Sunday, 9 November 2008

On Obama's victory style

A correspondent - from the Sunday Times, no less - writes to ask what I thought of the Barack Obama speech, stylistically. A selection of my off-the-cuff remarks is printed in today's ST. Here are some on-the-cuff reflections.

Speaking as a stylistician - as opposed to a human being (if you'll allow me the distinction), as excited as anyone about this event - it blew me away. As the speech started, I turned to my wife and said, 'He'll never do it!' 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. Try it for yourself: get a sense of the strain on your memory by starting a sentence with a 19-word if-clause, and see what it feels like. But he didn't stop at 19 words. The first who-clause is followed by a second. Then a third. It was real daring. It's difficult for listeners to hold all that in mind. But it worked. And then the short 4-word punch-clause. And deserved applause.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

How did it work? How can you get people to process 41 words easily? By following some basic rules of rhetoric. One is to structure your utterance, where possible, into groups of three.

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time,
who still questions the power of our democracy


The other is to make sure that none of these chunks exceed what is easy to process in working memory. Psycholinguists once worked out a 'magic rule of seven, plus or minus two' - that most people find seven 'bits' of information the most they can handle at a time. Get someone to repeat after you a sequence of random digits:

3
8, 6
9, 5, 7
4, 2, 7, 5
9, 3, 6, 8, 2
8, 4, 6, 9, 2, 7
2, 5, 3, 8, 6, 9, 4

People start sensing a difficulty when the sequence reaches five. Some can't get beyond this. Most of us get into trouble if we try to remember more than seven, though some people can handle up to nine without a problem. (The psycholinguistic issues aren't as simple as this, but the basic idea is illuminating.)

Here are those three who-clauses with the main information-carrying words in bold and tallied:

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, 7
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, 6
who still questions the power of our democracy
4

As the sentence progresses, note how the demands on our memory get shorter. In fact the demands are even less than the numbers suggest because of the structural parallelism: who still doubts... still wonders... still questions.... With still set up as part of the pattern, we do not need to devote any processing energy to it, and can concentrate on the following verb.

The rhetorical 'rule of three' is an important feature of the speech. It's something that all famous speech-makers use. Churchill was brilliant at it. But all public speakers know that they can get a round of applause if they use a triptych with structural parallelism:

I was with you yesterday
I am with you today
And I shall be with you tomorrow!


You have to put it across right, of course, with an appropriate prosodic climax. Obama is brilliant at that too.

What you mustn't do is overdo it. For Obama to follow this first paragraph immediately with another triptych wouldn't work. A different stylistic technique is needed to provide variety and maintain pace. He switches to a 'pairs' structure - and pairs within pairs. The 'lines' vs 'people' contrast is itself a pair - but it contains paired noun phrases:

lines that stretched around schools and churches...
people who waited three hours and four hours...


Note how, strictly speaking, the pairing is unnecessary. He could have said simply:

lines that stretched around buildings...
people who waited hours...


but the pairing is more effective. A triptych is unwise here, for the underlying meaning is banale, and to keep it going would be to produce a sense of padding:

people who waited three hours and four hours and five hours...

He rounds the paragraph off with another pairing:

they believed
that this time must be different,
that their voices could be that difference.


And then he produces what, to my mind, is stylistically the most daring piece in the whole text: a list entirely consisting of pairs. From a content point of view, lists are dangerous, as they prompt people to notice who might have been left out. But that evening, I don't think anyone was counting. Yet it's worth noting that he respects the 'rule of seven' - there are just seven groups mentioned (or six, if you put the ethnic groups together):

young and old
rich and poor
Democrat and Republican
black, white,
Hispanic, Asian, Native American
gay, straight
disabled and not disabled


Why omit the ands in the middle group? Precisely because the omission of and reduces the force of the contrast and allows the suggestion that the list can be extended. Unlike 'young and old' and the others, the list of ethnic groups is open-ended. Maybe the same open-endedness applies also to 'gay, straight' - I'm not sure.

This first section of the speech ends with more pairs within pairs:

we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.


Having devoted so much rhetorical energy to pairs, it's not surprising to see him round off this first section with more triples:

cynical and fearful and doubtful...
on this date, in this election, at this defining moment...


