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Corpus Pragmatics

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 167–192 | Cite as

‘We Are Going to Do a Lot of Things for College Tuition’: Vague Language in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Debates

  • Vahid Parvaresh
Original Paper

Abstract

The present study investigates the frequency and functions of vague expressions (e.g. something, sort of) used in the 2016 U.S. presidential debates by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The data under scrutiny include transcripts of the televised debates (42,137 words). The study reveals that, while Trump’s speech is less lexically varied than Clinton’s, it contains a noticeably greater number of vague expressions. Trump’s tendency to use more instances of vague language is most evident in the categories of ‘vague boosters’ (e.g. very), ‘vague estimators’ (e.g. many), ‘vague nouns’ (e.g. things) and ‘vague extenders’ (e.g. and other places). Clinton, however, more frequently uses ‘vague subjectivisers’ (e.g. I think) and ‘vague possibility indicators’ (e.g. would). The differences observed may be attributed to the personal and professional backgrounds of the candidates and to the different communicative purposes they seek to achieve.

Keywords

Trump Clinton U.S. 2016 presidential election Vague language use Boosters Subjectivisers 

Introduction

“You can’t turn a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ without a maybe in between”, thinks Frank Underwood, the imaginary U.S. President in the award-winning TV series House of Cards, when confronted with his imaginary Russian counterpart, Viktor Petrov, whose responses to a political proposal being discussed between the two countries are too vague to be properly understood. Although expressed in the fictional world of the TV drama series in question, deep down Frank Underwood’s remark points to a very important feature of human communication, i.e. the use of vague expressions. While Underwood might not be pleased with the use of vague expressions1 by his Russian counterpart, research has long demonstrated that human communication is anything but precise (Pierce 1902; Stubbs 1986; Williamson 1994). In fact, it appears that vagueness is present “in a great deal of language use” to the extent that theories of language use would not be complete without having vagueness as their “integral component” (Channell 1994, p. 5). In this respect, Jucker et al. (2003, p. 1738) argue that vague language is an “interactional strategy” without which our range of communication strategies would be gravely restricted (cf. Cutting 2007a).

While vague language has to date been a topic of extensive research in a variety of settings (see, e.g., Cutting 2007b, 2012, 2015; Drave 2000, 2001; Fernández 2015; Gassner 2012; Li 2017; Metsä-Ketelä 2016; Parvaresh 2017a; Parvaresh and Ahmadian 2016; Parvaresh and Tayebi 2014; Ruzaitė 2007; Sobrino 2015; Sabet and Zhang 2015; Zhang 2011, 2015), it appears that no research study has yet focused on the use of vague expressions in such high-stake endeavours as presidential campaigns and their corresponding debates. Such an inquiry would, theoretically, be appealing in that vague language can enable interactants to achieve a wide range of interactional functions, especially in face-to-face interactions.

Evidently, U.S. presidential debates constitute a clear example of those face-to-face interactions in which the candidates can be expected to resort to whatever strategy will channel more votes their way. As Benoit et al. (2001, p. 260) note, “[t]he huge size of the presidential debate audience means that capacity for influence is considerable.” In this context, besides using vague language in a general way, presidential candidates may resort to vague expressions for some specific functions (e.g., ‘avoiding precision’).

The current study analyses the three 2016 presidential debates held between the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and the Republican nominee Donald Trump. The first debate took place on September 26, the second on October 9 and the last debate on October 19. By developing a “data-informed understanding of patterns and contexts of language use” (Cheng and O’Keeffe 2014, p. 376), the study is an attempt to provide answers to the following research questions: (a) Overall, what differences can be found between the language used by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in terms of the number of vague expressions used? (b) What can these differences, if any, reveal about the communicative purposes and discursive functions that the candidates under investigation seek to achieve?

To answer the study’s research questions, a manually tagged corpus of the political debates in question will be analysed both quantitatively, by using WordSmith Tools (version 7.0), and qualitatively. In other words, the study adopts a mixed methods approach in which “elements of qualitative and quantitative research approaches” have been combined (Johnson et al. 2007, p. 123).

Vague Language

Vague language is “a central feature of daily language in use, both spoken and written” (Cutting 2007a, p. 3; cf. Cutting 2015). In fact, vague language “has come to occupy a new place of legitimacy as a potentially crucial area of inquiry into language use, particularly for understanding the dynamics of interpersonal interaction” (Fernández and Yuldashev 2011, p. 2610).

From a philosophical perspective, Smith (cited in Overstreet 2011, p. 293) proposes that almost all non-mathematical expressions in natural languages must have vagueness as their inherent property.2 However, as acknowledged by Overstreet (2011, p. 293), “while recognizing the importance of these observations for a formal semantics of natural language, we should make a distinction between vagueness as found in the philosophical tradition, and vague language as found in the study of discourse.” From a discursive perspective, when people use vague language, they use “words and phrases with very general meanings (thing, stuff, or whatever, sort of, or something, or anything)” in order to “refer to people and things in a non-specific, imprecise way” (Carter and McCarthy, cited in Overstreet 2011, p. 293).

As pioneered by Channell (1994), a central tenet underlying pragmatic/discursive studies on vague language use is that, while we might be able to contextually interpret a vague utterance (e.g. ‘She did all the people’) in the light of another (non-vague) utterance (e.g. ‘She analysed all the theorists’) (Cutting 2012, p. 284), vague expressions are a frequent trait of our communication system for two main reasons:
  1. (i)

    In any form of human communication there certainly are contexts which call for a “purposely and unabashedly vague” (Channell 1994, p. 20) use of language. An example would be the vague item maybe, mentioned in the Introduction, which is often used in contexts in which speakers want to highlight their lack of commitment to the propositional content of an utterance.

