Judith D. Fischer's blog

The Rhetoric of President Obama's Inauguration Speech

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In keeping with Obama's usual style, his inaugural address made effective use of rhetorical devices and figures of speech.

 

He employed metaphor in reminding listeners that some inaugurations have occurred during "still waters," while others occurred in "raging storms."  Similarly, he spoke of the "long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."

 

Parallel structure appeared in numerous phrases, such as the statement that "all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."  Later, he observed incisively that  "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. . . .  Our capacity remains undiminished."

 

Obama used antethesis to highlight the country's best values in saying that our economy depends "not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity . . . ."  He also used that device to warn world leaders that "your people will judge you on what you can build, not on what you destroy."

 

Allusion appeared in a call to the nation to set aside "childish things," evoking Chapter 13 of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. In the line about meeting danger in the depth of winter, Obama quoted Thomas Paine's Crisis Paper No. 1, as read to rdespondent evolutionary troops by George Washington.  And the mention of the "long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom" applied on it face to the entire country, but it may also refer to the path followed by African-Americans in their march out of oppression, memorialized in the Negro National Anthem.

 

Some of Obama's language appealed especially to the ear, as when he used anaphora in repeating the first words of these sentences: "So it has been.  So it must be . . . . "  Later, he used epistrophe in repeating final words: "Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new  . . . . "  Another appeal to the ear appeared in the alliterative sentence, "This is the price and promise of citizenship."

 

Obama also followed Strunk and White's advice to prefer the specific over the general and the concrete over the abstract when he told of "a small band of patriots huddled . . . by an icy river," of later immigrants who "toiled in sweatshops," and of firefighters in a "stairway filled with smoke."

 

Obama did violate George Orwell's guideline to avoid clichés when he said "we must pick ourselves up [and] dust ourselves off . . . ."  Homer nods.

 

For me, one affecting passage was Obama's reminder that, although we are in difficult economic times, "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began.  Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed . . . ."

 

Which of the speech's phrases will be repeated for years to come?   It's hard to say at this point whether any will reach that status. 

 

It was a challenging speech, reminding listeners that we face difficult times, but calling us to face "icy currents" bravely.   It was also a healing speech, embracing persons of different backgrounds and religions in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Its appeal to transcend the divisiveness of the past may turn out to be the speech's most enduring legacy.

 

                                      --The Word Aficionado

Don’t Misuse “Begs the Question”

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Lately, people have been misusing the phrase begs the question.  Begging the question is a logical fallacy in which one assumes the truth of the very point to be proven.  For example, it is begging the question to say, "It's a bad idea to put money into the stock market because the stock market is a bad investment."  This is a type of circular reasoning, and it's illogical because the writer hasn't demonstrated the truth of the underlying point -- that the market is a bad investment.

 

But some people use the phrase begs the question to mean raises the question, as in this example:  "The lawyer lost her case.  That begs the question of her competence."  The second sentence is incorrect because it does not refer to a logical fallacy.  Rather, the writer simply means that the loss raises the question of the lawyer's competence. 

 

Opportunities for the correct use of begs the question are rare.  If you are thinking of using the phrase, consider whether raises the question will fit in its place.  If it will, then use that wording instead.

                                  --The Word Aficionado

Don't Misuse "As Such"

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The phrase as such is sometimes misused as an all-purpose (but grammatically incorrect) transitional phrase. Such is a pronoun that must have an identifiable antecedent. If it doesn't have one, its use is incorrect.

Example 1 (correct):

She is the board president. As such, she is responsible for scheduling the meetings.

Explanation: Here, the antecedent of such is president. It can replace such: She is the board president. As president, she is responsible for scheduling the meetings.

Example 2 (incorrect):

Congress intended to provide an exhaustive list of examples, and it did not mention websites. As such, the statute does not cover websites.

Explanation: Such has no antecedent here; it cannot be replaced with list or any other word in the first sentence. The writer of example 2 incorrectly used as such as a generic transitional phrase. The word therefore would be a better choice.

The following examples illustrate the above points.

Example 3

A plaintiff must prove damages in order to recover, but Smith has not done so here. As such, she has no claim.

Example 4

This is a question of law. As such, it is subject to de novo review.

Explanation: Example 3 is incorrect, because such has no antecedent. Replace as such with therefore. But in Example 4, question of law can replace such, so the sentence is grammatically correct.

