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“This is a very strange political season, and in terms of presidential contests, a very strange linguistic season as well,” Bryan A. Garner, the world’s leading authority on the English language, told Business Insider.
Garner was speaking in a recent interview about English grammar and usage, and we took the opportunity to ask him whether he had made any observations about the candidates. The 57-year-old Texan has written 25 books and is the editor-in-chief of “Black’s Law Dictionary,” the world’s most widely cited law book.
He considers himself “pretty apolitical,” though he was close friends with Antonin Scalia, the late conservative Supreme Court justice with whom he wrote two books.
We also took a look at the findings posted on the language blog Wordwatchers by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin. Their site “explores how we can learn about the candidates’ personalities, motives, emotions, and inner selves through their everyday words.”
Whether one candidate sounds more listenable than another is obviously very subjective, but here’s where we’d rank the candidates in terms of listenability:
5. Bernie Sanders
- Scott Olson/Getty Images
Sorry, Bernie fans: Garner finds Sanders hard to listen to.
The senator ranks as the most unlistenable.
“I find Bernie Sanders‘s dialect to be very unpleasant to listen to,” Garner told Business Insider. “I could also understand why so many people in New England considered George W. Bush to be unlistenable, because he overdid the Texas twang. And in fact even to a Texan – it made this Texan cringe. But Bernie Sanders is very difficult to listen to because one doesn’t expect an educated American to have that kind of accent.”
Sanders knows what he believes and what he wants to accomplish and his words reflect that. He knows what the problem is (economy, middle class), who caused it (Wall Street), and how to fix it (education, health care). Sanders has a nearly single-minded focus on his worldview and vision.
4. Donald Trump
Trump’s bombastic rhetoric puts him just near the bottom of this ranking.
“When you listen to Donald Trump, he has this very thumping style in which he repeats sentences almost verbatim the second time,” Garner said. “Whenever he wants to underscore something, he repeats the sentence. And of course he has a series of about eight favorite adjectives that he uses again and again.”
He added: “The more you listen to Donald Trump – even if you kind of like the message the first couple of times – if you’re listening critically and you hear the same airy characterizations and adjectives over and over again, and the same speech patterns, it becomes very trying. I think even people who might be drawn to it will end up being repelled by it if they are thinking critically.”
Trump’s word use reflects his simpler, more straightforward speaking style. Trump tends to use shorter words and a more limited vocabulary. Compared to the other frontrunners who used between 2800-3400 unique words, Trump only used 2192 unique words in the debates. The words Trump most frequently used also speak to his reward orientation with words like win, great, and tremendous. Compared to the other candidates, Trump is looking to payoffs and benefits in his plans and policies.
3. Ted Cruz
- Thomson Reuters
Cruz is far from easy on the ears, according to Garner.
“If you were judging based on standard English among the frontrunners, Ted Cruz and Clinton are the closest to being standard speakers of English,” Garner said.
“With Cruz, the difficult thing about listening to him is the nasality of his delivery, how nasal his voice is. I’m speaking about much more than just grammar and usage now in terms of speaking styles, but the nasality of Cruz makes it difficult for listeners.”
Cruz’s words demonstrate his concern with power and status. Cruz is focused on the political hierarchy and his place in it. In the debates, Cruz frequently referenced both his Republican opponents, Trump and Rubio, as well as his Democratic opponents, Clinton and Obama. His word use also reflects his risk-orientation. In the policy arena, he has focused on immigration and terrorism and the threats they pose throughout the debates; more than any other candidate, Cruz is concerned with security and safety.
2. Hillary Clinton
- REUTERS/Mike Segar
“From the viewpoint of public speaking, Hillary Clinton is interesting to listen to – how often she just sounds cross, as if she’s shouting. But then again, Donald Trump does that, and Bernie Sanders does that as well.”
Given that assessment, and that Garner considers her and Cruz as coming closest to being standard speakers of English, Clinton ranks as runner-up in this list.
The words that Clinton uses reflect her orientation toward achievement, work, government, and family. In the debates, she often speaks about her accomplishments and those of the Democrats which is shown in her use of the words affordable health care, voted, and support as shown below. Clinton frequently drives home her qualifications and why she would be the best president.
1. John Kasich
And the winner here is Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Said Garner simply: “Kasich is quite listenable.”
Whereas the other candidates are much higher in needs for power and status or achievement and success, Kasich cares about others on a deeply personal level. This is apparent in the high rates he makes references to friends, colleagues, and people he has met on the campaign trail … Kasich speaks like a strong leader. Those high in clout speak confidently and tend to use more we-words and social words while using fewer I-words, negations, and swear words. Kasich’s language conveys certainty and interest in others; he is self-assured and secure in his own status.
You can read Business Insider’s full interview with Garner here.