Trump Clinton First Debate – disfluency and smile


The Monday nclinton-smile-whew-okight presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was apparently the most watched debate in American history. When I woke up today, my facebook was “刷屏” (screen-painted) by everyone’s opinion on this, so I sat down, opened youtube and started watching. OK I didn’t just watch.  I thought, why don’t I check out their disfluency patterns, and whether there were any smiles and laughter in this presumably hostile interaction? This took me a whole day. Someone in the cafe saw me watching the video and said, “isn’t watching the debate so much better than working?”. I thought, “this is working!”

So here are some of my initial observations. People have the impression that Donald Trump is way more disfluent than Hilary Clinton, that he has a lot of incomplete sentences and that he repeats himself a lot. This is partly true. Trump and Clinton have very different types of disfluency. However, in terms of occurrences of disfluencies, they are not so different.

First, a few words of types of disfluencies. First there are silent and filled pauses. Pauses can be filled by things like “um” and “uh”, but also by “discourse markers” such as “you know”, “I mean”, “like” etc. Second, there are repetitions. We sometimes repeat parts of what we said – can be as small as a syllable, or as large as a clause. Third, there are repairs. We may say something, stop, and trace back to change what we said. We may repair “small things” like a morpheme, such as a plural marker. Here is an example from Trump: “(the thing + the things) that business as in people like the most is the fact that I’m cutting regulation”. Note that I have annotated the repair in the form of (to-be-repaired + repair). Here Trump repaired “the thing” by adding a plural ending. We may also repair big chunks. Here is another example from Trump: “We have endorsements from, I think, almost every police group, very — I mean, a large percentage of them in the United States”. Here Trump first said “almost every police group”, and then changed it into “a large percentage of them”.  Lastly, there are abandoned (incomplete) utterances. For example, Trump said “we have made so many bad deals during the last — so she’s got experience, that I agree.”. The first sentence was incomplete (“the last…”).

So I counted all filled pauses, repetitions, repairs and abandoned utterances. Note that I didn’t analyse interruptions, or disfluencies during cross talk (obviously there were a lot of repetitions and abandoned utterances from both of them during cross talk). Trump had a fair number of repetitions, repairs and abandoned utterances, and relatively few filled pauses. He often stops mid-sentence to insert extra information, called asides or parentheticals.  Often they are anecdotes or comments about himself (“he called me the other day” or “I’m not going to get credit for it”), and he may or may not come back to his original sentence afterwards. Clinton, on the other hand, had almost no repairs or abandoned utterances, a few repetitions, and many more filled pauses. Overall, Trump had 67 disfluencies while Clinton had 53. Mind you, I haven’t counted the total number of words (and I suspect Trump said more). So their overall rates of disfluencies may be the same. types-of-dis

So here is your impression confirmed. Trump tends to repeat himself, he often stops mid-sentence to add something, and may or may not come back to his original partial sentence. He also often changes his mind about what he said (repairs). This is why he doesn’t come across as a well-prepared and eloquent speaker. Below are some examples:


TRUMP: New York — New York has done an excellent job. And I give credit — I give credit across the board going back two mayors.

Repetition with inserted asides:

TRUMP: And Sean Hannity said — and he called me the other day — and I spoke to him about it — he said you were totally against the war, because he was for the war.


TRUMP: They (left + fired ) 1,400 people.

TRUMP: I could name + { I mean}  there are thousands of them.

Abandoned utterance:

TRUMP: The African-American community — because — look, the community within the inner cities has been so badly treated.

TRUMP: whether it’s — I mean, I can just keep naming them all day long — we need law and order in our country.


Clinton, on the other hand, speaks more slowly, and she uses more filled pauses than Trump. The filled pauses, however, are not evenly distributed. There are long stretches of speech without a single filled pause, but there are pockets of utterances where filled pauses are frequent. One example was her discussion about cyber crime. Here is one paragraph from her, fillers are annotated like { F uh}.

CLINTON: Well, I think we need to do much more {F uh} with our tech companies to  {F uh} prevent ISIS and their operatives {F uh} from being able to use the Internet to radicalize, even direct {F uh} people in our country and Europe and elsewhere. But we also have to intensify our air strikes against ISIS {F uh} and eventually support our Arab and Kurdish {F uh} partners to be able to actually take out ISIS {F uh} in Raqqa. {F uh} And we’re hoping that {F uh} within the year we’ll be able to push ISIS out of Iraq and then, you know, really squeeze them in Syria.

