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Compare and Contrast Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

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This study’s main goal is to analyze how both Trump and Clinton conform to gendered speech styles and sociolinguistic interactional approaches to language and gender. This includes ‘the four D’s’, which is an approach to gendered language that contains the deficit, dominance, difference, and dynamic models. However, this study will not look into how the dynamic model can be applied due to its lack of relevance to this debate. During the 2016 election, both Trump and Clinton comply with the typical language styles of their respective genders. This compliance perpetuates stereotypes surrounding not only gender and language but gender as a whole. This transcript, from the first presidential debate, is full of gendered discourse that this study will analyze in order to understand how gendered speech styles are present in politics and how this affects gender perception in the wider world. This study will also look to understand how Trump’s use of language abides by stereotypical male gender norms and how Clinton conforms to some gender norms, but also how she rejects them through her use of language.


The real beginning of research into language and gender began in the ’70s when books such as Lakoff’s ‘Language and Woman’s Place’ were released. It began to take off in the ’90s, as third-wave feminism began to rise and more research began to be produced, including Tannen’s ‘You Just Don’t Understand. To continue, interactional approaches to language and gender look into interactions between men and women and attempt to understand how and why this differs. A common theory within interactional models is called ‘The four D’s’. This refers to four different approaches to gendered speech styles. The first is a deficit, which argues that men’s and women’s speech styles differ because women lack assertiveness and dominance within their speech. This model is closely related to Lakoff who argued women’s lack of assertiveness is apparent in several ways and presents itself as a form of politeness. She states ‘ women’s speech sounds much more ‘polite’ than men’(Lakoff and Bucholtz, 2004). She argues the lack of dominance is present through the use of ‘tag questions’ which are a kind of polite statement, in that it does not force agreement or belief on the addressee’(Lakoff and Bucholtz, 2004). It is also present, she argues, through high-rise intonation. This connotes uncertainty and Lakoff argues this is the result of socialization into different gender roles. The second is dominance, which argues men dominate the sphere of language. Due to the language being man-made, the dominance model argues it props up the patriarchy by limiting women’s ability to properly express themselves. The model is linked to Dale Spender, who argues that ‘women remain ‘outsiders’, borrowers of the language’(Spender, 2001). She uses the example of motherhood, in the way that language has made it so that it is difficult for women to speak negatively of motherhood and childbirth, due to the connotations of motherhood as solely positive. Zimmerman and West add to the dominance model by arguing men dominate language by violating turn-taking rules and interrupting frequently (Zimmerman and West, 1996). The next is a difference, which takes a more lenient approach and argues that as children we are socialized into separate gender roles. From there we are socialized into different sociolinguistic subcultures and adopt different forms of communication, therefore the differences in language are a form of miscommunication. However, this model has been critiqued for conforming to biological essentialism as it reinforces the divide between men and women and perpetuates the idea we are biologically hardwired. The last model is dynamic, which rejects biological essentialism, and draws on the idea that different structures keep gendered language norms in place rather than gender itself. It focuses on the idea that identity is fluid rather than binary.


This study will carry out a discourse analysis of the Trump vs Clinton debate which occurred on the 26th of september 2016 and was the first debate between the two. As electives of both the democratic and republican parties, the two already share different views in terms of politics, and their use of language further highlights both their difference in ideological beliefs, but also their difference in gendered speech styles as laid out by Holmes and Stubble. They argue that there are ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles of speech. Feminine features of speech include being indirect, giving supportive feedback, being person orientated and often giving minor contributions in public(Ehrlich, Meyerhoff, Holmes and Stubbe, 2003). However, although Clinton conforms to some of these, she also rejects many. For example, within this debate she gave large contributions with substantial justifications. To continue, Masculine features are identified as being direct, confrontational, competitive, dominating talking time, committing aggressive interruptions and being outcome orientated. This applies to Trump overtly, and therefore this debate has been chosen because both Trump and Clinton’s language choices conform to the interactional approaches mentioned above and through their language choices they both play into typical gender roles of men and women. Trump, especially, considering his several sexist comments over the years, is an excellent example when discussing gender and language. This study will firstly analyse the ways in which the two comply with interactional theories of gendered language (The four D’s) in politics. It will secondly analyse the ways in which their use of language conforms to wider gender norms, but also how Clinton rejects some of these norms and how Trump embodies them.