     
  2. (ii)

    Some of the utterances we make arise from “intrinsically uncertain” contexts (Channell 1994, p. 20) which necessitate the use of vague expressions. An example is found in ‘I wanted to know about their culture, experience etc.’ when the speaker does not seem to have any precise referent in mind (Cutting 2012, p. 284).

     
While definitions of vague language abound in the literature (Cutting 2007a), it appears that vague language can be more fruitfully defined in terms of two axes, i.e. context-dependability and unresolvability (Cheng 2007; Cheng and Warren 2003; Parvaresh and Tayebi 2014; Zhang 2011; cf. Janney 2002). Conceptualized as such, vague language includes expressions whose meaning is negotiable by the interactants (i.e. context-dependable), but which do not lose their vague status (i.e. unresolvable). For example, in a sentence such as “Checkbooks, cash notes, and all other things must be put in the safe upstairs” the expression and all other things constitutes an example of vague language use in that, while the expression ‘cues’ the listener to interpret the preceding elements (i.e. checkbooks and cash notes) as examples of a more general category (e.g. ‘valuable papers/items’), it is not entirely clear what other items and all other things might include (Dines 1980).

Arguably, due to their ‘unresolvable’ nature, vague expressions depend to a great extent on assumptions of shared knowledge between the speaker and the hearer (Tomasello 2003). Of course, research shows that in communication such assumptions are often successfully met and that vague expressions rarely cause miscommunication (Dines 1980; Parvaresh 2015, 2017a).

The Current Study

As an attempt to further explore the strategic use of vague expressions in political discourse (cf. Bull 2008; D’Errico et al. 2013; Obeng 1997), the current study is concerned with the three presidential debates held in 2016 between the Republican nominee Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. It should, however, be stated in passing that in the present study a quantitative analysis of the various ‘functions’ fulfilled by vague expressions is not pursued. This is in large part due to the fact that a vague language item may fulfill more than one single function at a time and that it is sometimes impossible to specify the entire range of functions fulfilled by a given vague expression even in context (see Cutting 2007b; Zhang 2015).

Data and Method

The data for this study comprise transcripts of the three televised presidential debates conducted in 2016 between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. All the sessions were transcribed by a research assistant, thus compiling a corpus of 42,137 words, excluding the questions addressed or words uttered by the debates’ hosts/presenters. In order to ensure that the original transcripts were accurate, the transcripts were compared with the original audio–video files by the researcher. Only a few discrepancies were identified which were subsequently corrected. Following Zhang (2015, p. 68), “[t]ranscription was done in conventional orthography” and included “actual speech plus basic non-verbal activities.”

The transcribed data were tagged manually by the researcher himself with a view to identifying the categories of vague language delineated below:
  1. (a)

    Vague estimators: They include the two sub-categories of vague quantifiers and vague approximators. Vague quantifiers (e.g. a few, many) typically “occupy the determiner slot in a noun phrase” (Channell 1994, p. 99; cf. Powell 1985; Ruzaite 2007). However, in contrast to precise numbers, “they do not clearly specify the quantity involved” (Jucker et al. 2003, p. 1751). Similarly, vague approximators (e.g. about, around) denote imprecision of quantity; they usually precede a numerical expression and qualify it (Jucker et al. 2003, p. 1758; cf. Mauranen 2004). Accordingly, a non-vague estimator would be the same as an exact number.

     
  2. (b)

    Vague possibility indicators (e.g. possibly, seem): They help the speaker express what he/she views as the ‘possibility’ (or probability) of something. These expressions typically serve to indicate uncertainty on the part of the speaker, thus making speech less authoritative and less assertive (Carter 2003, p. 11).

     
  3. (c)

    Vague extenders (e.g. or something, and the like): These expressions are not flexible in their syntactic distribution and are of crucial communicative significance to the extent that Stubbe and Holmes (1995, p. 63) consider them as having crucial significance for “oiling the wheels of verbal interaction” (cf. Parvaresh et al. 2012; Tagliamonte and Denis 2010). Typically, vague extenders “are multifunctional with the context, both linguistic and non-linguistic, helping to constrain the interpretation on particular occasions of use” (Cheshire 2007, p. 157).

     
  4. (d)

    Vague boosters (e.g. overly, extremely, very): These expressions help the speaker maintain a persona of ‘assertiveness’ in contexts in which hearers would expect such assertiveness (Hyland 1998, 2000; cf. Bradac et al. 1995; Holmes 1990; Hu and Cao 2011). In other words, by increasing the tone of speech, boosters allow speakers to convey a sense of conviction (Hyland 2000).

     
  5. (e)

    Vague de-intensifiers (e.g. sort of, kind of): They serve to decrease the tone of utterances (Berndt and Caramazza 1978). As Zhang (2015, p. 90) notes, vague de-intensifiers “express vaguely a low intensity degree, and decrease the tone of speech.”

     
  6. (f)

    Vague nouns (e.g. someone, thing): These expressions are almost always one of the most common categories of vague language as they enable the speaker to serve a wide range of communicative purposes (see Koester 2007; Boakye 2007). Most notably, vague nouns indicate “lack of precision” (Crystal and Davy 1975, p. 112) and are typically used in contexts in which the required expressions are not known, cannot be retrieved (e.g. due to memory lapses) or cannot be mentioned (e.g. taboo words). By referring “to semantic categories in an open-ended way”, vague nouns also “help the conversation go smoothly” (Shirato and Stapleton 2007, p. 396).

