Sunday, November 09, 2008

Crystal on Clarity

David Crystal (whose Encyclopedia of the English Language is always within reach as I write) has posted an appreciative analysis of Barack Obama's acceptance speech. Specifically the ambitiously intricate yet clearly effective opening:

What was I noticing? It was the opening if-clause, a 41-word cliff-hanger with three who-clause embeddings. Starting a major speech with a subordinate clause? And one of such length and syntactic complexity? I thought he would be lucky if he was able to round it off neatly after the first comma.

My own favourite phrase from Obama's speech: the dream of our founders. With this line he celebrates the potential of a document, which knowingly allows slavery, to eventually connect with its principles, which do not. At the same time he evokes Martin Luther King's most memorable idea. And the moment of his speech is a testament to the trajectory of history. And a well-crafted piece of writing.


  1. How long do I have to wait, as a professor of American literature, to teach this speech (and Obama's speech on race) to my students? I teach them Lincoln's speeches, and nobody objects to that.

  2. Teach it immediately. Just find a speech by McCain that's equally... eh... also good. With good ideas. He had some decent writers. Just rely on reading rather than his performance.

    Or better yet. The race is over. Just go find a Reagan speech for balance.

  3. Here's a site that lists "famous" (whatever they mean by that) Presidential speeches:

    I note that they do not include Eisenhower's farewell address, which famously gave us the term "military-industrial complex."

    Anyway, I agree entirely with wishydig -- teach the speech now. It's not about partisanship, it's about rhetoric.

  4. Lincoln was a republican -- isn't that good enough? :)


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.