Trump speaks like a Fifth Grader

If President Donald J. Trump was a student in my 10th grade English class, here is how I would evaluate his use of the English language as observed in last week’s press conference.

One major characteristic of Trump’s speaking is the repetition of words and phrases, often within the same sentence, revealing a limited vocabulary.

Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump:  The Art of the Deal, told MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid that Trump has a “200-word vocabulary.”

That is why in his 77-minute presser he repeated words so frequently:  really (14), great (19), very (87).

An easy way to impress people, I tell my students, is by using a varied vocabulary when speaking with prospective employers.  It also retains an audience’s attention when the speaker uses different words; using the same words over and over again, well, the message gets lost.

See if you can figure out what Trump was trying to say:

  • “It’s very important to me. I’ve been talking about that for a long time.  It’s very, very important to me.”
  • “We’re looking at them very, very, very serious.”
  • “Very, very strongly. Very, very strongly.”

Avoid saying “honestly,” “I’ll be honest” or “can I be honest with you” because more likely than not you’re not being truthful.

Just like declaring yourself to be 100 percent opposite of who you really are.

“Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.  Number two, racism, the least racist person.”

I teach my students to avoid the phrase “I think” because it diminishes the persuasiveness of one’s opinion, coming across as if only the speaker believes that way.  Yet Trump repeated it 42 times in the press conference.

In fact, he used the pronoun “I” 389 times. It goes without much analysis why he would refer to himself so often.

I instruct my students to avoid hysterical language; people are more likely to consider your opinions when spoken more judiciously.

Trump, however, washes himself in hyperbole, depicting the world as a “mess” or “disaster” or in “chaos” or “turmoil” where things are “horrible,” “terrible,” “horrendous,” or “catastrophic.”

When discussing people who please him, Trump uses “wonderful,” “tremendous,” “fantastic,” “fabulous,” “incredible,” the types of adjectives children would more often use than a 70-year-old man.

And look at the repetitive wording when talking about his daughter—“Ivanka who is a fabulous person and a fabulous, fabulous woman”—and his wife Melania who feels “very, very strongly, she’s a very, very strong advocate.”

Carnegie Mellon studied the vocabulary of presidents and concluded that Trump’s language is at a fifth-grade level.

“I inherited a mess.  It’s a mess.  At home and abroad, a mess.”

The same could be said of the way Trump talks.

Dr. Justin Frank, a psychoanalyst at George Washington University Medical Center who is writing a book called “Trump on the Couch,” told me that “not reading or not being able to read often has a lasting limiting effect” on one’s vocabulary development.  It’s widely known that Trump watches TV and does not read books—not a promising combination for thinking deeply about issues affecting the nation.

If Trump’s parents visited me at Open House this week, how would I diplomatically broach his shortcomings as an English student?  Most likely do what any politician does and redirect my response to a different subject: have Donald join my journalism class to learn about real news.


The Gettysburg Tweet?

Newly inaugurated U.S. presidents are often judged by the work completed in their first 100 days of office.

We can judge President Trump by the first 100 tweets of his presidency.

George Bennett of the Palm Beach Post reported that “more than half his tweets end with an exclamation point and more than one-quarter [have] at least one word in all capital letters.”

Take a look.

“Enjoy the Super Bowl and then we continue: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.  Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”

“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

“I will send in the Feds!”


Words matter.   They can threaten or they can heal.

February 12 is the 208th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth whose words still endure today.

Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns made “The Address” in 2014 about the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, a small boarding school for boys with learning disabilities who each year recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a rite of passage that demonstrates their confidence to overcome their challenges.

In 272 words, it may be the best written speech by any president under two minutes.

He uses the rule of three twice, done to perfection: “we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground” and the famous coda “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln was not the featured speaker when the battlefield was dedicated as a cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863.  Edward Everett, noted orator of the time, spoke for two hours first, then came Lincoln.

The photographer assumed Lincoln would speak longer allowing him more time to focus his camera on the president.  By the time he took the photograph, Lincoln had just sat down.

Little did Americans know at the time that the Civil War would continue for almost two more years.

