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Review of  Linguistic Inquiries into Donald Trump's Language

Reviewer: Peter Backhaus
Book Title: Linguistic Inquiries into Donald Trump's Language
Book Author: Ulrike Schneider Matthias Eitelmann
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 32.2307

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Over the past couple of years, the world has been flooded with news about, and often directly from, former American president Donald J. Trump. Apart from his unorthodox approach to politics, a considerable portion of Trump’s newsworthiness appears to result from his very distinctive way of communicating. The aim of Linguistic Inquiries into Donald Trump’s Language is identifying what exactly it is that makes Trump’s speech so, well, “Trumpish” (7).

In their introduction, the editors Matthias Eitelmann and Ulrike Schneider sketch the (political) rise of Trump and his special way with language as one commonly cited factor therein. They summarize that Trumpish is more than just “a salient idiolect, but also a reflection of changing social and political norms” (7f), an increasingly oral mode of discourse (Lakoff 1982), and a redefinition of everyday communication by and through social media.

The first main part of the book is titled “Rhetoric and Repetition.” It starts with Jesse Egbert and Douglas Biber’s attempt to isolate specific linguistic features of Trump’s style. They work with a complete corpus of presidential TV debates since Nixon and Kennedy first established the genre in 1960. A comparative analysis of a larger assortment of lexical and lexico-grammatical features uncovers an “overall extremely distinctive linguistic style” (38) that, according to Egbert and Biber, played an important part in winning Trump new voters and, eventually, the 2016 elections.

In the next chapter, Kristina Nilsson Björkenstam and Gintarė Grigonytė study one specific lexico-grammatical feature of Trump’s speech more closely: repetitions and other types of parallelisms. Their data are from debates and other public speaking events in 2016, which are contrasted with a similar data set from Hillary Clinton. The analysis shows that repetitions can do many things, from indicating rhetorical skills to showing confusion, and therefore need to be interpreted with great care. In this respect, the difference between scripted and spontaneous speech is crucial; plus interactions of the two, as so often when Trump veers off from his teleprompted script to add, preferably in repeat mode, some afterthought on what he just said/read. In effect, this provides him with two distinct voices, one of the Candidate and one of the Outsider, a strategy that has played an important part in his political self-image.

Patricia Ronan and Gerold Schneider examine more closely the frequent claim that Trump’s speech has been deteriorating with age. They look at spontaneous speech from interviews in Trump’s “later years” (2016-18), which they compare with examples of his speech from the 1980s, as well as with 2017 data from Obama. The authors find a sizeable number of features in their “later years” sample that are commonly regarded as indications of aging, including over-average use of pronouns, low sentence complexity, and off-target verbosity. On the other hand, Ronan and Schneider acknowledge that these features may just as well be triggered by Trump’s populist agenda and the desire to keep things simple for his audience.

Part II of the book is called “Evaluation and Emotion” and starts with Ulrike Stange’s analysis of intensifiers (“very,” “completely,” “totally,” etc.) in Trump’s speech. She analyzes this feature in both spoken and written discourse, including Trump’s now defunct Twitter account. These data are compared with the spoken language section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). The analysis focuses on the cooccurrence of intensifiers with gradable vs. non-gradable adjectives, revealing that “Trump is a prolific user of amplifiers” who “speaks like an elderly, highly emotional man” (106). On the other hand, Stange also acknowledges that Trump’s trademark use of “so” with non-scalar adjectives (“so great/dishonest/average/etc.”) is quite innovative.

In the next chapter, Jukka Tyrkkö and Irina Frisk have a closer look at another common feature of Trumpish: the use of nicknames. They examine tweets sent from @realDonaldTrump between 2009 and 2018. After identifying common patterns with respect to word-formation rules (derivation, rhymes, etc.), they move on to a semantic analysis of his nickname creations. Various categories are distinguished (based on appearance, personality, intellect, etc.) and correlated with the nickname receiver’s gender. The results reveal that, counter to common perception, males are in fact more frequently mocked for their appearance and intellect than females, whose nicknames often focus on personality traits, as witnessed by one of Trump’s best-known creations, “Crooked Hilary.” A well-designed timeline of nickname tweets (126, Fig. 6.5) further shows that, for reasons not further delved into, Trump’s nicknaming all but stopped between election day and his inauguration, but was back with a vengeance once he was in office.

Trump’s use of “the-plurals” is the topic of Chapter 7, suitably titled “I’m Doing Great with the Hispanics.” Following up on recent research by Acton (2019), Ulrike Schneider and Kristene K. McClure scrutinize the use of this rhetorical device for acts of othering and pigeonholing. The data comprise a complete set of Trump’s tweets from 2009 to 2019, supplemented by transcripts from his public speeches. Designations analyzed, with and without determinate article, include “Republicans” and “Democrats,” “Muslims,” “Christians” and “Evangelicals,” as well as “Hispanics” and “Latinos.” The analysis shows that Trump’s use of “the-plurals” goes some way in performing rhetorical “us vs. them” spins, but many findings are not as clear-cut as one would have expected. The authors make good use of examples to demonstrate why that is.

The third main part is titled “Discourse and Metaphor,” and it starts with Anthony Koth’s chapter on Trump’s use of war metaphors. The main data set is candidacy announcements and debates of all 22 presidential candidates in the 2016 race, supplemented by Trump tweets from the same period. A quantitative analysis shows that, in comparison with all other candidates, Trump uses significantly more terms such as “lose,” “win,” and “competition,” and more often than not with warlike rather than neutral connotations. A look at single cases with metaphors from these domains reveals “an underlying ideological core that accounts for his repeated negative appraisals of his opponents, his continual adulation for himself and his supporters, and ultimately his reduction of complex policies down to the simple choice that either we WIN this election, or we are going to LOSE this country!” (170, emphasis original). Kroth’s analysis also predicts, quite accurately, that once Trump would lose, he would be a bad loser.

