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April 2016

On language complexity

Why sometimes simpler is better

Why sometimes simpler is better: U.S. Presidential Candidates Speak with Fourth- to 10th-Grade Levels

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘rhetoric’ is defined as ‘the art or skill of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people’. It’s not surprising that in the current political climate of the United States, rhetoric is abundant. As of the writing of this post, there are five political contenders: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as the Democrats; Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich as the Republicans. Each has a unique style of speech, closely analysed and scrutinised by word by pundits. Some take the analysis a step further by judging not just the message of their speeches, but rather how they are delivered.

An analysis by the Boston Globe in 2015 took a look at how each of the candidates’ (there were many more back then) speeches ranked in terms of school level. Of the current candidates, Sanders scored highest with a 10th-grade speaking level. Cruz follows with a ninth-grade speaking level. Clinton was deemed a seventh-grade-level speaker. Trump and Kasich came lowest with fourth-grade speaking levels.

The analysis was performed using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which looks at individual words and sentence structures to generate rankings. While it may seem laughable that Trump speaks on the level of a fourth-grade child, this is actually not the case. In politics, one of the big goals for any candidate is to resonate with the electorate (those who will ultimately vote). A good example is the popularity of George W. Bush during his presidential runs; one of his strengths among his supporters was his folksy mannerisms. Speaking simply and plainly is a skill that many have to learn. Contrastingly, speaking with more complicated language is often viewed by many as elitist, particularly by those who are far from intellectuals.

A video on YouTube entitled How Donald Trump Answers a Question breaks down his word choices further to identify what exactly it is that makes his language so basic (and his sentence structures so odd).

‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself’, Albert Einstein once said. ‘K.I.S.S. - Keep it simple, stupid’, a marketing adage proclaims. In many cases, simplicity is the key to getting a message or campaign across, an interesting thought for those of us working so hard to increase our language levels in our target foreign languages.

The free writing tool Cleartext allows writers to eschew the big, complicated words for the 1000 most common words in the English language. Give it a shot and see how well you do writing with simplicity and a focus on digestibility.

What are your thoughts on language complexity? Do the political leaders in your country speak simply or do they like to use big words? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!

Picture: (c) Fotolia, ADELCAstudio

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