     
  7. (g)

    Vague subjectivisers (e.g. I believe, we think): They help highlight the speaker’s lower degree of commitment or certainty. Zhang (2013, p. 91) argues that, due to “its manifestation of the speaker’s veiled opinion”, the category of subjectiviser is indeed “a salient indicator for possible differences of vague language use.” A subjectiviser such as I think, for example, signals “speaker commitment to an utterance” (Adolphs et al. 2007, p. 63). As Zhang and Sabet (2016, p. 335) note, by using I think, “the speaker is not fully committing to the truth of his/her utterance.” I think, the authors continue, “acts as a protector to shield the speaker from the risk of being challenged and refuted.” Indeed, a vague subjectiviser counts as such because it fulfills its functions (e.g. avoiding commitment to the propositional content of the utterance) by being inherently vague and being purposefully used.3

     
The decision to include such a wide range of categories as examples of vague language was motivated by mainstream research in the field, which is based on the idea that any expression could potentially be an example of vague language as long as its meaning is contextually underspecified (cf. Cheng 2007). This view of vague language shifts the focus of attention from vagueness viewed as an inherent property of certain lexical items to a pragmatic phenomenon (cf. Gassner 2012) concerned with pragmatic functions fulfilled by interactants in moment-by-moment actual language use (Parvaresh and Tayebi 2014).

It should also be noted that, while the labels given to the above-mentioned categories are not conceptually uniform (e.g. ‘vague nouns’: part of speech; ‘vague indicators’: content conveyed; ‘vague subjectivisers’: functions), the current researcher decided to leave them unchanged seeing that these are common terminologies used in studies of vague language.

While the pragmatic view of vague language delineated above enabled the researcher to exclusively focus on the pragmatic functions these expressions fulfill in context, in order to avoid imposing such pre-defined categories of vague language upon the transcribed data, the following working definition for vague language was adopted throughout the study, motivated by Cheng (2007), Cheng and Warren (2003) and Zhang (2011):
  • VL is language whose meaning is negotiable by the interactants (i.e., context-dependability) in conversation, but does not lose its status as vague as a result of this process (i.e., unresolvability).

About 15% of the manually tagged corpus was ‘randomly’ checked by a senior English linguist specialising in vague language studies and a 98% inter-rater agreement was achieved. In the 2% of the cases when the raters did not agree in the first place, agreement was reached through consensus and after seeking advice from other experts in the field.
Next, following Tayebi and Parvaresh (2014), the instances of vague expressions identified were considered in their extended discourse contexts collaboratively with a research assistant. In this respect, and motivated by Terraschke (2013), we relied on such crucial information as the wider discourse situation (e.g. the exchanges preceding and/or following the utterances under scrutiny). Indeed, the video-recorded nature of the data was of immense help in capturing the dynamics of vague language use, especially on the few occasions in which there was disagreement between the researcher and the assistant (see Dörnyei 2007). At this stage, due to the fact that, as a communicative strategy, vague language functions are tremendously versatile and at times too difficult to specify, and in order to increase the reliability of our conclusions, we relied on and utilised Zhang’s (2015; cf. Parvaresh 2017b) Stretchability Principle of vague language use, according to which vague expressions are those that, depending on the functions they fulfill, move in three different directions, upwards, downwards and horizontally. This is graphically represented in Fig. 1 above:
Fig. 1

Elasticity of vague language

(motivated by and adapted from Zhang 2015, p. 62)

To clarify, consider the general examples below:
  1. 1.

    The point you have made is very significant.

     
  2. 2.

    About two hundred people attended the lecture.

     
  3. 3.

    The manager is probably angry at me now.

    (adapted from Parvaresh 2017a, p. 67)

     
As Parvaresh (2017a, p. 67) explains, in (a) above, the vague booster very “stretches the tone of the utterance upward” and serves to highlight the significance of the point being talked about; in (b) the vague estimator about shifts the number of people who attended the lecture in question “horizontally”, thus providing “the right amount of information for the hearer in a context in which it would not be possible or relevant for the speaker to say exactly how many people attended the lecture”; and finally in (c) the vague possibility indicator probably “stretches the tone of the utterance downward”, thus lowering the degree of certainty of the utterance.

Linguistic and Pragmatic Realisations of Vague Language

In order to investigate the research questions formulated above, both linguistic and pragmatic realisations of vague language in the data under investigation needed to be identified. To clarify how the definition of vague language mentioned above and the corresponding methodology were actually used for such purposes, consider the following examples taken from the corpus under investigation.

Vague Estimators

As was noted above, vague estimators include the two sub-categories of vague quantifiers and vague approximators. The following exchange, taken from the first debate, reveals how and why a quantifier such as ‘many’ was identified as an instance of vague language:
  • Trump: I do want to say that I was just endorsed and more are coming next week […]. Many of them are here; admirals and generals endorsed me to lead this country. That just happened. And many more are coming.

In this excerpt, both instances of ‘many’ are indeed examples of vague language in that, while context-wise they serve to both implicate that “a high number of admirals who have endorsed Trump for presidency have also attended the current debate” and that “more and more admirals support Trump by the day” (i.e. context-dependable), it is not immediately exactly clear, relevant or known how many admirals have actually attended the current debate or how many more admirals will eventually come out in support of Trump (i.e. unresolvable). Pragmatically speaking, such a vague use of language seems to have been employed by the speaker to convey the idea that support for Trump’s presidency among admirals is on the rise, thus concluding that Trump is an ideal candidate that can secure America. In other words, it appears that ‘many’ enables the speaker to move the number of admirals supporting Trump positively upward, thus conveying a sense of trustworthiness.
The following excerpt (from the same debate) contextualizes how and why an approximator such as ‘almost’ was identified as an instance of vague language:
  • Trump: In a place like Chicago […] almost four thousand have been killed since Barack Obama became president. […] almost four thousand people in Chicago have been killed.

In the above excerpt, ‘almost’ constitutes an example of vague language use in that, while the audience are expected by Trump to interpret the number he has in mind at an extraordinary 4000 (i.e. i.e. context-dependable), it is by no means clear or relevant what the exact number is. Such a vague use of language enables the speaker to draw attention to the fact that a high number of ‘almost’ 4000 people have been killed in Chicago presumably as an attempt to imply that if Clinton were elected, the situation would not improve. In this example, if the speaker does not have access to the exact number or if such an exact number is not available, ‘almost’ enables him to adjust his utterance accordingly; on the contrary, if the number is known to the speaker and is less than 4000, ‘almost’ enables the speaker to discursively move the number closer to a higher, presumably more shocking, figure, i.e. 4000.