Looking at disfluency patterns over time, it shows that Trump’s disfluency increases steadily over time, while Clinton’s disfluency fluctuates, peaking at 60 to 75 minutes window, when they were discussing cyber crime and fighting ISIS. over-time


What does this disfluency difference between Trump and Clinton mean? Do repetitions /repairs /abandoned utterances suggest a less clear mind? a freer mind?, a mind that gets distracted by its own thoughts? Do fluctuations in rates of filled pauses indicate fluctuations in confidence? I don’t know. The viewers were clearly annoyed by Trump’s disfluency much more than by Clinton’s. Trump style disfluency – repetitions, inserted asides, repairs and abandoned utterances – affects discourse coherence. It doesn’t necessarily mean his mind is incoherent, but it IS a style that is more egocentric and less considerate.  It indicates less initial planning and preparation. Clinton’s disfluency, namely filled pauses, indicates the opposite: planning. She pauses in order to make the upcoming utterance clear. So Trump was just externalizing his inner (rather free and unique) trail of thoughts, but Clinton was aiming for getting the exact ideas across to us: she cared about how OUR trail of thoughts changes as a result of her speech.

Now, what about smile and laughter? Were there any? Of course. One widely held impression was that Clinton had to smile a lot while waiting for Trump’s nonsense. And again, the impression was confirmed! She did smile a lot, and very often for looonnnggg stretches of time!

I found a total of 42 smiles and laughs of Trump and Clinton (there were also 8 audience laughs). And yes, most of them came from Clinton (74%)! The total duration of Clinton’s smile/laugh was 124 seconds, compared to Trump’s total of 14 seconds (nearly 10:1). Compare to friendly conversations, while laughter happens between 10 – 50 times per 10 min, this debate was a smile/ laughter desert (at 0.5 times per 10min including smiles). In friendly conversations, there a lot of “dyadic” laugh, meaning when one person laughs, the other often joins in. In this debate there was only one occasion where both joined the smile/laugh. Trump had just said a lot of bad things about Clinton’s temperament. Clinton responded “Whew, OK”, followed by a laugh (and some shoulder wiggling). At that moment,  the audience laughed and Mr Trump smiled at her. Here is a screen shot.clinton-smile-whew-ok


Very sweet huh? This was the only not-so-hostile laughter sharing moment between the two. All the other smiles and laughs communicates something hostile, or at least, non-cooperative. And of course when one does it, the other wouldn’t join. The most frequent “meaning” of smiles and laughs in this debate can be paragraphed as “ridiculous”. It is often when one person had said something about the other (often Trump was the speaker), and the other smiles to say “RIDICULOUS”.

Both Trump and Clinton used smiles and laughs in this way, but they look very different.  Trump never showed his teeth. Very often he just lifted the corners of his mouth, and there was nothing around his eyes, which makes his smiles look “disingenuous”. Sometimes his smiles were accompanied with eye rolling or head shaking. Compared to Clinton, Trump’s smiles were much short (on average 1.5 seconds). Here are some of his signature smiles:

  1. Trump smiling to Clinton’s “he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks”:


  1. Trump smiles to Clinton’s “I was so shocked that Donald publicly invited Putin to hack into Americans”:


  1. Clinton said “I have put forth a plan to defeat uh ISIS”, and Trump reacted…


In comparison, Clinton smiled a lot, and each time for a long time. Her average smile/laugh duration was 4.5 seconds (compared to 1.5 seconds of Trump), and the longest smile was 15 seconds long, 15 seconds long!!! That’s much longer than a usual natural smile! Also, though the function of her smiles and laughs were the same as Trumps –  to dismiss what Trump just said, to communicate “that’s ridiculous” – her smiles look much more friendly. If I didn’t give you a context, you may well think she was hosting a party, or was talking to a friendly neighbour. Look:

  1. Trump said “And you’re going to stop them [ISIS]? I don’t think so.”, and Clinton smiled, for 10 seconds:clinton-smile-you-cannot-stop-isis.
  2. Trump said “All of the things that she’s talking about could have been taken care of during the last 10 years, let’s say, while she had great power. But they weren’t taken care of. And if she ever wins this race, they won’t be taken care of”. Clinton smiled (at least 3 seconds, as the camera moved to the host).