And we should also notice that the whole of this first section is structured as a triptych. Each of the paragraphs after the first begins in the same way:

It's the answer told...
It's the answer spoken...
It's the answer that led...


And the paragraph lengths are almost the same: 52 words, 53 words, 48 words. So we have threes within balanced threes. Elegant.

When you go in for rhetorical structures, you have to know when to use them and when not to use them. Obama's second section is a series of acknowledgments and thanks. This is a more personal sequence, and this kind of sincerity needs to be expressed in a more loosely structured language. No climactic rhetoric wanted here. Sentences are shorter, the vocabulary is more private and down-to-earth, and the only hint of elaborate structuring is a single triptych in honour of his wife:

the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady

The rhetorical contrast with the rousing first section is striking.

One of the things actors know is that, in a long speech, they have to leave themselves somewhere else to go. This is something I've learned from actor son Ben. If you put all your energy into the opening lines of a soliloquy, you'll find it trailing away into nothing before the end. Rather, start low and steadily build up. Or, divide the speech up into sections and introduce peaks and troughs. Or, divide it into sections and treat each section in a different way. Obama's speech goes for this last option. It has several sections, each very different in content, and it is the switch of content which motivates a switch of style and renews the audience's motivation to listen. Each section ends with a short audience-rousing statement:

An opening section:
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

A 'thanks' section:
It belongs to you.

An 'origins' section ('I was never the likeliest candidate for this office...')
This is your victory.

A 'scale of the problem' section ('And I know you didn't do this just to win an election...')
I promise you, we as a people will get there.

A 'challenges' section ('There will be setbacks and false starts...')
And I will be your president too.

A 'story' section ('This election had many firsts...')
Yes we can.

Note what happens after the rhetorical 'lull' in the 'thanks' section. He returns to the rule of three, pounding steadily away:

It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Chicago and the front porches of Charleston.
...to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.
...Americans who volunteered and organized and proved...
...a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
...two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.
...how they'll make the mortgage or pay their doctors' bills or save enough for their child's college education.
...new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build...
...block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
...a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice ... a new spirit of patriotism.
...partisanship and pettiness and immaturity...
...self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.
To those who would tear the world down... To those who seek peace and security... And to all those who have wondered...


When he reached the end of his 'challenges' section, I thought the speech was about to end. It used two time-honoured ending motifs. First there is a sequence of four rather than three:

the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

And then an appeal to the future:

What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

He could have stopped there. But then there was an electrifying change, as he moved from the general ('America can change') to the particular ('Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old').

It was a risky strategy. The end of the speech was not far off. He had just produced several hundred words of highly crafted rhetoric, with many vivid and climactic images - 'from parliaments and palaces', 'America's beacon still burns as bright', 'the true genius of America'. The audience is being brought to the boil. To tell a quiet, intimate story now could have produced an anticlimax. But it didn't. Why?

Because the speech-writers had a trick up their sleeve. The Cooper story starts quietly:

She was born just a generation past slavery...

but within a few words she is part of a new rhetorical build-up, first with a pair:

...a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky...

and then a stunning triptych, with each element containing a pair:

I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -
the heartache and the hope;
the struggle and the progress;
the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.


There's the trick that gets the speech out of any possible trouble. The audience has already shouted 'Yes we can', three times, at an earlier point. It has become a catch-phrase, used throughout the campaign. The real climax of the speech is going to build on that.

But an audience has to be taught what to do, by way of reaction. People won't intervene en masse in the middle of a story. They have to be invited. And Obama uses the rule of three to teach them.

...with that American creed. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
... and reach for the ballot. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
... a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can. [audience: Yes we can.]

From then on, he's home and dry. Every 'Yes we can' trigger is going to get a response. The triptych rhetoric continues to flow:

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma...
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected...
to put our people back to work... to restore prosperity... to reclaim the American dream...


And there, with 'dream', he ends as he began. 'Dream' is a powerful word in American political rhetoric, thanks to Martin Luther King. King is not mentioned in the speech, but he is there in spirit, from the beginning to the end. Obama's opening words link dreams to questions. His closing words link dreams to answers. The speech is a Martin Luther King sandwich, and it went down very very well indeed.