Vague Possibility Indicators

The following excerpt, taken from the third debate, serves to clarify how a vague possibility indicator such as ‘would’ was identified and analysed:
  • Clinton: […] it is important that we not reverse marriage equality, […] that we stand up and basically say, the Supreme Court should represent all of us. That is how I see the court. And the kind of people that I would be looking to nominate to the [Supreme] Court would be in the great tradition of standing up to the powerful…

Talking about her views on the U.S. Supreme Court, in this excerpt Clinton elaborates on the ideal characteristics of the person she would eventually nominate for the Supreme Court if she were to be elected president. In this context, she uses the word ‘would’ twice, which is an example of vague language use. This is due to the fact that while it would be possible to argue that both instances of ‘would’ used are context-dependable (i.e., there exists the possibility of Clinton nominating someone for the post in question or the possibility of Clinton nominating someone who stands up to the powerful), they would still be unresolvable (i.e., it would still be impossible to say whether such a decision/appointment will ever be made). In this way, the speaker has been able to provide an answer to the question without necessarily being seen as unduly certain about her choice. Therefore, Clinton has managed to provide an answer to the ongoing question while at the same time taking a cautious attitude (i.e. moving the tone of the utterance downward), as vague possibility indicators are generally associated with expressions of uncertainty (cf. Sabet and Zhang 2015).

Vague Extenders

The following two excerpts, respectively taken from the first and the third debate, reveal how expressions such as and all these other places and and other places were identified and analysed as instances of vague language:
  • Trump: And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea. And they should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places.

  • Trump: You look at the places I just left. You go to Pennsylvania; you go to Ohio; you go to Florida; you go to any of them. You go to upstate New York. Our jobs have fled to Mexico and other places.

In the first excerpt Trump is criticizing the 2015 agreement signed between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group (the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China, plus Germany), describing it as a ‘horrible’ deal. Trump believes that the deal is in fact a horrible one, as it only concerns Iran’s nuclear program and has failed to bring under control what he considers to be Iran’s relationship with North Korea. Besides, Trump also criticizes the deal on the grounds that it fails to bring under control Iran’s influence in Yemen ‘and all these other places’. The expression ‘and all these other places’ is without doubt a vague expression in that, while in the context under investigation it refers to a general category such as ‘countries on which Iran has influence’ or even ‘countries Iran interferes with’ (i.e. context-dependable), it is not immediately clear exactly what other countries the speaker has in mind (i.e. unresolvable). From a functional-pragmatic perspective, it appears that in this context the expression ‘and all these other places’ has enabled the speaker to shift the list of ‘countries on which Iran has influence’ or ‘countries Iran interferes with’ horizontally, thus refraining from mentioning a comprehensive list. This way, the speaker conveys to the hearer the idea that “because we share the same knowledge, experience, and conceptual schemes, I do not need to be explicit; you will be able to supply whatever unstated understandings are required to make sense of the utterance” (Overstreet 1999, p. 68).

A more or less similar situation exists in the second excerpt in which Trump is criticizing Obama because he believes that, during his presidency, American jobs have gone, or fled, to Mexico ‘and other places’. The expression ‘and other places’ is a vague expression in that, while in the context under investigation it refers to a general category such as ‘countries to which American jobs have fled’ (i.e. context-dependable), it is not clear what other countries the speaker has in mind (i.e. unresolvable), if any (i.e. it shifts the category of ‘countries to which American jobs have fled’ horizontally). In this way, the audience in general, and supporters in particular, will be able to supply the missing information, i.e. ‘other places’, in whatever way suits them.

Vague Boosters

In order to clarify how a vague booster such as ‘very’ was identified and discussed, let us consider the following excerpt in which Trump talks about his views on the border between the U.S. and Mexico:
  • Trump: We either have a border or we don’t. […] you can come back in and you can become a citizen. But it is very unfair. We have millions of people that did it the right way. They are on line. They are waiting. We are going to speed up the process […] because it is very inefficient. But they are on line and they are waiting to become citizens. Very unfair that somebody runs across the border, becomes a citizen. Under her [i.e. Clinton’s] plans you have open borders.

As the exchange makes manifest, all three instances of the booster ‘very’ constitute examples of vague language, for although they refer to what Trump describes as the unfairness of those who are deported from the U.S. and then return and become citizens and also the inefficiency of immigration procedures (i.e. context-dependable), they enhance the strength of the utterance in an unspecific way (Cheng 2007), thus enabling the speaker to convey a more assertively confident voice (Bradac et al. 1995; Hyland 2000; Zhang 2011). To use Hyland’s (2005, p. 53) terms, it appears that in this exchange the speaker’s use of boosters is an attempt at (i) closing down “possible alternatives”, (ii) emphasizing “certainty” and (iii) marking “involvement with the topic”, thus “taking a joint position against other voices.” This is due to the fact that ‘very’ has “stretched” the tone of utterances made in this excerpt upward (Zhang 2011) thus maximising the speaker’s attitudinal visibility (Hyland 2005). In this respect, moving the attitudinal certainty of the speaker towards the propositional content of the utterance, which has been achieved via the booster ‘very’, can be viewed as Trump’s discursive attempts at underscoring his fitness for the position of President of the United States.

Vague De-intensifiers

The following excerpt taken from the second debate provides information concerning how a vague de-intensifier such as ‘sort of’ was identified and subsequently analysed in the corpus under investigation:
  • Clinton: Everything you have heard from Donald is not true. I am sorry I have to keep saying this, but he lives in an alternative reality. And it is sort of amusing to hear somebody who hasn’t paid federal income tax in maybe 20 years talking about what he is going to do.

