoln sets the benchmark for speeches, especially in the Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln scored a 9th grade level lexically and an 11th grade level grammatically.

Eskenazi says that while their research has given grades to these candidates, their speech levels are not stagnant, and can fluctuate based on context.

“You’ve got a book and it doesn’t care who’s reading it.  It’s always the same.  Speeches can be different depending on who’s listening to them,” Eskenazi says.

Click here for more information and updates on this study. 

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.