And it wasn’t until years later that Lincoln’s words would burn an indelible mark in the American story.  In fact, before he was assassinated, many in the country disliked Lincoln.   After his murder, however, his reputation rose.

This year I had my English students learn about Lincoln and recite the speech.

After they finished, I asked them their thoughts.

“I loved presenting this speech and learning about it and the person behind it,” one student wrote.

“It inspires people and reminds us how great Lincoln was” that “he was able to bring the country together,” remarked another.

The speech showed “how much he cared about his country,” how “he cared about the American people deeply.”

He “was very intelligent and eloquent” who “showed compassion” and “loved his country;” “a good, true, honorable man.”

And one student said “funny how in the speech Lincoln says ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here’ but people still remember the speech today.”

If only our Chief Executive could word his thoughts as well as a 15-year-old high school student.

Indeed, in the turbulent times we live in where there is a pervasive dark mood, it is comforting to read the words of someone who truly led a divided nation.

When he was assassinated on April 15, 1865, he had recently turned 56 years old.   Even with an additional 14 years of life, Trump has a lot of catching up to do before his memorial ever breaks ground on the National Mall.

Over 150 years from now, will a Trump Tweet be recited by school children, examined as one of the finest collection of words coming from a president?

Take a break from all the bad news and read over the Gettysburg Address to honor Abraham Lincoln and to remind yourself that we are all Americans.



Trump Trash-talking Coarsens Society

Last week I took my son to see the animated film “Zootopia” and saw a trailer for “The Angry Birds Movie” which included a 15-second scene of an American Bald Eagle character urinating in front of other birds. While the action was not shown, the sound of it was in full Dolby sound. This is what passes as family entertainment these days.

Of course, this pales in comparison to presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio mocking the size of one’s manhood.

The incredulous campaign of Trump that has captured America’s attention this election season has done more than bring out new voters to the polls and new viewers to Fox News. It has lowered the bar in campaign protocol and human discourse.

How many of us would extol a person who uses profanity in a public speech, mocks a female journalist’s menstruation, insults people who are not white or Christian, and interrupts others who try to question him?   Trump is not trying out material in a comedy club—he’s running for President of the United States.

Just so you know, I am not registered with any political party. Over the years I have voted for both Democrats and Republicans.

I get the anti-establishment appeal of a Trump or a Bernie Sanders.   We should not ignore the concerns of those who vote for these candidates.

However, we want leaders to inspire people. Instead, we have someone whose no-filter, impromptu remarks is bringing out the ugliness in Americans.

Two weeks ago a disturbing event took place at a high school basketball game in Indiana.   Students from Andrean High taunted Bishop Noll students, a school with a significant Latino population, holding up giant Donald Trump heads and chanting “build that wall.” A similar incident occurred earlier in Iowa.

Impressionable young people are picking up on how Trump’s vitriolic language is garnering loud ovations. If it is okay for grown-ups to mock immigrants, it’s okay for them to do it as well.

Trump is tapping the anti-politically correct core that has remained dormant. He is not pushing people’s buttons, he is unleashing demons like a bad horror movie.

In the world of 2016, we don’t need someone antagonizing world leaders.

Part of the reason for Trump’s rise is the amount of media attention he has received. Have you noticed how the debates seem to occur once a week? It’s as if they are a regularly scheduled show.

Here we are in mid-March and the GOP has already held 12 debates. The Democrats have had eight, including two this week within four days of one another. And this does not include the phony baloney town hall meetings that CNN televises.

At the very least, stop inviting audiences to debates. It wasn’t that long ago when people attended debates respectfully, reserving applause until the end. Today audiences chant “USA, USA” as if watching a UFC match. Such a mob reaction encourages Trump to say even more outlandish things.

Also, why do the news networks insist on covering Trump’s complete speech on election nights since it lengthens into a pseudo-press conference ensuring extended free TV time for him to pontificate and proliferate his views?

Electing the most powerful person in the free world should not be an entertainment alternative to “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

A colleague told me long ago that teachers need to be careful of what they say in front of students since one never knows how certain words will affect young people.   Too bad our political leaders don’t follow that same advice. To borrow from Cole Porter, today anything goes.