To begin, we can apply the four interactional models of gender and language to this debate in several ways. Firstly, Clinton abides to the deficit model several times. For example, she stated ‘I think (50) and ‘I believe’ (137) repeatedly throughout the debate. This use of tentative language is a feature of politeness and conforms to Lakoff’s theory of female socialisation into a polite form of language. It also presents her speech as uncertain and apologetic, which can ultimately undermine the actual message she is trying to convey. However her use of personal pronouns ‘I’ allows her to present a more personal side to her viewers which helps her to create authenticity. This conforms to gendered speech styles, in which research has proven women are more likely to use personal pronouns than men. For example, Lenard argues ‘Brownlow et al.’s (2003) research of linguistic behavior…found that women used the pronoun I more than men’(Lenard, 2021). This links to the idea that women in politics are more closely related to personal issues, for example childcare, families and healthcare, which perpetuates the stereotypical belief that women are ‘homemakers’ even in their political roles. In contrast, Trump expresses his assertiveness multiple times throughout the debate. For example, he states ‘that makes me smart’(646). The authoritative narrative Trump uses presents him as powerful and domineering as he exerts confidence in everything he says. The adjective ‘smart’ allows him to present himself as superior and conforms to the deficit model in the sense that he asserts his male power by highlighting his intelligence and authority.

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Secondly, the two conform to the dominance model of gender and language in many ways. The most important example of this is Trump’s numerous interruptions. He routinely uses interruptions as a way to claim back his political identity by claiming that anything that is said about him is untrue. For example, when discussing climate change, Clinton discusses how Trump believes climate change is a hoax, to which he replies ‘I did not. I did not. I do not say that’ (223). He uses repetition in an attempt to assert authority, however he changes from the past tense to the future tense which undermines his claim. Despite the fact that the exact tweet he released was still up at the time, he still blatantly lies and attempts to use dominating language to side step this issue. He also uses ‘excuse me’ (264) repeatedly when interrupting. This contrasts with Clinton’s politeness, as typically this phrase is used in a respectful manner and Trump alternatively uses it to facilitate his rude interruptions. Trump also interrupts even after asking Clinton a question, he states ‘And, Hillary, I’d just ask you this’ (258), then blocks her answer with another interruption. Here, he clearly violates turn-taking rules of conversation and through this tries to show dominance over Clinton. We can relate this to Zimmerman and Wests theory of the dominance model, as their study found men exert dominance in language by ignoring general rules of conversations. Their study of 31 conversations found men interrupted 46 times while women only interrupted twice(Zimmerman and West, 1996). The huge difference in interruptions between men and women support the idea that men are more likely to violate turn-taking rules and therefore appear more dominant than women. Trump and Clinton both follow the trend in this debate and therefore conform to the dominance model of language and gender. To continue, Trump often uses patronising language, including ‘Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy.’(163). The use of a question presents sarcasm, and although this could be an attempt at authenticity, it poses as a snarky comment. The patronising nature of this comment can be perceived, again, as an attempt at exerting authority.

Thirdly, Trump and Clinton both conform to the difference model of language and gender throughout their debate. This is present firstly through Clinton’s use of personal anecdotes and information. She states ‘my father was a small businessman’(133). Again, her use of the personal pronoun ‘my’ illustrates an intimate relationship she intends to form with the audience and listeners. She also discusses her ‘father’, which connotes family and close relationships, which in turn allows her to present herself as authentic and trustworthy. She also identifies his occupation as a ‘small businessman’ which intensifies this authenticity and highlights her humble upbringing. This is especially beneficial when taking into context the party she is part of and their ideological beliefs in terms of wealth and tax raises for the rich. Tannen argues that as we are socialised, men are taught to value facts while women are taught to value personal conversations. She argues that speech for men is ‘more like giving a report than establishing rapport’(Tannen, 1992), like it is for women. This is apparent in this debate as Clinton uses personal information to gain the trust of her supporters and the different subcultures of language we are socialised into are clear here. In contrast, Trump’s anecdotes appear to be in favour of boosting his own ego rather than an attempt at appearing authentic. For example, ‘I did a great job’ (1100). The use of the adjective ‘great’ highlights his confidence and conviction, despite the fact that what he did was force Obama to provide a birth certificate after accusing him of not being a US citizen. The contrast of his actions and his pride highlights Trump’s incompetence in an almost ironic way. This difference in language can be associated with the different forms of language we are socialised into as children and this manifests itself as more masculine and feminine speech styles. However in regards to the dynamic approach to language and gender, this study will not touch on how it can be applied to this debate. This is because it has limited implications that can be linked with this debate and the other three models apply more convincingly.