I still don't know how he did it. Was he reading from some teleprompter somehow? Was it memorized? Was it partly prompted and memorized? But however he did it, it will rank as one of the great political speeches of our time. It won't rank with the very best, without editing, because the 'thank-you' section particularizes and personalizes too much. The thanks to campaign managers and the like has no permanent resonance. But there are sections here which are as fine as anything I've ever heard in a speech. And if the role of style is to get one's content across as effectively as possible, then Obama and his speech-makers have proved themselves to be stylists second to none.

39 comments:

Trebuchet said...

Bravo! I've long been a fan, but this dissection of Mr Obama's speech is by a master linguist who has made a daunting task look easy – as always.

DC said...

Well, thanks - and thanks to the ST journalist who asked the question in the first place.

Ismael Tohari said...

That's really amazing!

When Obama was about to finish his speech, I thought that "Yes we can" was going to be repeated many times after he finished the speech.

Obama: Yes we can
Audience: Yes we can
Obama: Yes we can
Audience: Yes we can
Obama: Yes we can
Audience: Yes we can
Obama: Yes we can
Audience: Yes we can
Obama: Yes we can
Audience: Yes we can
Obama: Yes we can
Audience: Yes we can

But that didn't happen.

Don't you think that he should have done so?

DC said...

No. What would have been the point? That would have reduced him to the level of someone anxious to bathe in a crowd's adulation.

Ron Davison said...

Great analysis of a wonderful speech. Thanks to you, I appreciate the speech even more.
I'm already looking forward to the inaugural speech and am hoping that Obama's problem solving and policy making abilities outshine Bush's by as much as his speaking do.

Big Al said...

I've taken several classes on effective speaking, have had the opportunity to speak/present countless times, and have had the pleasure of learning tips & tricks from some very masterful speakers.

But no one I've heard, repeat NO ONE, has held me so in awe and wonder as Mr. Obama. I sat there totally transfixed with goosebumps being felt all the way to the ends of my extremities while tears started blurring my vision. I watched in awe as the TV cameras in Grant Park so beautifully focused on the rapture, hope and love of the live crowd. And I marveled at Mr. Obama's command of the spoken word as he lifted the spirits of all who watched and listened, speaking eloquently and forcefully through to the end when he started projecting like a preacher.

Thank you SO MUCH for breaking down his speech. I've learned a lot reading through your analysis, with hopes I can use these tips in the future.

sije said...

Yor analysis is great, David. I would add a defence for the middle part which did not came out too well in your opinion.

I think the middle part was a "soothing" signal to the audience: this man is going to thank me if I work hard. Though maybe the audience did not know any of the mentionend names, it was an important part of the speech and it is an important part of "the" Obama style.

Anthony Green said...

Dear Dr. Crystal
Thank you so much for that enlightening dissection!
I have used Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention as a language teaching aide, concentrating more on the listening aspect than on the rhetoric.
There too Martin Luther King was very much present but never mentioned by name.
You may be interested to take a look at the Obama VOICEbook
corresponding more or less to the excerpt on youtube at Convention pt.5
It's not designed with native speakers in mind, so if you can try it out with a learner, so much the better.
Nik Peachey has produced an excellent tutorial here: Daily Activities - a moment in history

Bethany said...

My BOGOF (Two comments for the price of one):

The "basic rules of rhetoric" you mention when dealing with such a lengthy beginning subordinate clause are handy indeed. However, we should bear in mind Americans watching this had more than enough sufficient schemata thanks to the 748+ days (not counting Hillary) we'd been pummeled with the election process.

Comment two:
A minute into Obama's speech, I knew I recognized the style. The sermon "Premature Autopsies" written by Stanley Crouch has most, if not all, of the stylistic details you mention. (Unfortunately, the speech was delivered by now-Obama-nemesis Jeremiah Wright, Jr. See: "The Majesty of the Blues" recorded by Wynton Marsalis in 1989). "Premature Autopsies" has always been on my list of favorite speeches. On November 5th, Obama's was added to it.

Paul said...

As a phonetician rahter than a stylistics expert, I thought he was particularly good at the prosodic stuff as well, which you mention in passing. At one point towards the end I too had the impression he had nowhere left to go but then he dropped down the intensity and became quite quiet. Then I felt like I knew exactly where he was going and indeed he did, building up again slowly to the final climax. Whatever his politics he's an extremely skilful orator.

