Quantifying Trump’s Love of Adverbs and Exclamation Points

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Donald Trump is a voracious tweeter, even though his tweets are frequently the ridicule of late-night TV show hosts. While the content of a tweet is often the target of the disdain, the child-like impressions that accompany the recitals are made possible by the style and syntax of Trump’s writing.

Without getting too political, his style is certainly unusual for an international leader, and a noticeable departure from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose oratory and use of language are held in high regard.

To quantify the aspects of Trump’s tweets that make his writing subjectively weaker, we used the Editist WordPress Plugin to analyze 300 tweets from Donald Trump and Barack Obama. We logged the tweets at 1:30pm on Saturday 27th January, 2018, didn’t include any retweets, and stripped all URLs from the content before analysis.

The comparison is complicated by the maximum-length change-over from 140 characters to 280 characters on November 7th, 2017. The higher frequency of President Trump’s tweets means that the sample data includes more of the longer tweets from Trump than from President Obama. Therefore, along with absolute statistics for each author, we’ve also included statistics normalized by the total number of words used in the sample period, as Trump uses almost twice as many words as Obama.

We generated statistics for the following potential writing issues:

  • Adverbs
    • Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs“. An over-use of adverbs is a sign of a lazy writer who is unable to find a better word or a clearer phrase for a sentence. Adverbs weaken sentences and are often wordier than their better alternatives: slammed the door is better than closed the door angrily – it is not only more concise, but conveys emotion rather than explicitly describing it.
    • For this high-level analysis, adverbs include every use of very, really, and many adjectives ending in -ly.
  • Ampersands
    • Ampersands may add typographical interest in headings and titles, but they are distracting in the middle of a sentence and can lead to slower parsing of the text. Both authors get some leeway with this rule however, given the confined nature of Twitter.
  • Clichés
    • Over-used phrases like a far cry, a clean slate, and a pain in the neck.
  • Double negatives
    • A negative word that acts on another negative, like nobody saw nothing.
  • Empty phrases
    • People often over-complicate their writing with pompous longer phrases that could be more concise, e.g. “close proximity to” instead of “near”, or “take into consideration” instead of “consider”.
  • End of sentence punctuation
    • Exclamation points are one of those tools that writers should rarely use, if at all. Like adverbs, they are a sign of weak writing, where the author uses the mark as a crutch to literally explain their emotion, rather than through a careful choice of words. And like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, they quickly lose impact. If everything! is crazy! then! nothing is! crazy!
    • This rule covers three types of end-of-sentence punctuation: exclamation points, repeated exclamation points or question marks (!!! or ???), and use of the ellipsis (…). You can also think of this as the Dan Brown test.
  • Business Jargon
    • You know the phrases. Business critical. Blue sky thinking. Innovative.
  • Negative words
    • These aren’t necessarily a sign of poor prose, but negative words can often be re-structured into a more positive phrase that makes the reading lighter.
  • Passive voice
    • Much like adverbs, passive voice sentences are wordier, weaker and more ambiguous than their energetic active-voice equivalent.
  • Redundant words
    • You don’t need to “eliminate altogether” when you could just “eliminate”, nor do you “disappear from sight” when you can “disappear”.
  • Weak words
    • There are many generic, all-purpose words that most of us rely on out of laziness, that expert writers replace with clear, specific language. These words include anything, somewhat, rather, quite and maybe.
  • Wordy negatives
    • “Uncertain” is better than “not certain”; “forget” is clearer than “do not remember”.

With those explanations out of the way, let’s take a look at the number of issues detected in Trump’s tweets versus Obama’s tweets. A table of the raw data is included at the end of this post.

 

Absolute number of issues for each rule

 

Number of issues normalized by total number of words

 

The statistics highlight four related issues with Trump’s tweets that weaken his message:

  • Adverbs – four times as many as Obama, on a per-word basis. “Very” and “really”, combined, make up almost 1% of Trump’s words.
  • End of sentence punctuation (mostly exclamation points) – ten times as many as Obama, on a per-word basis. 252 uses detected in 300 tweets; almost one-per-tweet on average.
  • Passive voice – used about 50% more than Obama, normalized on a per-word basis.
  • Weak words – again, Trump uses these words about 50% more often than Obama, on a per-word basis.

Or, to turn these issues into constructive criticism, Donald Trump should take the following advice to increase the impact of his twitter content:

  • Try to remove or replace most adverbs. Here’s a top tip President Trump, keep an eye out for words ending in -ly, and use very less often. For example, instead of “A very special place”, you could say “An extraordinary place”.
  • Save those exclamation points for when you need them – try to limit yourself to one a month. At a minimum, remove them from tweets about issues that involve human suffering and other serious topics, like “The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”. While you’re at it, you can also remove the passive voice and adverb from this sentence to toughen-up your stance: “The USA will not tolerate human rights violations.”
  • Tighten-up those passive sentences with more active phrasing, for example “A government shutdown will be devastating to our military” could become “A government shutdown will devastate our military”. Active sentences are almost always shorter than their passive equivalents, leaving you with more of those 280 characters for exclamation points!!!!!
  • Avoid generic, weak words, like “thing”. Instead of “talks are a good thing!”, try “talks are positive.” or “talks are progress.”

 

Total Per Word
Obama Trump Obama Trump
Adverbs 17 133 0.34% 1.35%
Ampersands 5 27 0.10% 0.27%
Clichés 1 0 0.02% 0.00%
Double negatives 1 0 0.02% 0.00%
Empty phrases 0 13 0.00% 0.13%
End of sentence punctuation 13 252 0.26% 2.55%
Jargon 1 0 0.02% 0.00%
Negative words 34 94 0.68% 0.95%
Passive voice 77 218 1.54% 2.21%
Redundant words 0 5 0.00% 0.05%
Weak words 10 34 0.20% 0.34%
Wordy negatives 0 1 0.00% 0.01%
Total words 5004 9872
Total sentences 406 735
Total tweets 300 300

Trump Twitter banner image from Pixabay.

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