Reading Between the Lines: Saying Something, Meaning Nothing
As I watched the results of the New Hampshire primary elections and the ensuing victory and concession speeches, I noticed something peculiar. I get the sense that politicians generally like to keep their speeches vague so that they can't unwittingly say something contradictory to previous speeches. Our modern fact-checking culture, which is great for accountability, incentivizes politicians to actually say as little as possible. They want to avoid any "gotcha" moments. Donald Trump's victory speech in New Hampshire was so strikingly vacant that it enraptured by curiosity. So, I analyzed various speeches and the result was quite telling.
Indefinite pronouns are exactly what they sound like; they are "words which replace nouns without specifying which noun they replace." Indefinite pronouns include these words: anybody, anyone, anything, everybody, everyone, everything, nobody, none, no one, nothing, somebody, someone, and something. They are a way of saying something without actually specifying what that something is. Essentially, indefinite pronouns are encapsulated ambiguity.
It makes sense, then, that a person who wishes to maximize ambiguity in his or her speech would utilize indefinite pronouns as much as possible. After analyzing the recent campaign speeches, that theory holds true.
Donald Trump loves indefinite pronouns, unsurprisingly. His victory speech following the New Hampshire primary election contained 17 indefinite pronouns out of a total 1,705 words. That's roughly 10 indefinite pronouns for every 1,000 words. By contrast, Bernie Sanders' victory speech contained only 4 indefinite pronouns out of a total of 2,236 words (or roughly 2 indefinite pronouns for every 1,000 words). Hillary Clinton's concession speech landed in the middle of these two.
Of course, for this analysis to be of any use, I needed to establish a "control group" with which to make my comparisons. So, I turned to the victory speeches of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama when each won his respective party's nomination as presidential candidate. Each of these speeches contained roughly 3 indefinite pronouns for every 1,000 words—far less than Donald Trump's 10.
If the raw numbers are confusing, I've visualized the findings in the chart below.
Politicians are often guilty of espousing grand ideas and lofty goals without providing much detail into how to reach those goals. Leaders are expected to provide both an end and the means to attain that end. The next time we listen to a political leader, or someone aspiring to play that role, we should try to pay attention to the words being used. To take a cue from Mr. Trump: sometimes somebody says something that seems like it's everything you want to hear, but it's really nothing at all.