Is Trump a Fourth-Grader?

Newsweek’s “Trump Speaks At Fourth-Grade Level, Lowest Of Last 15 U.S. Presidents, New Analysis Finds” 1 and its source, FactSquared’s “’Stable Genius’ – Let’s Go to the Data,” 2 are fun to read because everyone has been dumbfounded by one of Donald Trump’s incoherent tweets. But no tweets were used in the making of this chart.

“The website excluded communiques issued by the last two presidents on social media and limited the study to unscripted words uttered at press conferences and other public appearances.” 

FactSquared, Inc. says it is able to transcribe and analyze text, audio, and video for sentiment, emotion, personality, and more automatically. It is used daily by the Washington press corps and cited regularly by media outlets such as CNN, The Washington Post, Politico, Vox, The Hill and McClatchy. It has been profiled by Buzzfeed, Mashable, Columbia Journalism Review, Harvard’s Nieman Labs, and been tweeted more than 20,000 times. Developed in January 2017, FactSquared is located in Washington D.C.3

Bill Frischling of FactSquared described their methodology:

  1. To focus on a president’s own words rather than a speechwriter’s, a database was built of press conferences, debates, and interviews, from presidential libraries and the University of California – Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project. Only words spoken by the president from these sources were used. Since it was available only for the last two presidents, no social media was used.
  2. The analysis tools included the
    • Flesch Kincaid: Grade Level
    • Flesch Kincaid: Reading Ease
    • Gunning Fog Index
    • Coleman-Liau Index
    • SMOG Index
    • Automaed Readability Index
    • Dale-Chall Readability Score
    • Spache Readability Formula
    • and a dozen others.
  3. The analysis was run two ways:
    • Complete, using the entire database for each president, from 44,705 words for Gerald Ford to 915,801 words for Trump and 1,124,164 words for Bill Clinton.
    • Equal Sample, using the sentences from inauguration to 30,000 words total (+/- 1%).

Trump came in last in every analysis, not just the Flesch-Kincaid grade level. Trump used the fewest “unique words” of any president, and used words with the fewest average syllables. “By every metric and methodology tested, Donald Trump’s vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse, than any President since Herbert Hoover . . . Depending on the scale used, it’s between a 3rd and 7th grade reading level,” Frischling wrote.2

What if you do use Trump’s tweets? The Microsoft Word program will give you the Flesch-Kincaid grade level when you check grammar and spelling, if you select “Show readability statistics” in Options. My results for Trump’s tweets were mixed:

  • As a trial, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy white dog.” was grade 2.4.
  • “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” was 0.
  • “I havn’t seen @tonyschwartz in many years, he hardly knows me. Never liked his style. Super lib, Crooked H supporter. Irrelevant dope!” was 3.7.
  • “I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius . . . and a very stable genius at that! throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” was 8.3.

There was a Vox article4 about Trump’s speaking style in September 2016 where University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman said there was a difference in comprehension between reading Trump’s remarks and listening to them in real time: 

“This apparent incoherence has two main causes: false starts and parentheticals. Both are effectively signaled in speaking — by prosody along with gesture, posture, and gaze — and therefore largely factored out by listeners. But in textual form the cues are gone, and we lose the thread.”

FactSquared’s Bill Frischling also pointed out that vocabulary is not the only factor for intelligence, but it is used to measure some things:

  • Doctors use changes to assess degenerative brain diseases. FactSquared has seen no downward trend for Trump over 40 years of vocabulary, describing it as “very consistent”.
  • Psychologists use vocabulary to assess intellectual curiosity and a person’s reading ability.

He added that all politicians try to keep their messages short and simple.2  

1 “Trump Speaks At Fourth-Grade Level, Lowest Of Last 15 U.S. Presidents, New Analysis Finds”, Nina Burleigh, Newsweek, January 8, 2018
2 “’Stable Genius’ – Let’s Go to the Data”, Bill Frischling, FactSquared, Inc., January 8, 2018
3 About FactSquared, FactSquared, Inc., retrieved January 13, 2018
4 “Donald Trump’s strange speaking style, as explained by linguists,” Tara Golshan, updated Oct 19, 2016