As the excerpt shows, Clinton is questioning Trump’s proposed tax plans because she believes that, as Trump has not paid income tax in the past, his attempts as a presidential candidate to propose tax provision changes is ‘sort of’ amusing. In this context, ‘sort of’, which seems to have been used by the speaker to de-intensify (i.e. move ‘downward’) the tone of the utterance, is indeed an example of vague language use. While it conveys the idea that an individual like Trump, who has not paid income tax and is proposing changes to tax provision, is rather amusing (i.e. context-dependability), it would be impossible to determine to what degree “Trump’s attempts at proposing changes to tax provision” is being scaled down from what we consider an assumed norm for being labelled ‘amusing’ (i.e. unresolvability). It should, however, be noted that, upon a rather different, but related, reading of this utterance, ‘sort of’ can be considered a ‘lexical imprecision signal’ (Holmes 1988) indicating that “the speaker is being approximate perforce – due to lack of vocabulary or performance pressures” (p. 95), or a ‘semantic imprecision signal’ indicating that “there is an intended concept which she cannot explain precisely or for which she knows of no adequate word” (p. 96).

Vague Nouns

To clarify how a vague noun such as ‘thing’ was identified and analysed in the corpus, consider the following excerpt, taken from the third debate:
  • Trump: […] you [i.e. Clinton] do have experience. I say the one thing you have over me is experience. But it is bad experience because what you have done has turned out badly.

In this excerpt, the word ‘thing’ is an example of vague language use in that, while one would be able to interpret the expression along the lines of ‘advantage’ or ‘superiority’ (i.e. context-dependable), it is by no means clear what the expression exactly means (i.e. moving the set ‘horizontally’). What is clear, however, is that by using ‘thing’ Trump has made an attempt to distance himself from the topic at issue (i.e. ‘what advantage(s) Clinton has over Trump’).

Vague Subjectivisers

The following excerpt, taken from the second debate, clarifies how a vague subjectiviser such as ‘I think’ was identified and analysed:
  • Clinton: We are producing a lot of natural gas that serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels. And I think that is an important transition. We have to remain energy-independent. It gives us much more power and freedom than to be worried about what goes on in the Middle East. We have enough worries over there without having to worry about that. So I have a comprehensive energy policy, but it really does include fighting climate change because I think that is a serious problem. And I support moving towards more clean renewable energy as quickly as we can. Because I think we can be the twenty first century clean energy superpower and […].

As the example shows, Clinton is talking about three issues: (i) the importance of a ‘transition’ from reliance on current forms of energy to the use of ‘more renewable’ fuels; (ii) the fact that ‘climate change’ is a serious problem which needs to be addressed methodically; and (iii) the fact that the USA has the potential to become a ‘clean energy superpower’. However, by using ‘I think’ each time she explicitly puts on record the fact that those issues are her subjective opinion rather than actual facts, thus hedging “the commitment of the speaker to that which she […] asserts” (Rowland 2007, p. 82) and moving the tone of the utterance downward. All instances of ‘I think’ used in this excerpt are indeed examples of vague language because their meaning is both context-dependable (e.g. they provide information about ‘the possibility of a transition from current forms of energy to more sustainable ones’) and unresolvable (i.e. it would not be possible to decide how committed Clinton is to the truth of the proposals she is making).

In what follows, the quantitative findings of the study are presented and discussed in light of the research questions formulated above.

Results

Transcription of the televised debates resulted in a corpus of 42,137 words, 22,659 words uttered by Trump and 19,478 words by Clinton. The following table shows the number of words spoken by each candidate on each occasion, and also the total across all three debates:

As Table 1 shows, Trump generally used more words compared to Clinton in the first two debates; this results in an overall 15.09 percentage difference between the two candidates. To make the corpora comparable, the Type-Token Ratio and the Standardised Type/Token Ratio were also calculated for each corpus (McEnery and Hardie 2012). The results are shown in Table 2 below.
Table 1

The transcribed corpus

 

First debate

Second debate

Third debate

Total

Clinton

6457

6202

6819

19,478

Trump

8793

7197

6669

22,659

Percentage difference (%)

30.63

14.85

2.22

15.09

All debates

   

42,137

Table 2

Lexical variability

Candidate

1st debate

2nd debate

3rd debate

All debates

Trump

    

 Type/token ratio

14.61

15.84

16.09

9.24

 Standardised type/token ratio

34.19

33.69

33.56

33.69

Clinton

    

 Type/token ratio

21.08

20.40

20.60

12.57

 Standardised type/token ratio

38.62

38.32

38.75

38.56

As Table 2 shows, although overall Clinton used fewer words, her speech reveals greater vocabulary variation on all occasions. Nevertheless, because the corpora under investigation were slightly different in size, each frequency was also converted into a value per 1000 words. In other words, each frequency score was normalised.

In total, 2072 instances of vague expressions were identified. Of these, 851 were attributed to Clinton and 1221 instances were attributed to Trump. Table 3 below provides more detailed information concerning the use of vague language items across the debates in question. Note that in Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 ‘percentage difference’ values are positioned alongside the candidate who has the most occurrences (per 1000 words).
Table 3

Vague language use across debates and candidates

 

Frequency

Frequency per 1000 words

Percentage difference

1st debate

   

 Clinton

316

48.93

19.44

 Trump

523

59.47

2nd debate

   

 Clinton

280

45.14

1.86

 Trump

331

45.99

3rd debate

   

 Clinton

255

37.39

38.17

 Trump

367

55.03

All debates

   

 Clinton

851

43.69

20.88

 Trump

1221

53.88

Table 4

Vague boosters

 

Frequency

Frequency per 1000 words

Percentage difference

1st debate

   

 Clinton

82

12.69

43.67

 Trump

174

19.78

2nd debate

   

