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When linguistic analysis goes horribly wrong: no, Donald Trump doesn't "talk like a woman"

There are ideas that are too good to be true, and one of them is the just-gone-viral idea that Donald Trump's oratorical appeal is that there is something ladylike in the way he talks.

"Academic research has picked up something that thousands of hours of campaign punditry has missed completely: Donald Trump talks like a woman," writes Julie Sedivy in Politico. Indeed, she continues, citing supposedly definitive linguistic evidence, Trump’s speech is "startlingly feminine."

Yes, sometimes jaw-droppingly counterintuitive claims are true — but not this time. Consider the linguistic traits that political scientist Jennifer Jones, a key source that Sedivy cites in making her case, has identified as more common in speech by women than men.

Even before you get to their application to Trump, Jones’s claims themselves seem counterintuitive.

Did you know that women are more likely to use "I," as opposed to "we," than men? Or that women are more likely to use meat-and-potatoes helper verbs like "has" and more ordinary ones like "start" (as opposed to, say, "commence"?) Did articles like "a" and "the" ever seem more Axe than Secret in your mind? They, too, are part of the theory. Do prepositions like "above" and "below" sound at all "butch"? Jones finds them appearing in male speech more than female.

Yet it has been shown that women and men's speech does differ according to almost confoundingly particular attributes such as these. The question is what it all means. It isn't an accident that it’s so hard to wrap your head around the idea of "the" and "below" as "guy talk."

It's not "feminine" so much as "informal"

One clear problem here is that femaleness is not the only heading the traits that Jones has identified fall under. This is a little clearer when we add some of the others she mentions, such as that women use shorter words and more terms of uncertainty (like "maybe"). A linguist recognizes all of these traits as more typical of casual, spoken language as opposed to formal, written language.

In speech, we are personal ("I"). We use a relatively basic vocabulary and we often grope for words beyond it, resorting to catch-all terms like "Whatchamacallit" and "that thing." In running speech, which is most of how we use language day to day, we are concerned with the immediate context rather than crafting abstractions about the broader world beyond us. Articles like "the" and "a" help us describe things — "a" for new things versus "the" for that which we already know. Prepositions are an especially odd aspect of Jones’s findings, but prepositions are part of placing new things in time and space.

That in public speeches women take it somewhat more personal than men — although we are talking just tendencies here, not absolutes — is indeed news, and lends itself to assorted interpretations. However, it is this personal aspect of speech that Trump appears to model. That is, compared to average people presenting themselves in public, Trump is a highly personal speaker. Decidedly low on his list are crafting abstractions beyond everyday experience, fashioning new ideas, or stepping beyond the self.

The irony is that especially in our come-as-you-are times when formality is associated with inauthenticity (something Mitt Romney was hobbled by), this aspect of Trump-talk has much to do with his appeal. He talks like your friend on the barstool — exactly like him. If there's anything Trump is incapable of, it's artifice.

Of course, just as the idea that Trump talks "like a woman" seems ludicrous, the idea that women talk like Trump would seem to border on insult. As such it should be clear that the casualness of Trump's speech goes far beyond how often he uses definite articles and how chary he is of 10-dollar words.

Trump's sentences are short, and, more to the point, often repeated. Indeed, he repeats himself far beyond anything that has been identified in the scholarly literature comparing women and men. Such repetition, combined with the extended "aaands" before many of his observations, are signs of someone who has little to say, who comes up with new verbiage only in sputters, and who has rickety strategies for papering it over.

That is, Trump's speech isn't feminine — it's artless. Calling his speech ladylike is like calling a cat canine because, like a dog, it gives birth to live young: There is so very much more that goes into making a dog, or, in this case, a Trump.

The linguistic analysis of female versus male speech is interesting in itself. But let's face it: When Trump brags about a certain kind of grabbing "by the…", the fact that "by" is a preposition and "the" is an article is a mere whisper in the maleness of the sentiment.

John McWhorter, a linguist, is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally).


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

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