I agree too with your answer to isamel: too much repetition of the refrain at the end would have risked a Neil Kinnock moment, though I wonder if an American audience would be more sympathetic to this kind of audience participation. Kinnock's a good orator too (so good that Obama's VP has been known to pinch his material!) but his repeated "we're all right!" refrain at the Sheffield rally did him no good at all in the 1992 general election.

Dr Asma Rizwan said...

Its the best case study of a speech. I have yet to come across such fine anaylisis in terms of langugae.David You are the best!!

Gypsy at Heart said...

Mr. Crystal, you have been able to explain so well the inherent lyricism and cadence I heard in Obama's words on the night he won the Presidency.

When he had concluded, I turned to my husband and said without being able to articulate it as neatly as you, that he had been like a Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading us onwards, following his words and voice. I thought it was a sensational and yes, very elegant speech. But for the Thank you section, he painted a story that was simple to digest, incorporating audience participation in the best way. He made his speech ours and now I understand they WHY of that better thanks to you. This was a great breakdown. Thank you.

P.S. I found you via Ron of Rwrld.

DC said...

I don't know where you got the impression that I thought the middle section didn't come out too well. On the contrary, it was a great use of contrast.

Rebecca Walker said...

This is genius. I'm a new fan.

sije said...

I got the impresson you didn't value the middle part too much, because you wrote in your analysis:

"It won't rank with the very best, without editing, because the 'thank-you' section particularizes and personalizes too much. The thanks to campaign managers and the like has no permanent resonance."

DC said...

The 'thank you' section worked fine, in the context of this individual speech: I think it came out very well indeed, and I valued it highly. The comment you quote is me now considering the speech from a different point of view. Think of it being quoted in a hundred years time. That section will seem inconsequential then.

Thanks to everyone for these comments. I've been posting on this site for a while now, but never had so much reaction so quickly, and offline too. One correspondent has told me she has carried out a similar investigation with her college students. It does rather look as if this speech is going to become an institution.

Lee said...

The only thing you left out is how banal the speech actually is.

DC said...

I made no value judgement about the content of the speech. That isn't what stylistics is about. There is no way of telling, from what I wrote, whether I agreed or disagreed with what Obama said, and that's how it should be, when you're doing this kind of linguistic analysis.

Lee said...

To divorce style from content is impossible - and pointless. What we say is deeply influenced by how we say it. Ask any poet.

And in any case, the whole tone of your post is laudatory, despite your claim that it's 'merely' a linguistic analysis.

Lee said...

One point I'd like to add. You yourself don't divorce style from content in your analysis. Take your groups of three: a group is only a group when it contains something to group, a set of some sort. And your argument is flawed about random digits, since random digits are exactly that - random - whereas the who clauses use meaningful words and therefore may - I emphasise may - be a lot easier to retain. So not only are you comparing apples to oranges, but content is evidently involved.

DC said...

You miss the point. I am not divorcing style from content. Of course that is impossible. I am distancing myself from an evaluation of the content, which you do not do by using loaded terms like 'banal'. That is why I used the phrase 'value judgment'. Yes, my post is laudatory about the style, but I make no judgments, laudatory or otherwise, about the content.
The argument about working memory is not flawed. I am not suggesting that real language is like random digits. I used digits simply to illustrate the principle quickly and easily - a standard practice in this literature. Of course the processing of syntactic units in real language is going to help us to retain more - that is precisely what grammar helps us to do. But memory constraints of an analogous kind operate there too.

Lee said...

I don't miss your point but just happen to disagree with it - cordially, of course. Since it's impossible to divorce style from content, any evaluation of one is going to colour the other, even as an intellectual exercise. And why not? Try to imagine a speech constructed of pure nonsense, yet effectively constructed, and you will see what I'm getting at.

Another way of putting this: the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts (if you will excuse my own use of a banality).

Despite your caveat ('speaking as a stylistician...'), I simply don't accept that phrases like 'it blew me away' are any less loaded than my 'banal', which I stand by.

Again, an example. Take your MLK dream section: no content, when 'dream' is indeed not just a powerful word in the American context but a powerful concept? In addition, it's hardly all that exceptional for a speech (or other text) to end where it begins, answering the questions it first poses.

