First Debate a ‘Linguistic Dead Heat’

The First Debate:  A ‘Linguistic Dead Heat’ — with One Exception

In true professorial fashion, Obama averages some 20 more words per minute


Austin, Texas, USA.   September 28, 2008. The first presidential debate of the 2008 Campaign resulted in a ‘Linguistic Dead Heat’ according to an analysis performed by The Global Language Monitor (  In nearly every category, from grade level to the use of passive voice, even the average numbers of letters in the words they chose, the candidates remained within the statistical margin of error with one major exception.  In the Number of Words category that the candidates used to convey their messages, Obama, in true professorial style, outdistanced McCain by some thousand words, which breaks down to an average of about 20 more words per minute.

As in the famous Harvard-Yale game back in 1968, Harvard declared a victory after securing a come-from-behind 29-29 tie.   In the same manner, both sides in the debate have declared victory in an essential deadlocked outcome,” said Paul JJ Payack, President and Chief Word Analyst of GLM. “Look at the debate as a football game.  Both teams effectively moved the ball.  However, the scoring was low, and the quarterbacks performed as expected, with McCain completing some excellently thrown passes only to have others blocked by Obama.  Obama’s ground game was more impressive, churning out the yards — but he had difficulty getting the ball over the goal line.”

The statistical breakdown follows.

  McCain Obama
  Sentences per paragraph 2.2 2.1
  Words per sentence 15.9 17.4
  Characters per word 4.4 4.3
  Passive voice  5% 5%
  Ease of Reading (100 Top) 63.7 66.8
  Grade Level 8.3 8.2
  Number of words (approximate) 7,150 8,068


Notes:  The excessive use of passive voice can be used to obscure responsibility, since there is no ‘doer of the action’.  For example, ‘Taxes will be raised’ is a passive construction, while ‘I will raise (or lower) taxes’ is an active construction.  Five percent is considered low. 

 What are they saying in China?



The number of words is considered approximate, since transcripts vary.

The methodology employed is a modified Flesch-Kincaid formulation.

About The Global Language Monitor

Austin-Texas-based Global Language Monitor analyzes and catalogues the latest trends in word usage and word choices, and their impact on the various aspects of culture, with a particular emphasis upon Global English. A worldwide assemblage of language professionals, teachers, wordsmiths and bibliophiles, supports the GLM to help monitor the latest trends in the evolution (and demise) of language, word usage and word choices.

English has become the first truly global language with some 1.35 billion speakers as a first, second or auxiliary language.  Paul JJ Payack examines its impact on the world economy, culture and society in A Million Words and Counting (Citadel Press, New York, 2008).

For more information, call 1.925.367.7557, send email to, or visit

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