What does punctuation tell us about Republicans and Democrats?

Adam J Calhoun
Jul 28, 2016 · 3 min read

In the space of a few months, I have somehow become the foremost expert on punctuation. I now receive emails asking, “What does punctuation say about [highly intelligent topic that I should probably have a real opinion about]?” Typically I would say, probably nothing. But it is political season which means that truth is out the window and style is in. So what does punctuation tell us about Republicans and Democrats?

Trump (left) and Bill Clinton (right)

The Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) have given us a wealth of text that we can analyze (note: as of writing this Hillary Clinton’s speech has not yet occurred). What happens when we strip out the words from the transcripts and just look at the structure that underlies the speeches? Do we see any differences in how the Democrats and Republicans are discussing the state of the world?

Take a quick glance at the symbols used by Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. We can see straight off that Trump is full of dollar signs and percentages; Bill Clinton abounds with quotes.

Let’s look at some broader trends. I selected the text of five speeches at the RNC (Cruz, Donald Trump, Jr., Melania Trump, Pence, and Donald Trump) and five at the DNC (Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and Sanders).

How punctuation is used n different speeches. Note that the scale is normalized to each topic.

What jumps out? That Biden is quite the excitable fellow. That Cruz and Trump Jr. are asking a lot of questions? That the Democrats are telling stories and relating people and ideas. That Sanders and Trump are talking about statistics and relating the numbers to people.

But how important is punctuation? Let’s look at one of the most talked-about lines of last night: Barack Obama’s imploring of the audience not to boo but to vote. How exactly should we write it? As Emily Dreyfus noted, people disagreed:

Should it be “Don’t boo, vote”? “Don’t boo — vote” “Don’t, boo. Vote” Each of these styles gives a different feeling, a subtly different meaning.

With help from Justin Kiggins, I analyzed every tweet since yesterday that contained the line. There is consensus:

  1. Don’t boo, vote (49.46% of tweets)
  2. Don’t boo. Vote (23.09%)
  3. Don’t boo vote [okay, this is just bad grammar.] (5.49%)
  4. Don’t boo…vote (2.51%)
  5. Don’t boo; vote (1.67%)
  6. Don’t boo — vote (1.43%)
  7. Don’t boo! Vote (0.95%)

Everyone remember: don’t boo, vote.

Note: I will probably be updating this as more transcripts come in. Don’t consider what you read the final word!

    Adam J Calhoun

    Written by

    Social neuroscience, decision-making, machine learning, ecology, economics.

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