6. Trump said “$200 million is spent [by Clinton], and I’m either winning or tied, and I’ve spent practically nothing”. Clinton smiled for 3 seconds.clinton-smile-ive-spent-practically-nothing


So these were my initial observations. Trump and Clinton were disfluent in different ways. Trump tended to repeat, repair and abandon his sentences mid-air. Clinton used more filled pauses, but these filled pauses clustered in some stretches and were absent in others.

Trump didn’t show a great smile: no teeth, no eyes, and not so many. Clinton, on the other hand, smiled often and she kept them long. Her smiles were so friendly-looking, one might forget that linguistically they served the same functions as Trump’s bitter smirks.

I understand Trump’s bitter smiles. Clinton’s remarks were not friendly, why should Trump’s smiles be sweet? But why did Clinton have so many sweet and long smiles, after so many harsh attacks from Trump? Ahhh maybe her smiles were for the audience. She was strategically saying to us “look at how stupid Trump is, we (inclusive) are much better than him”. So Trump’s smiles stayed within their interaction, but Clinton’s smiles reached out. Did it work? What do you think 😉


9 thoughts on “Trump Clinton First Debate – disfluency and smile

  1. Billy Clark

    Brilliant piece, Ye. Thanks! One comment is I’m wondering about the term ‘disfluency’ for all of these. Are filled pauses disfluent? They’re often described as bring about ‘management’ (of the floor). So could they be seen as a sign if fluency (or attempting to maintain fluency)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yetianlinguist Post author

      I agree. These different types of “disfluencies” have different impacts on communication. They are certainly perceived differently. Viewers easily pick up Trump’s abandoned utterances, repetitions and repairs, but mostly didn’t notice the filled pauses from Clinton. In a way, all of them can be seen as elements of “own communication management” right? Filled pauses kind of reflect planning (or effort required for planning), while abandoned utterances and repairs reflect lack of initial planning. The speaker just go with the flow and modifies his thought online. They may reflect different thinking styles, or different levels of preparation, or both, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. nick gaylord

    This is rad. I don’t know much about disfluencies — in a general population, what are the relative frequencies of the different types you identify here? I would imagine filled pauses might be more common, and if so then some of Trump’s more uniformly-distributed disfluencies would be more noticeable lending to an impression of being more disfluent than the absolute difference suggests. Maybe?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yetianlinguist Post author

      Good point. I want to check. I think I will 😉 I suspect that disfluency patterns somehow correlate with personality traits, and at the extremes with neuro/psychological disorders (not suggesting Trump is crazy!). Trump’s style strives me as being typical for people who gets lots of ideas activated a lot of the times – call them “horizontal connectors” ;P – which is why they constantly modify what they started out to say. In comparison, there are people who start with one plan and sticks with it, never gets distracted by any other thoughts – let’s call them “vertical path followers” – I get the feeling that these people come across as being very clear and coherent, because every future step is a logical follow-up of the current step. However, a quick search didn’t return any relevant research on personality and disfluencies! ;P


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  4. Chad Nilep

    (Copying my own comment from Language Log)
    I am curious about some of the counting. Specifically, I wonder how you identify “pauses filled by… ‘discourse markers'”. Many discourse markers (e.g. ‘like’, ‘you know’, ‘so’) occur both in filled pauses and in planned speech. Are filled pauses identified independently of the word or sound that fills them? Are certain lexical items re-examined as likely indicators of filled pauses? Have you published (or posted) work that details this aspect of your methodology?

    Thanks for a very interesting analysis.


    1. yetianlinguist Post author

      @Chad Nilep good point about what counts as fillled pauses. Theory-wise, I believe there whether something is a filled pause is a continuous rather than binary feature. It should be based on distribution of a term rather than semantic meaning. So “like” could potentially be just as much as a filled pause as “uh”. However, for this analysis, I only counted “uh” and “um” (way more “uh” than “um). But I should probably have counted both “uh” and “um”, and “you know” and “I mean”, “well” etc. Something for the second and last debate!!


  5. Pingback: Debate No. 2 – the battle | Ye Tian

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