If I were so inclined, and had the time to do so, I could just as easily turn many of your arguments on their head and demonstrate, for example, that the use of pairing or triptychs contributes to the banality of the speech.

Standard practices, interestingly enough, often turn out to be flawed.

DC said...

I think part of the problem here is the meaning of the word banal. Maybe I missed your point. I was taking the word in a pejorative sense (for me it is strongly negative); you seem to be using it more neutrally. And I was interpreting it as a comment about content; you seem to be using it as a comment about style. In the latter sense, I would agree that many of Obama's rhetorical strategies are commonplace - though I can't offhand recall another speech which starts so daringly as his opening paragraph does. And if that's so, and we're both talking about style, then I agree that some of my phrasing is just as loaded as yours. The next step in the debate would then be a comparative one. How truly distinctive is this speech, compared with other political speeches? My impression is that it's exceptional; yours isn't. There are probably several PhDs waiting to be written here.

I do think a useful distinction can be drawn between praising or condemning what people say as distinct from the way that they say it. The main point I was getting at in my earlier comment was that one can't tell, from my analysis, whether I agree with Obama's political views or not. I can be laudatory about the speech style of people I strongly disagree with. To take an extreme instance: some of Hitler's speeches were rhetorically brilliant too. And, if there had been a motivation to do so, I think I could have done a similar job on one of McCain's speeches, some of which were also rhetorically excellent. But the Sunday Times didn't ask me about that.

Mercedes Viola said...

Congratulations!! And thanks again for your contribution!
Mercedes

Nick Barnes said...

There were certainly teleprompters at the speech, visible in some of the coverage before Obama came onto stage. Whether or not he used them I don't know.

editors said...

Well, prof Crystal - i really can't get over this analysis - very interesting. you jsut don't see this level of stylistical analyisis any more. whatever ahppened to sylistics? or am i just missing all the good parties?

Tacky said...

fantastic speech anatomy,
deeply appreciated

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful analysis, Professor. The BBC should have consulted you for this article.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/us_elections_2008/7735014.stm

Smoke Screen said...

Crystal-clear anlysis! However, I also think that it wasn't really soul-stirring in terms of actual content. Which makes me wonder - can people really be moved (as obviously people all over the world were) merely by great expression?

Wendy said...

As a non-religious non-American, I was impressed and moved by the speech until the final section, the 'yes we can' section. That sounded too much like a church call-and-response to my ears. It was also, of course, an appeal to the American collective, which I'm not a part of, and too much like the self-aggrandrisement I've become wary of over the years.

bkrajewski said...

We have a Rhetoric Ph.D. at my university, and I will use your analysis in this semester's class. The graduate class will be impressed by what you have been able to do.
I came to your blog entry via comments to an article in the Guardian by Charlotte Higgins who compares Obama to Cicero. I think that is a troublesome comparison, and decided to write about that myself (http://brucekrajewski.wordpress.com/2008/11/27/obama-our-cicero-from-chicago/). Thank you.

DC said...

The comments section for the Guardian piece also has some useful remarks about the use of a teleprompter.

Lee said...

After our exchange, it may amuse you to learn that my daughter has been asked for her English class (A-level in Germany) to analyse the rhetoric and style of some of Obama's speeches, and I've copied your post as an example of how to go about it.

I usually use 'banal' pejoratively, both in terms of style and content. One of the things my daughter is being taught to examine is the inter-relationship of the two. While I agree that it's possible (and useful, as you say) to focus on style - that's a good deal of what a writer does all the time - I can only repeat my assertion that meaning itself rests in great part within style. Therefore, to answer another commenter's question, yes, of course we are deeply affected by the way things are said. I suspect a lot of work in neuroscience could be brought into play here.

dick said...

If you have ever seen Obama speaking without a teleprompter or getting out of sync with a teleprompter, then you will know that this was definitely a teleprompter speech. Whenever he has to speak off the cuff you get a ton of umm, ahh, err, ahh, etc. He definitely has to be programmed when he does his speeches. The man can read them very well though.

DC said...