As the book proceeds, the chapters are getting increasingly qualitative in scope. Marta Degani and Alexander Onysko’s study of Trump’s discourse on the environment is the first contribution that does largely without any frequencies. Based on Lakoff’s seminal Moral Politics (1996), they analyze Trump’s remarks on the White House “Energy and the Environment” webpage between 2017 and 2019. They show that Trump makes very conspicuous lexical choices, such as “clean, beautiful coal,” as well as non-choices, in that even such basic terms as “climate change” are not mentioned at all. In a second step, the authors identify a number of discursive strategies that communicate his disregard of environmental issues, including vacuity, denigration and dissimulation, appeals to patriotism, and self-praise. Taken together, these paint a “bleak picture” (192) of a leader in denial of the scientific facts.

Christoph Schubert’s contribution focuses on Trump’s “fake news” agenda, or what Davis and Sinnreich 2019: 149) define as “a rhetorical device for discrediting unfavorable coverage of his presidency.” Drawing from a variety of approaches to lying (speech act theory, Grice, impoliteness), Schubert distinguishes various types of “allegations of misrepresentation” (197) as made by Trump during the GOP primary debates in 2015 and 2016. The insightful analysis reminds us that Trump’s strategy of accusing others of knowingly misrepresenting the truth was already part of his repertoire even before “fake news” became a household term in his presidential communications.

In “Sorry Not Sorry,” the last chapter of Part III, Jan David Hauck and Teruko Vida Mitsuhara explore Trump’s rather special way of apologizing, and how it differs from the more standard style of apologies that is commonly taken in (US) politics. The authors compare Bill Clinton’s apologies in the Lewinsky affair with Trump’s self-defense in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape scandal, during the most heated phase of the 2016 race. A careful analysis of two excerpts, one from Trump’s video statement and another from during the second presidential debate with (Hillary) Clinton, reveals how Trump “highjacks” (226) the canonical format of political apology, but skillfully “mutates” (230) it into something that actually boosts rather than threatens his self-image. In so doing, the final chapter of this third part also helps our general understanding of political speech in the Trump age, “where words are bleached of meaning, must not map onto individuals’ intentions or motives, and where the question arises whether a [now ex-] president must ever adhere to a discourse of truth” (230).

Is Donald Trump’s language populist? This is the question chosen by the editors to wrap up the volume in their concluding chapter. They choose a discourse-based definition of populism (as rhetoric, rather than ideology), from which they derive 12 hypotheses that are then tested, and mostly confirmed by evidence from the earlier chapters. This provides an excellent opportunity to combine the variegated contributions of the book into a coherent whole, “a jigsaw, revealing a pattern of populist rhetoric” (248).


While most people likely have a certain image of prototypical Trumpspeak, it’s in fact not that easy to pinpoint what exactly makes his speech what it is. Be it use of empty pronouns, repetitive repetitions, truly wonderful intensifiers, or verbal fistfights with “the” Democrats, the chapters in this book show that both academic rigor and methodological sophistication are required to properly flesh out the Trumpian element in lexicon and grammar. Corpus linguistic approaches, which inform the first half of the book, seem a most feasible way for tackling this task.

On the other hand, while working through the earlier chapters, I found myself wondering at times if these numbers and frequencies are really all there is to Trump’s rhetoric and what makes it so Trumpish. This is where the later, more qualitatively oriented, chapters come in. Relying less on numbers and more on close textual analysis, they complement the picture by bringing to the fore features such as Trump’s narrative strategies to blank out the climate crisis, his unapologetic way of apologizing, and his frequent complaints about hoaxes and lies. Taken together, the contributions – and the way they have been arranged by the editors – thus strike a good balance between what’s countable and what’s not.

Consecutive numbering of and throughout the chapters, as well as frequent cross-references, further contribute to making the book work as a coherent piece of scholarship, rather than a mere collection of conference papers (luckily, such books seem to be on their way out). Given the popularity of the “subject,” attempts have been made to keep the volume accessible also to readers outside the linguistic community. Thus, notes in the introduction explain notation conventions (10), and the first chapter even defines the term “corpus” (18).

The book has been carefully edited and comes virtually without any typos or other mistakes. A font size somewhere around 10pt serves to keep the volume “slim” (260 pages), even though it’s a bit taxing on the overall reader-friendliness of the book.

Most of the papers focus on data from somewhere between 2015 and 2018. Everything that happened after this point – Trump’s first impeachment, his administration’s grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, the GOP’s triple loss in the 2020 elections, and the events at the Capitol that lead to his second impeachment – obviously is beyond the scope of this book. Yet it is interesting to see how the findings from the contributions also help make sense of these more recent events, and what Trump has made of them. Not only in this respect, Linguistic Inquiries Into Donald Trump’s Language is a timely and most insightful book about the power of language in populist regimes.


Acton, Eric K. (2019), “Pragmatics and the social life of the definite article,” Language, 95 (1): 37–65.

Davis, Dorian H. and Aram Sinnreich (2019), “Tweet the press: Effects of Donald Trump’s ‘Fake News!’ Epithet on civics and popular culture,” in Michele Lockhart (ed.), President Donald Trump and His Political Discourse: Ramifications of Rhetoric via Twitter, 149–69, New York: Routledge.

Lakoff, Robin T. (1982), “Some of my favorite writers are literate: The mingling of oral and literate strategies in written communication,” in Deborah Tannen (ed.), Spoken and Written Language: Exploring Orality and Literacy, 239–60, Norwood, NJ:

Lakoff, George (1996), Moral Politics, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
Peter Backhaus is Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature at Waseda University, Tokyo. His main research interests are in pragmatics and stylistics.

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