This next section of analysis will focus on how Trump adheres to male stereotypes of gender and how Clinton rejects stereotypically female roles through their use of language. Firstly, Trump’s use of language routinely plays into the gender norms of men. He very often displays features of the ‘male bravado’ most likely influenced by ‘hegemonic masculinity’. His use of one word answers and short sentences, such as ‘Wrong. Wrong’(1293) highlights his dominant position in society, as he is confident that his authoritative tone of voice and body language is enough to prove his point. Here, he uses accusatory language which highlights his aggression and male gendered speech, as ‘the main characteristic of his masculine verbal communication was accusatory speech’(Grebelsky-Lichtman and Katz, 2019).He also makes little attempt to justify many of his answers, further illustrating his power as a male. In order to show his masculinity he discusses how he doesn’t listen to others advice and his autonomy over his decisions are clear. He states ‘And that’s against-my lawyers’(618). The use of the word ‘against’ connotes confrontation and conflict and presents his dominating nature by emphasising that he cannot be controlled by others, even if they’re trained professionals. In contrast, Clinton, as the first female presidential candidate of a major party, rejects gender norms associated with femininity through her choice of language . For example, the stereotype of women as subordinate in speech interactions is rejected through phrases she uses often such as ‘we need’(758) and ‘we should’ (721). The use of modals expresses her conviction and authority, by presenting her ideas as necessary rather than merely requests. Here the wider gender norm that women are submissive is rejected through her authoritative tone. In addition, the larger implications of gender specific norms are highlighted through Trump’s use of casual and dismissive language. For example, he uses the word ‘like’(980) as an adverb and the interjection ‘ugh’(900), highlighting his nonchalant attitude. However, it can be argued if Clinton was to use this speech style she would be critiqued by both the media and public for being rude or bratty. This plays into the gender stereotype that women who are outspoken are bossy and impolite.


To conclude, this 2016 Trump vs Clinton debate exhibits a multitude of examples of gendered discourse and highlights how gender norms in general are present in language. They both conform to interactional approaches to gendered language. They firstly conform to the deficit model through Clinton’s use of tentative and polite language, in contrast Trump uses assertive and confident language in order to present himself as powerful. They conform to the dominance model mainly through Trump’s constant interruptions, which Zimmerman and West identify as ways men utilise language to express dominance. Thirdly, they conform to the difference model through mainly Clinton’s use of personal and intimate subject matter and her anecdotes. On the other hand, Trump favours anecdotes as a way to fuel his hypermasculine identity rather than to convey a sense of trustworthiness. However, the dynamic model is difficult to apply to this debate, as it relies on the idea that gender identity is now fluid and both Trump and Clinton identify as their biological binary genders and express language speech styles of their designated gender. Lastly, Trump’s use of language highlights how he abides by gender norms of masculinity by appearing dominant and aggressive. In contrast, Clinton utilizes language to reject gender norms of women as weak and submissive by adopting more typically male speech styles. However, ultimately the two both conform to their respective gendered speech styles throughout the debate.


  1. Lakoff, R. and Bucholtz, M., 2004. Language and Woman’s Place. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.50.
  2. Spender, D., 2001. Man-made language. London: Pandora, p.12.
  3. Ehrlich, S., Meyerhoff, M., Holmes, J. and Stubbe, m., 2003. The handbook of language, gender, and sexuality. Pp.572-599.
  4. Lenard, D., 2021. Gender differences in the usage of the personal pronoun on the corpus of congressional speeches. Journal of Research Design and Statistics in Linguistics and Communication Science, p.116.
  5. Zimmerman, D. and West, C., 1996. Sex roles, interruptions, and silences in conversation.
  6. Tannen, D., 1992. You just don’t understand. P.112.
  7. Grebelsky-Lichtman, T. and Katz, R., 2019. When a man debates a woman: Trump vs. Clinton in the first mixed-gender presidential debates. Journal of Gender Studies, 28(6), pp.699-719.
  8. Trump, D. and Clinton, H., 2016. Read a Transcript of the First Presidential Debate. [online] Time. Available at:

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Compare and Contrast Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
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