Over the past 50 years, both Democrats and Republicans have been simplifying their language, often using less complex sentences in their speeches than previous generations. A new analysis shows that one party's voters seem to respond negatively when its candidates used complex sentences. Conversely, the other party's voters preferred more complex sentences from its candidates.
These results come from a study conducted by Grammarly, a tool that uses algorithms to check for grammatical errors and plagiarism online. Grammarly analyzed dozens of speeches and presidential debates dating back to the 1960s, using seven different "clarity algorithms" that included sentence length, use of passive voice, and use of adjectives in the wrong order.
While sentence complexity has ebbed and flowed over the years, it reached its highest levels since 1960 in the 1980 debate, when both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan exhibited complex sentences in more than 17 percent of their speech. In the years that followed, George W. Bush, John Kerry, John McCain, and Mitt Romney had the lowest numbers, dropping below seven percent.
During the presidential primary debates this year, Grammarly determined that the Republican candidate who used simpler sentences tended to poll higher. This year, 3.3 percent of Donald Trump's sentences were complex, while 5.5 percent of Ted Cruz's were. The other Republican candidates, who dropped out earlier, each used complex sentences in more than 6 percent of their language. Yet Trump, with the least complexity in his speech patterns, polled the highest of all of the Republican candidates, with 34 percent of his party's support.
Complexity may be more important to Democratic voters, however, with Hillary Clinton's 7.87 percent speech complexity and polling numbers that topped 51 percent. Bernie Sanders was slightly less complex in his speech at 5.51 percent. Did that cost him? His polling numbers did fall below Donald Trump's during the primary debate season.
So how do you determine whether a sentence is complex? The company analyzed a variety of factors in debate transcripts from 1960 to 2016. The study looked at whether any sentences were longer than 40 words, how many words had more than four letters, and whether sentences used active or passive voice. Algorithms also looked for use of outdated terms that might not be recognizable to today's audiences. Nonstandard placement of the word "enough" as an adverb and multiple adjectives in the wrong order were also factors in determining whether a sentence was complex, as well as the use of the hedge phrase "and/or."
This isn't the first study by Grammarly related to the candidates or election season. The company caught a lot of attention from its informal October 2015 study showing that the Facebook followers of Democratic candidates tended to have better grammar than their Republican counterparts.
It's interesting to see how software is bringing insights into consumer behavior as well as marketing and leadership in the 21st century. This analysis indicates that keeping marketing messages simple can help you reach and engage consumers more effectively. It may even encourage people to take action when they might not have otherwise. Here's a more detailed look at the study results, in an infographic provided by Grammarly.