 Clinton

63

10.15

30.12

 Trump

99

13.75

3rd debate

   

 Clinton

62

9.09

74.09

 Trump

132

19.79

All debates

   

 Clinton

207

10.62

50.89

 Trump

405

17.87

Table 5

Vague estimators

 

Frequency

Frequency per 1000 words

Percentage Difference

1st debate

   

 Clinton

90

13.93

23.39

 Trump

155

17.62

2nd debate

   

 Clinton

85

13.70

10.28

 Trump

89

12.36

3rd debate

   

 Clinton

64

9.38

41.15

 Trump

95

14.24

All debates

   

 Clinton

239

12.27

19.75

 Trump

339

14.96

Table 6

Vague nouns

 

Frequency

Frequency per 1000 words

Percentage difference

1st debate

   

 Clinton

41

6.34

46.95

 Trump

90

10.23

2nd debate

   

 Clinton

48

7.73

22.80

 Trump

70

9.72

3rd debate

   

 Clinton

30

4.39

67.27

 Trump

59

8.84

All debates

   

 Clinton

119

6.10

43.78

 Trump

219

9.66

Table 7

Vague extenders

 

Frequency

Frequency per 1000 words

Percentage Difference

1st debate

   

 Clinton

3

0.46

104.66

 Trump

13

1.47

2nd debate

   

 Clinton

9

1.45

26.56

 Trump

8

1.11

3rd debate

   

 Clinton

9

1.31

38.76

 Trump

13

1.94

All debates

   

 Clinton

21

1.07

33.46

 Trump

34

1.50

Table 8

Vague subjectivisers

 

Frequency

Frequency per 1000 words

Percentage difference

1st debate

   

 Clinton

43

6.65

40.07

 Trump

39

4.43

2nd debate

   

 Clinton

33

5.32

67.67

 Trump

19

2.63

3rd debate

   

 Clinton

45

6.59

37.90

 Trump

30

4.49

All debates

   

 Clinton

121

6.21

46.18

 Trump

88

3.88

Table 9

Vague possibility indicators

 

Frequency

Frequency per 1000 words

Percentage difference

1st debate

   

 Clinton

55

8.51

37.87

 Trump

51

5.80

2nd debate

   

 Clinton

39

6.28

7.43

 Trump

42

5.83

3rd debate

   

 Clinton

45

6.59

17.31

 Trump

37

5.54

All debates

   

 Clinton

139

7.13

21.77

 Trump

130

5.73

Table 10

Vague de-intensifiers

 

Frequency

Frequency per 1000 words

Percentage difference

1st debate

   

 Clinton

2

0.30

92.68

 Trump

1

0.11

2nd debate

   

 Clinton

3

0.48

13.59

 Trump

4

0.55

3rd debate

   

 Clinton

0

0.00

a

 Trump

1

0.14

a

All debates

   

 Clinton

5

0.25

3.92

 Trump

6

0.26

aNote that Percentage difference can only be calculated for positive numbers greater than 0

As Table 3 shows, overall Trump used more than 20% as many vague language items as Clinton did in the debates under investigation. Trump’s tendency to use more instances of vague language is consistent across all the three debates. As the table shows, the most noticeable difference between the two candidates is, however, found in the third (38.17%) and first debate (19.44%), respectively, with the second debate ranking third (1.86%) in this respect.

The general frequency that emerged from the analysis of vague language use revealed how vague language was generally distributed. In the following, each category of vague language used by both candidates will be discussed separately.

Vague Boosters

Table 4 provides information concerning the use of vague boosters as used by both candidates in each of the debates and across the three debates in total.

As Table 4 shows, whilst both candidates show an overall tendency to make frequent use of vague expressions, Trump noticeably used more instances of vague boosters in each of the debates. Indeed, as the “Appendix” shows, the booster ‘very’ appears so frequently in Trump’s speech to the extent that it becomes his most commonly used vague word.

Vague Estimators

As in the case of vague boosters discussed above, overall Trump used a noticeably higher number of vague estimators. According to Table 5, with the exception of the second debate, Trump’s tendency to use more vague estimators is consistent across the other two debates. Also note that ‘many’ is among Trump’s most frequently used words (see “Appendix”).

Vague Nouns

Table 6 summarises the differences found between Trump and Clinton in terms of the number of vague nouns used in each debate and across the three debates in total.

As Table 6 shows, Trump used a greater number of vague nouns compared to Clinton’s, especially in the first (46.95%) and third (67.27%) debates. This tendency has resulted in his higher overall use of vague nouns (43.78%).

Vague Extenders

As far as the corpora under investigation reveal, Trump used a noticeably greater number of vague extenders compared to Clinton’s. Table 7 reveals how both candidates used vague extenders in each debate and across the three debates in total.

As Table 7 reveals, with the exception of the second debate, Trump’s tendency to use a greater number of vague expressions is consistent across the other two debates, thus resulting in an overall percentage difference of 33.46%.

Vague Subjectivisers

In the three presidential debates under investigation, Clinton used a higher number of vague subjectivisers overall (46%). Table 8 summarises the results.

As the table illustrates, Clinton’s tendency to use more instances of vague subjectivisers is consistent across all the three debates. This tendency can be taken as evidence which suggests that, compared to her rival, Clinton tends to highlight her lower degree of commitment or certainty to a greater extent than Trump.

Vague Possibility Indicators

The results of the current study indicate that, once again, Clinton used more instances of vague possibility indicators compared to her rival Trump. Consider Table 9:

As the table shows, the differences are more noticeable in the first (37.87%) and third debate (17.31%), resulting in an overall 21.77 percentage difference between the two candidates. In particular, it is interesting to note that the possibility indicator ‘would’ is constantly among Clinton’s two foremost vague expressions (see “Appendix”).

