Verbal Bayonets: The Words and Style of the Final Presidential Debate

Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer hosted the final presidential debate sit-down with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, focused ostensibly on the matter of foreign policy, Monday evening. Here is your semantical commentary. (For GIFs and things, go here). 

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'Twas the final presidential debate of the season last night. Here is your semantical commentary. (For GIFs and things, go here). Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer hosted this sit-down with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, focused ostensibly on the matter of foreign policy, though there were divergences, at the end, Romney exclaiming "I love teachers!" (Schieffer responded, "I think we all love teachers," and moved the conversation to closing remarks.) In the purely personal Words & Style rankings, I'd say this debate was better than the first, not as compelling or speech-entertaining as the second (what with all that talk of women in binders), and nowhere near the semantical fun of Biden's "malarkey" moment in the only V.P. debate, against Paul Ryan. Herewith, some further analysis of Debate No. 3, with the help of Brown University visiting professor, Geoffrey Pullum and Babel No More author Michael Erard, who've supplied their linguistic expertise to a number of the previous debates, plus the language analysis of Expert System.

Fashion and style. Starting with the physical: Romney may have gotten a bit of sun while in Florida, or my TV screen (I was watching on CBS for this debate) made it appear that way. He looked just a little bit tanner. Both men wore dark suits, as they've worn each debate, with crisp white shirts and different colored ties: Romney's was red-and-blue striped (someone—fine, @DaneCook—pointed out that combo is the flag of Norway; a Norwegian tweeted back "NO IT ISN'T!!"). Obama's tie was blue, with small polka-dots, and without obvious comparisons to the flags of other nations. Romney's lapel flag pin in split-screen shots dwarfed Obama's, forcing me to wonder if he was going with a slightly larger one in each debate for liminal impact. They both looked nicely presidential. Romney was visibly sweating at points, while Obama was not. In the end, they both delivered their closing remarks looking straight at the camera, which felt earnest and sort of debate camp 101-y, but was perhaps what they should have been doing all along—i.e., speaking to those undecided voters, with eye contact.

Speech patterns. A couple things to note that have been fairly consistent in each debate. Obama takes noticeable pauses between sentences and sometimes words. His "uh"-dropping has improved, but he still does it. Romney talks fast, so fast that his form of verbal pause tends to be repeating the same two words twice, for instance, "of of" or "if if," as if it's all coming out so quickly he just can't stop and the words begin to pile up on top of each other at the end of the verbal escalator. A few words were said repeatedly: "centrifuge," "folly," "tumult," "crippling sanctions." Romney returned to his business experience and the economy in this debate about foreign policy; Obama, also, used it to talk things domestic and economy.

Michael Erard told us, "Lots of people will note Romney's repeated use of tumult and rising chaos. It's not just that he likes those words; it's that they're in his briefing books, and in last night's debate he was parroting what he has learned. Foreign policy is Obama's territory because he lives and talks it every day, and his fluency is a result of that. After the debate, I switched over to Univision, and Dan Restrepo was on, saying that Romney talks foreign policy as if it's his second language. I thought that was a very apt characterization."

Pullum added, "Obama showed some signs (unusually) of having adopted a highly rehearsed motto or trope: I noticed 'strong and steady leadership' vs. 'wrong and reckless leadership' (he rang that bell at least three times!). Another repeated theme was 'all over the map.' But that certainly was an appropriate metaphor, given that Romney truly did drift this way and that, desperately trying to find areas of the logical space of policies that he could move toward that might make people like him. There was no Romney line being pushed here; this was a Romney billiard ball being smacked north, east, south, and west around the table." (As for maps, the voices of the Internet were eager to point out that Romney was incorrect in his statement that "Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world ... It's their route to the sea.")

