Trump – Why 4th Grade Vocab Works

A recent front page article in the anti-Trump Boston Globe implies Donald Trump is not very bright – or that he appeals to a not very bright part of the electorate. As most people assume billionaires are dumb like a fox, the question is why using 4th grand language works.

For one, asking this question is as relevant as understanding why lots of things work. After all, if we knew the answer, we could perhaps do even better. Another reason is that with the answer, we might be able to appeal not only to the perhaps 50% of the population that reads at that level, but also to the other, let’s say 50%. This would include the, again, let’s say 49% who read at a lower level than 4th grade and to the 1% who read at a higher level – but whose words are read by all of us in “the masses.” So, it is worth understanding just why simple language works better than complex language.

One answer is akin to why writing teachers encourage writers to use Anglo-Saxon words. Yes, those simple, one-syllable (monosyllabic for the 1%) words need less brain effort to comprehend. Perfect for the masses. Less effort. Simple.

But what about the, let’s say 25% or so of us who still read books. We’re not the masses. We don’t need simple words and less brain effort. Yet such language is effective (works, to use a 4th grade word) for us, as well.

So, here’s an answer right out of human biology: The simple, one syllable words are the first ones we learned. Their meaning is at the foundation of the brain cell (neuronal) networks that build up over time and are able to decode more and more many syllable (polysyllabic) words. When we hear the most fundamental of words, their meaning is deeper. For example, “No” means “no”. It was heard from our parents, and often enough associated with other meaningful results, like a scowl or even – hush – punishment.

On the other hand, “I would consider such a possibility not to be worth pursuing” means, well, what does it mean? I mean, what does it mean, exactly. Not only does the more sophisticated rendition of “No” require many more nerve cell pathways to decipher, otherwise known as more effort, there is also a range of interpretations left in people’s minds. Mom was clear. Trump is clear. We knew what Mom meant, and we know what Trump means – at least what  he means to say.

While the percentages I’ve used here are guestimates, they make a point. Clarity will bring more votes and is more appreciated than sophistication, simplicity more than complexity, and the direct more than the obtuse.

Personally, I prefer constructions like, “See Dick run,” or “See Spot run.” Perhaps that’s why many voters prefer to, “See Don run.”

And  you?

Authored by the editorial board of



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