Vague De-intensifiers

As Table 10 shows, Vague de-intensifiers (e.g. ‘sort of’, ‘somewhat’) comprise the least frequent category of vague expressions used by both candidates under scrutiny. Indeed, both candidates used considerably more instances of vague boosters (see Table 4) than vague de-intensifiers to the extent that, in comparison with vague boosters, vague de-intensifiers are almost non-existent.

Discussion and Conclusion

It has long been argued that vague language is an important feature of language for it facilitates communication. In this respect, several researchers have recently argued that we are always confronted with vagueness (Janney 2002) and that appropriate use of vague language is a hallmark of a skilled language user (Carter and McCarthy 2006; Channell 1994). As Ediger (1995, p. 127) notes, “the ability to use appropriately vague language in certain situations, in fact, allows speakers and writers to tailor their language more suitably to a particular context or situation.” The present study was concerned with the use of vague expressions in the three U.S. presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The results showed that:
  1. (a)

    Trump’s speech reveals less lexical variability compared to Clinton’s.

     
  2. (b)

    Vague language is frequently used in the debates under investigation.

     
  3. (c)

    Trump used many more instances of vague language compared to Clinton, particularly vague boosters (50.89%), vague nouns (43.78%), vague extenders (33.46%) and vague estimators (19.75%).

     
  4. (d)

    Clinton used notably more instances of vague subjectivisers (46.18%) and vague possibility indicators (21.77%) compared to her rival Trump.

     
  5. (e)

    Vague de-intensifiers were almost non-existent in the corpora under investigation.

     
Regarding the first finding of the study, it could be claimed that the rather high number of vague expressions (e.g. ‘things’) in Trump’s speech, which are constantly repeated, might, to some extent, have resulted in his speech being less lexically varied.4
The second finding of the study shows that, regardless of whether or not vague language is ‘appropriate’ within the context of political debates, the candidates tended to resort to using vague expressions. An observation that can be made on the basis of the rather high frequency of vague expressions employed in the political debates under investigation, and found both in Trump’s and Clinton’s speeches, is that both candidates tended to make frequent use of vague expressions, albeit with certain differences in the number used. Noting that vague language has been claimed to feature mainly in more informal conversations, it would appear that a supposedly formal event such as a political debate (Irvine 1979), does not necessarily feature more formal language (i.e. one with fewer vague expressions). While it would be too far-reaching a claim to equate political debates, such as the type discussed in this paper, to ‘conversation’, it could be claimed that those debates investigated in this study have, to some extent, come closer to adapting typical features of informal conversations. Indeed, candidates “seem to be aware that voters favour simple over sophisticated rhetoric” (Ahmadian et al. 2017: 50; cf. Malouf and Mullen 2008). Note that recent research has clearly documented that an association exists:

between simple campaign rhetoric and success in gaining power (Conway et al. 2012; Suedfeld and Rank 1976). The key lesson is to match one’s complexity to that of the audience (Suedfeld 1992). (Ahmadian et al. 2017, p. 52; emphasis added).

Arguably, the frequent use of vague language items in political debates can also be attributed to the fact that, as was discussed above, vague expressions have the potential to help the speaker fulfill a variety of functions in communication. Indeed, to borrow from Bavelas et al. (1990, pp. 235–236), a “logical” explanation regarding the vagueness observed in political communication would be to attribute a politician’s vague language use to the situation he/she has found himself/herself in; a situation in which for the audience “[p]erceiving the communication of a political candidate as vague seems more dependent on his lack of stand and not so much on the fact that he does not [, by resorting to vague language,] explain his political action into details” (D’Errico et al. 2013, p. 11). In other words, as long a particular candidate in the view of his/her supporters does not lack ‘stand’, it would be rather unlikely that his/her frequent use of vague expressions could necessarily make him/her sound weak or undetermined. It is exactly against such a backdrop that one could claim that the notion of ‘appropriate’ vague language use has something to do with the range of strategic functions it serves in communication. According to Capone (2010, p. 2967), in political speeches such as the ones discussed in this paper, it is the audience that in part “establishes the meaning of what is said.”

The reasons behind why Trump used a greater number of vague expressions, compared to Clinton, are not entirely clear. What is clear, however, is that Trump’s speech reveals more vague expressions and thus a more informal language, a factor which, as stated above, may be a successful factor in ‘gaining power’. While the literature on the relationship between vague language and gender is not at all conclusive, Channell’s (1994) claim is that vagueness is “stereotypically associated” more with women rather than men, “whether or not they actually use more vague expressions” (p. 193). The fact that Trump used more instances of vague language in all the three debates under scrutiny seems to be in conflict with such a prediction. Such a finding also seems not to be consistent with the prediction that in mixed-sex dialogues “females use double the density of vague language that males do” (Cutting 2007c, p. 228). What this finding clearly shows, however, is that Trump’s speech, compared to that of Clinton’s, is generally closer to a more casual mode of communication; indeed, research has clearly shown that “the dialogues that contain the highest density of vague language are the casual conversations between close friends” (Cutting 2007c, p. 228).