From Expert System, "Governor Romney spoke more, using shorter sentences with a slightly simpler construction (a total of 554 clauses with an average of two prepositions per clause), versus President Obama who used approximately three prepositions per clause (for a total of 393 clauses)." They both used relatively simple language. Obama said I 102 times and we 165 times; Romney said I 184 times and we 229 times. Romney's words scored higher for overall positive sentiment, Expert System reports, though both scored high in this regard. A word cloud of main concepts:

Verb-wise, "Romney made greater use of can (indicative of permission), while decreasing his use of will or would; Obama relied on an increased use of will and would (indicating future intent) and a decreased use of can," according to the language analysis.

Meme-able words and phrases. Obama's strike-back against Romney's comments that the Navy was getting smaller was memorable and perhaps the snarkiest moment of the debate—"Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets," he said. "We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines." This of course led to a range of "horses and bayonets"-related jokes, tweets, and memes, inspiring numerous fact-checkers to find out that, yes, the military still uses bayonets. Though certainly not exclusively. There was also the moment that Obama said, essentially, that the '80s called and wanted their foreign policy back from Romney. Meanwhile, Romney's invitation, "come to my website and see for yourself" what he plans to do garnered a derisive chuckle from the Internet.

Debate lookups spiking via Merriam-Webster:

Missteps. At one point, to the horror of the general Twitter audience, Bob Schieffer appeared to say "Obama's bin Laden" rather than "Osama." I asked Pullum if there was a word for this kind of mistake, i.e., an eggcorn or whatnot. Alas, no: There's "No specific name; he just misspoke, confusing two very similar phonological forms," says Pullum. Though, in fairness, it's not totally wrong. One could argue that Osama kind of was Obama's bin Laden (or that was in any case a good "fix" from Schieffer, better certainly than "Obama bin Laden") since Obama ultimately did get his bin Laden.

The debate. "It must be very tough to debate a president on foreign policy," says Pullum, "Romney kept having to back down or agree or concede." Note that as with previous debates Obama used words to highlight his presidential experience (something Romney, for all his talk of a business background, can't do): for example, "Here's one thing i've learned as commander in chief." Meanwhile, from Pullum, "Romney frequently had to say things like, 'I want to underscore the same point the president made' (on Israel) or 'absolutely the right thing to do' (on 'crippling sanctions' on Iran), or 'I agree ... military action is the last resort.' All Obama had to say was 'I'm glad that Governor Romney agrees...', and he was already looking like a winner." When feeling attacked, Romney countered it verbally, saying, "attacking me won't help."

There were loads of interruptions and instances of overtalk, predictably now being used on either side to say the opponent of one's choice was rude. Pullum highlights some contradictions as well, from Romney: "He managed to contradict himself early on in the same sort of way we have become used to: 'We can't kill our way out of this,' he said, and then: 'My strategy is... to go after the bad guys... To kill them...'! That came very early on, and already I found myself thinking that he was looking silly."

Overall. Once again, Pullum notes that we got a lot of debate without significant content, which is, it seems par for the course. After all, people who've already made up their minds are unlikely to be convinced by what goes on substantively (or if it does) at any of these sit-downs; how many of us watch like we watch sports teams, just to root on our favored competitor with little concern about their intent or even who they are? "We ended up with the language of agreement but absolutely no signs of critiquing of policies. We heard disagreement about whether Romney had changed his mind (he had, but he wouldn't admit it), but no debate on the many aspects of America's stance in the world that might well be discussed and reconsidered," says Pullum. "That's probably a pity. But it was not a surprise to me: these presidential "debates" have never been what I would call a debate. Once again I thought of Monty Python's 'Argument Clinic' sketch: 'Look, I came here for an argument.' 'Oh; sorry, this is abuse.' We didn't get America's positions analysed by two intelligent men with different points of view (though I'd like to see that); we got an unprepared vacillator being abused and humiliated very effectively by a very intelligent commander in chief. Worth watching, but not really a debate at all." He added, "I notice that CBS is finding (as of about 11 p.m.) that well over twice as many people think Obama won as think Romney won. I can see why people think that."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.