Several people have written in asking whether I am going to do a stylistic analysis of the inauguration speech. No, I'm not. It's partly for practical reasons (a couple of writing deadlines bearing down on me) but also because I didn't think there was much I could add. Several of the rhetorical features identified in the earlier speech were there (such as the rule of three, there from the outset in 'humbled... grateful... mindful'), and there were some ingenious word-orders ('Our minds are no less inventive...') but what was most noticeable, to my ear, were the passages illustrating quite ordinary syntax ('This is the journey we continue today', 'For everywhere we look, there is work to be done'). The overall impression I had was of someone trying to steer clear of noticeable rhetoric - unlike in the earlier speech. Of course, this suited his message perfectly. If someone wants to convey a more businesslike, down-to-earth tone, that's the way to do it. The punchy short sentences ('All this we can do', 'Their memories are short', 'These things are true') convey the message 'let's get on with the job' better than anything elaborate might do. Pairs of structurally parallel short sentences do this brilliantly: 'Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.' This is 'no messing' syntax.

Shige Tanaka said...

I read your book with Davy, "Investigating English style" back to 1970s, which still remains the best book on stylistics. Your stylistic analysis of Obama's speeches is superb. I noticed several grammatical mistakes in Obama's Inaugural speech, which includes:

1. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted ..... Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things. (should be "Rather, it has been the path for the risk-takers, ...)
2. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job...(should be "see a friend lose his/her job" a permissible?)
3. The question we ask today is not whether it works--whether it helps families jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.(What should be the verb for "care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified"? "helps families find care they can afford, find a retirement that is dignified"?)
4. For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the fail and determination of the American people, upon which this nation relies. (Understandable, but the use of "For as much as (Forasmuch as?)does not seem to fit here (or does it?)

Aside from these grammatical "uncomfortables", the ending part of his speech goes: "At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: 'Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.'"
Contextually, the father of our nation refers to George Washington in Valley Forge, and that "these words" in "these words be read" might naturally be taken by Washington's words. But in fact, I think it comes from Tomas Pain's American Crisis. Here I experienced some referential problems.

DC said...

You're wrong to call them mistakes. The usages in points 1 and 2 are perfectly normal features of informal English, and have been for a long time. Of course they aren't liked by pedants who insist on following the rules invented by eighteenth century grammarians. I think it's somehow appropriate that Obama feels able to adopt a natural syntactic style in this way.

re 3: in the official transcript of the speech, the verb is 'find'.

re 4: forasmuch as has been in the language for over 600 years, and there are many precedents for its use in this sense. The orthographic spacing is a familiar usage issue, as with insofar as and others.

I don't have any linguistic comment to make on your final point.

Shigenori Tanaka said...

Professor Crystal, thank you for your professional comments on my questions. Now I understand that President Obama intentionally selected some informal and more familiar usages over grammatically strict and pedantic ones. As you pointed out, I forgot to put in the verb “find” in my response (my typo). I understand the phrase “help families find jobs at a decent wage,” but do you colloquially use the verb “find” for the objects “care they can afford” and “a retirement that is dignified” as in “help families find care they can afford,” and “help families find a retirement that is dignified”?

I have not done a statistical analysis of President Obama’s speech in terms of the average length of chunks bounded by pause, but it seems that his chunks are comparatively short (5±2 words per chunk[?]), which I think contributed to the semantic clarity and the power of his speech. The following is a sample of chunking (the pause-unit):

I stand here today/ humbled / by the task before us,/ grateful / for the trust you have bestowed, / mindful / of the sacrifices born by our ancestors.// ……..Forty-four Americans / have now taken / the presidential oath.// The words have been spoken / during the rising tides of prosperity / and the still waters of peace.// Yet, every so often / the oath is taken / amidst gathering clouds / and gathering storms.// At these moments / America has carried on / not simply / because of the skill and vision of those in high office, / but because We, /
the People / have remained faithful to the ideals of forbearers / and true to our founding documents.//

DC said...

Yes, the prosodic structure of the speech was a major factor contributing to its success. I didn't look at that in my analysis, but it would certainly repay study.

I'd welcome a comment from a US reader about the stylistic level of find. Now you mention it, it does feel slightly formal in British English - certainly compared with have or get, for instance. But it didn't stand out for me as being distinctive one way or the other, when I first went through the speech.