Word Routes

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Obama's Second Inaugural: Behind the Words

The presidential inaugural address, that quadrennial high point in American political rhetoric, invariably attracts a huge amount of attention. President Obama's address yesterday was the subject of meticulous scrutiny: his word choice, his rhetorical devices, and even his grammar all were analyzed by countless language kibitzers.

Even before Obama's address, the oath of office was carefully observed, especially because of the flub that marred the administration of the oath four years ago. (For a description of how a misplaced adverb tripped up Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts, see my Word Routes column, "Taking the Oath of Office... Faithfully.") This time around, the official oath ceremony actually took place at the White House on Sunday, and the replay in front of the inaugural crowd was just for show. Even still, when Obama stumbled over "the United States" in repeating the oath, political bloggers revved their engines.

In the inaugural address itself, perhaps the most notable rhetorical flourish was Obama's repeated use of "We, the People," the opening words from the preamble of the Constitution. I shared my thoughts on this with Jen Doll of The Atlantic Wire:

Zimmer [...] told me that Obama's 2009 speech included just one use of "We the People," at the end of that speech's second paragraph: "...We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents." In today's address, however, Obama "relied on that rhetorical device as a repetitive touchstone, tying the 'here and now' of his speech to the legacy of the founding fathers," Zimmer said, explaining that the phrase has a dual purpose: elevating the presidential rhetoric "by connecting it to the opening words of the Constitution, recognized by all, and framing his call to collective action by emphasizing the inclusive solidarity of that powerful first-person plural pronoun." [...]

Zimmer noted that the verbs used in the "we the people" sentences are declare, understand, and still believe, the latter of which he used three times. "By joining together in a shared declaration, understanding, and belief, Obama suggests, the country can make progress and transcend its divisions. The rhetorical frame allows him to take on modern challenges (climate change or gay rights, for instance), while still presenting policy initiatives of his second term as continuations of bedrock American principles: 'what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.'"

The insta-analysis on Twitter often descended into more nitpicky realms. Usage guru Bryan Garner faulted Obama for pronouncing the word tenets (as in "tenets of our faith") as tenants. David Leonhardt, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, took issue with the placement of the word only in the sentence, "Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play." For those of a prescriptivist bent, the only should have been placed after thrives so that it is adjacent to the part of the sentence that it modifies ("when there are rules..."). I've never thought much of the only placement rule, as I made clear in my Boston Globe column on the acronym YOLO. (Following the only rule would change the catchphrase "You Only Live Once" into the less catchy "You Live Only Once," or YLOO.) In our post-inaugural Twitter conversation, I pointed out to Leonhardt that even the great usage writer H.W. Fowler thought it was pointless to take a doctrinaire approach to only placement: "the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural," he wrote.

One could be similarly peevish about another sentence in the speech: "We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work." If you're categorically opposed to "singular they," then you wouldn't like that their corefers with the ostensibly singular every person. I didn't notice anyone complaining about this on Twitter, however — not even Jen Doll, who recently wrote a bit of invective against singular they for the Atlantic Wire. I think that the fact that this perfectly idiomatic usage can slip by relatively unnoticed means that it's time to throw in the towel on this particular battle.

(For more on the words of the inaugural address, check out our vocabulary list generated from the speech. The Wall Street Journal also has an interesting interactive graphic that allows you to compare usage frequency of common words in Obama's 2009 and 2013 speeches, as well as past addresses. And finally, see my most recent Boston Globe column for my reflections on the lost art of presidential neologizing, inspired by Paul Dickson's new book Words from the White House.)


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 22nd 2013, 1:52 AM
Comment by: Marilyn B.
Grazie, Mr. Zimmer. I enjoyed your article very much. I also enjoyed the President's speech.

Marilyn Blundin
Tuesday January 22nd 2013, 7:03 AM
Comment by: Genious C. (Cairo Egypt)
Faboulous article to read on during the start of this year
Tuesday January 22nd 2013, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
What most struck me about the speech was the blend of big ideals and nuts and bolts specifics. One sentence on "All men are created equal," the next a pointer toward specific legislative goals. I liked the mix of soaring and down-to-earth language.
Tuesday January 22nd 2013, 2:46 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
No comment.
Tuesday January 22nd 2013, 3:26 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
'when every person can find independence and pride in their work.'
Throw in the towel? Never - it's just bad grammar and it is easily avoided
Tuesday January 22nd 2013, 9:48 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
And they work and work on these speeches, the speech writers, and the speech givers.

And still they can't get it right...

I guess we are prescriptionists, or something!
Wednesday January 23rd 2013, 7:56 PM
Comment by: Bosse B.
Yes, Jane B., but language IS important. Look at us. We're here, right? And THANKS, Ben, once more!
Wednesday January 23rd 2013, 8:04 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I can't find where I said it wasn't important. I was sort of thinking the opposite! LOL
Monday January 28th 2013, 8:18 PM
Comment by: Chris (Orange County, CA)
Word differentiation is critical and it was in his speech as the President sought to move forward on his agenda. In particular, the word "equality" I felt was used in an interesting way. What does equality mean ? I think the word in some cases turns into a political metaphor rather than what was originally intended in the moment when the Constitution was written. In my thinking, original meaning here was differentiating between the then issue of equality between an elite monarchical class and what would have been called then, "the common man". Some think it's amazing how we have come full circle. Martin Luther King IMO used it properly in it's original context. This is much differently than what the President meant in his speech. We could write back and forth all day on what political equality really means from Karl Marx to it's modern political meaning; the meanings of which are not that far apart.... just my 2c ... :-)

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