A politician, a linguist and a mathematician walk into a bar

Or at least I wish they did, because they’d have interesting stuff to talk about.

This being the political convention season, I came across an article at Smart Politics evaluating the grade level of convention speeches, based on numerical analysis of data such as the length of sentences and usage of multisyllabic words. According to the analysts, Michelle Obama delivered a speech at 12th grade level, the highest ever by a wife of a presidential nominee in convention history and several grades above all of Obama’s State of the Union addresses so far. Ann Romney, by contrast, clocked in at 5th grade level. Here’s an Ann Romney sample from the article:


“This man will not fail. This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America! … Look into your hearts. This is our country. This is our future. These are our children and grandchildren. You can trust Mitt. He loves America. He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance. Give him that chance. Give America that chance.”

For comparison, here’s a sample from Michelle Obama’s speech:


“He’s the same man who started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down, fighting to rebuild those communities and get folks back to work, because for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”

It’s actually quite stunning to see Barack Obama’s SOTU speeches rated at 8th grade level, considering his high reputation for eloquence and intellectual accomplishment. I have not read “Dreams From My Father” (and I already have a long reading list, thank you very much), but Michiko Kakutani professes high regard for Obama’s “ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire”, his “appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading”, and praises his book as “the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president”. Obama’s writing, successful or not, has never been short on either ambition or complicated words. Famously, he wrote this appreciation of The Waste Land in a letter to a girlfriend back in his college days:


I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements — Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism — Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance.

Clearly, the guy can hazard statements, maintain dichotomies and perceive choices with the best of them when he wants to. So, what gives?

I’m reading this from the perspective of a mathematics teacher and expositor. This is a profession where everything we do, every interaction we have, every feedback loop we receive, pulls us slowly but unrelentingly towards the Ann Romney end of the spectrum. The nature and complexity of the subject demands it. Whether we’re explaining a new argument to a collaborator, suggesting a project to a graduate student, or giving a calculus lecture, we’re presenting difficult material to someone who does not, at that time, understand it. We cannot afford to lose our audiences in labyrinths of verbosity, of Faulkner-like sentences branching out and twisting every which way, before they even get to the actual matter at hand. We do not benefit from making our arguments any more difficult and complicated than they need to be. Therefore, we simplify. We break down the chain of reasoning into small, hopefully more digestible blocks, then feed them one by one to the listener.

Enter Bill Clinton:


[W]hen President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in freefall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Are we doing better than that today?

The answer is yes. Now, look. Here’s the challenge he faces and the challenge all of you who support him face. I get it. I know it. I’ve been there. A lot of Americans are still frustrated about this economy. If you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again, and in a lot of places, housing prices have even began to pick up.

But too many people do not feel it yet. I had this same thing happen in 1994 and early ’95. We could see that the policies were working, that the economy was growing, but most people didn’t feel it yet. Thankfully, by 1996, the economy was roaring, everybody felt it, and we were halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States.

By the standards the Smart Politics article employs – the length and complexity of sentences, the sophistication of the vocabulary – Clinton might rank just slightly above Ann Romney, certainly no better than 8th grade. That, though, would ignore completely what Clinton actually does in his speech. Here’s Fallows explaining why Clinton’s speeches succeed:


Because he treats listeners as if they are smart.

That is the significance of “They want us to think” and “The strongest argument is” and “The arithmetic says one of three things must happen” and even “Now listen to me here, this is important.” He is showing that he understands the many layers of logic and evidence and positioning and emotion that go into political discussion — and, more important, he takes for granted that listeners can too.

This sounds familiar because it is what we do in calculus lectures and Beamer conference presentations.

There’s an important point that the Smart Politics article ignores altogether: that written and spoken communication do not follow the same rules, and it makes little sense to evaluate one by the standards developed for the other. A written article can be read, re-read, cross-examined. In math papers, we cannot avoid complicated proofs with multiple nested logical statements and quantifiers, but the readers can take their time assimilating them, moving back and forth through the text at their leisure, internalizing parts of the argument before continuing with the rest. (That’s how I read, anyway, and not just math papers.)

Oral presentations are different. They demand that the material be broken down into small chunks and arranged in a sequence that can be followed in a linear manner. This means simple sentences, because it’s hard to keep track of the mathematics if our focus is spent on the flowery language instead. “The strongest argument is”, “the arithmetic says one of three things must happen”, the back-and-forth between the speaker and the audience supply the logical connections between the pieces, replacing the reader’s repeated examination of the text.

The translation is not always perfect. There’s a limit to the complexity of what can be said in bite-sized segments and PowerPoint bullets, and we spend most of our working time well past that limit. My Beamer presentations at conferences may cover the outline of the argument, but there’s no way that I’d be able to present the entire paper in that manner.

On the other hand, short, simple sentences are less prone to misinterpretation, both in politics and in mathematics. Politicians (from what I’ve observed) learn to speak slowly, enunciate clearly, and keep their sentences relatively short so as to avoid possible misunderstandings, confusion, or wilful misinterpretations courtesy of their political opponents. Similarly, we don’t want our calculus students to misinterpret our utterances or to attach additional meanings to them that were never intended. The wilful misinterpretations are far less likely here if they even happen at all, but there is plenty of genuine confusion due to the difficulty of the material itself; there’s no need to add to it through an unnecessarily complex presentation.

But let’s go back to Michelle Obama and Ann Romney. The traditional role of the spouse of the candidate has been to make an emotional rather than intellectual appeal to the voters. “My husband is a wonderful person, I love him, and I’d like you to vote for him” is not a very complicated logical argument. I’m not telepathic, but my best guess is that Michelle Obama must have sensed an opening there: if the message is simple enough already, if anyone who loses the train of thought can just go back to “I love my husband” and catch up from there, there’s no reason to simplify it further, to break it down into chunks so small that the whole thing becomes a bland puree. On the contrary, this was where she was free to employ more sophisticated language, and she did so to a refreshing and invigorating effect. Ann Romney’s speech went the conventional way – pun unintended originally, but actually quite appropriate now that I think about it. I felt that it was much weaker than Obama’s. But I don’t believe that the issue is easily reduced to counting words or syllables alone.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A politician, a linguist and a mathematician walk into a bar

  1. A note to a couple of commenters. I understand perfectly well that the “n-th grade level” labels based on counting words and syllables are misleading, that they do not reflect the intellectual level of the speaker, and worse, that they do not even reflect the intellectual level of the speech itself. That’s the point of the post. Just because I quote something does not mean that I agree with it. That’s pretty basic. If you comment only to lecture me on it, and *especially* if you do so impolitely, I have no reason to approve that type of contribution.

  2. Ivo

    Very interesting analysis! I like this comparison of mathematical and political rhetoric. So Bill Clinton’s speeches are good for some of the same reasons that a successful scientific presentation is good: as simple as possible languagewise, but not too simple — i.e., not dumbed down in contents.

    By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed Dreams From My Father, an interesting book which doesn’t feel at all like a politician’s. (I know, I know, I also have a very long reading list. But I also know we share at least some literary tastes…)