As was noted above, one of the categories in which Trump used notably more expressions is that of vague boosters (e.g. ‘very’). Taking the issue of gender into consideration, this is in conflict with the findings of other studies. With regards to a vague expression such as ‘very’, for example, Murphy (2010, p. 132) reports that it occurs “less frequently in the male data.” Regarding other vague expressions (e.g. absolutely), Murphy (2010) also reports that “males boost less often” (p. 158). Murphy’s hypothesis, which is based on data pertaining to casual conversations, is worth considering:

The fact that they [males] boost less often may be due to the way males and females interact and converse. Females have generally been found to be more interactive and open during conversation than men (Holmes 1995). They bond during conversation and become very enthused and engaged in the topic which may account for high frequency of boosters. Men, on the other hand, have been found to be less interactive which may account for their low use of boosting devices. (Murphy 2010, pp. 158–159)

Trump’s more frequent use of vague boosters appears to be a result of his tendency to appear as authoritatively confident as possible. In this respect, it seems that Trump is more inclined to resort to vague boosters to discursively highlight a sense of assertiveness. Such frequent use of vague boosters can also be taken as evidence suggesting that Trump wants to appear more interactive and engaged, presumably as an attempt to make the audience feel involved in the communication process. Whilst the extent to which more frequent use of vague boosters can, in practice, help the speaker achieve more authority is still far from clear, it “at least sketches out a possible terrain of inquiry” (Corcoran 1990, p. 65) for future research in the field, especially with reference to “economic and power processes” (Izadi and Parvaresh 2016, p. 201) involved. Arguably, assertiveness’ is not necessarily a feature of vague boosters and each member of the audience might have a different interpretation of each candidate’s assertiveness. In fact, it would not be surprising to find people who believe that, overall, Clinton has had a more assertive tone. What is suggested here is that by using more instances of vague boosters, Trump has tried to portray himself as a more assertive person. The extent to which he has been successful is, of course, a matter of political, social, and strategic debate.

The overall higher use of vague estimators in Trump’s speech can also be taken as evidence suggesting that he has a greater tendency to avoid specifying “the quantity involved” (Jucker et al. 2003, p. 1751) or to avoid giving precise information for various reasons (cf. Mauranen 2004).

In this context, Clinton’s notably more frequent use of vague subjectivisers (e.g. I think) and vague possibility indicators (e.g. would) compared to her rival Trump, points towards Clinton’s tendency to further highlight her subjective opinion (Rue and Zhang 2008). It therefore appears that Clinton tends to convey the idea that “what I say here is merely my personal opinion” to a greater extent than Trump, thus protecting herself from the risk of being challenged and refuted (Zhang and Sabet 2016). Extrapolating from this, one could claim that Clinton tends to adopt a more cautious tone compared to that of her rival, particularly when it is considered that these expressions are typically associated with the expression of a speaker’s uncertainty and tentativeness.

Finally, the low number of vague de-intensifiers found in this study is in sharp contrast with the commonly held belief that people generally tend to ‘hedge’ their utterances rather than to boost them (for a discussion, see Hyland 2000, 2005; Powell 1985). Even if one combines the category of ‘vague possibility indicators’ with that of ‘vague deintensifiers’, which both move the degree of certainty an utterance expresses downward, one would still be able to see a huge gap between the use of vague boosters and these expressions. Such a deviation from using more instances of uncertainty markers than vague boosters can clearly be explained by referring to the nature of the debates in question, which presumably require the candidates to express themselves with more certainty and confidence.

On a general level, the differences observed can, on the one hand, be interpreted with reference to the well-defined personality, career, and professional differences between the candidates in question and, on the other hand, be attributed to the different communicative purposes they seek to achieve. Indeed, besides the high-stake nature of the presidential debates under investigation, the differences observed can be attributed to the fact that, as repeatedly acknowledged by both media and the candidates themselves, the nominees in this campaign clearly belonged to, and represented, opposing views and personalities. While group membership and related experience alone cannot determine communicative strategies, it might, in one way or another, influence the way in which each candidate formulates his/her speech. Such stark contrasts between the two candidates may lead us to consider how the debate under investigation, in general, and the differences in the use of vague expressions, in particular, have been caused by such seemingly intercultural differences (cf. Kecskes 2014). Trump and Clinton “might frequent the same weddings and tax brackets, but they represent competing binaries”, wrote Thomson (2016) in The Atlantic several months before the debates.

Nevertheless, one should not lose sight of the fact that notions such as speaker’s ‘assertiveness and ‘authority’ mentioned above depend not only on the use of vague expressions, but on a multitude of other factors (e.g. lexical choice, body language, intonation, audience expectations and power relations), the investigation of which is certainly beyond the scope of the present paper.

On the whole, the findings of the current study show that, despite differences in individual speakers, vague language is frequently used in political debates in what can best be described as “fluid, dynamic and multidimensional” as well as “stretchable and strategic” ways (Zhang 2016, p. 18). As Mey (2017, p. 198) notes, however, “working along CL [Corpus Linguistics] lines often opens up for new vistas.” This study is no exception. Therefore, more work needs to be done on vague language use in political discourse in general, and in political debates in particular, by drawing on corpora of a larger size. Other possible avenues for future research would be the investigation of the frequency and function of vague language in political debates in different languages and cultures, and also intercultural debates in which politicians of different language and cultural backgrounds are involved. Future researchers may also be interested in investigating audience perceptions of vague language use in political debates to measure how, and to what extent, vagueness and equivocation can influence the voting populace.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    For a definition of vague language, see next section.

  2. 2.

    The original sorites paradox would be a classic example of vagueness as discussed in philosophy. If “the removal of one grain from a heap always leaves a heap, then the successive removal of every grain still leaves a heap” (Williamson 1994, p. 4). Indeed, the word heap is vague because we cannot precisely explain where the boundary between a heap and a non-heap is to be found.

  3. 3.

    Due to reasons of space, in this paper a complete list of vague expressions considered is not provided.

  4. 4.

    I am aware that, given the high-stake nature of the debates in question in which people may need precision rather than imprecision, some people may consider a vague noun such as ‘thing’, as used in 'the one thing you have over me' being uttered by a presidential candidate, to be inappropriate. However, we are not at this stage in a position to judge which expression would be more appropriate.

Notes

Acknowledgements

I wish to express my gratitude to the anonymous reviewers from Corpus Pragmatics who went through earlier versions of this paper and made very insightful comments and suggestions with a view to improving its quality. I am also indebted to Tahmineh Tayebi for her help and advice. I take sole responsibility for any remaining inadequacies.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of English and MediaAnglia Ruskin UniversityCambridgeUK

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