Advice: If you are in doubt about whether as such is correct, you may want to choose other phrasing. The transitional terms therefore, thus, and as a result are often suitable replacements for an incorrect as such.

 

                                   --The Word Aficionado

The Rhetoric of Obama's Election-Night Speech

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It was a pleasure to hear president-elect Barack Obama's eloquent speech on election night. Its success was due partly to its effective rhetorical devices.

Its language flowed in pleasing euphony. Obama also used visual imagery, as when he asked Americans to join in the work ahead "brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand" and when he recounted events from the life of 106-year-old Alice Nixon Cooper.

The speech included several examples of parallel structure, as in the three repetitions of "It's the answer" or the seven repetitions of Obama's campaign refrain, "Yes we can." Obama also used the slightly formal wording "Let us . . ." in a pair of parallel phrases, reinforcing the solemnity of the occasion and evoking the memory of John F. Kennedy's inaugural exhortation, "Let us go forth . . . " 

There were other allusions. Although Obama never mentioned Martin Luther King's name, those who lived through the civil rights era or know it recognized poignant evocations of King's hopes. Obama echoed King's statement that the "moral arc of history bends toward justice," observing that today's Americans can "bend it once more toward the hope of a better day." He echoed King's vow that "we as a people will get to the promised land," at once broadening the context to include all Americans and subtely reminding listeners that the day's events had brought King's goal closer. Obama also quoted the Gettysburg address of fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln and restated his plea to a divided nation that "we are not enemies, but friends." 

Obama used synecdoche in the phrasing "we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers." Antithesis appeared in his declaration that "we will defeat" enemies  and "we will support" peace seekers.

And in language reminiscent of Roosevelt's "New Deal" and Kennedy's "New Frontier," Obama also used a felicitous phrase to describe his own presidency: "A new dawn of American leadership."

The speech sang, moving some in the audience to tears. Not a bad start for a president-elect.

                                      --The Word Aficionado

Active and Passive Voice

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George Orwell advised writers to avoid using the passive voice unnecessarily; see my article, Why George Orwell's Ideas About Language Still Matter for Lawyers, on his advice to writers. Many commentators offer the same advice to legal writers.  For guidance on how to identify the passive voice, how to decide whether to change it, how to change it, see this self-guided refresher.

 

                                      --The Word Aficionado

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Bowen Case

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Last week, The United States Supreme Court acted in a case concerning women and language.  Bowen v. Cheuvront, 77 U.S. Law Week 3101 (Oct. 20, 2008). 

The case involved the alleged rape of Bethany Bowen.  The defendant, Pamir Safi, said Bowen had consented to sex, but she argued that she had been incapacitated by a date rape drug.  Before trial in Nebraska state court, Judge Jeffre Cheuvront ordered Bowen not to use the words "rape," "victim," "assailant," "sexual assault kit" and "sexual assault nurse examiner," on the ground that those terms were unduly prejudicial to the defendant and would undermine the presumption of his innocence.  Bowen violated that order, which led to two mistrials. Meanwhile, women demonstrators appeared with their mouths taped shut in sympathy with Bowen's cause. 

 

Bowen's lawyers then asked a federal court to rule that Cheuvront's order violated the U.S. Constitution.  Judge Richard Kopf of the District of Nebraska declined to issue that ruling, stating that there is no basis for such an instusion into a state proceeding.  He then dismissed the case on the ground that Bowen and her counsel had brought a frivolous suit in violation of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11.  Bowen v. Cheuvront, 516 F. Supp. 2d 1021 (D. Neb. 2007).  Bowen appealed, but by then the state prosecutor had decided to dismiss the underlying rape case.  The Eighth Circuit therefore determined that the federal case was moot and remanded it with directions to dismiss. Bowen v. Cheuvront, 521 F.3d 860 (8th Cir. 2008).

 

Bowen's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied certiorari on October 20.  The denial of cert makes sense because the federal case does appear moot.  But the underlying issue remains troublesome.  How can the complaining witness in a rape trial tell her story if she cannot use the standard English words that describe her alleged assault?

Sarah Palin's Language in the VP Debate

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Sarah Palin's language in the vice presidential debate is a natural topic for this blog, which covers both women and language.

Palin's answers were sprinkled with folksy colloquialisms - phrases like "you betcha," "a heck of a lot," "darn right," "doggone it," "the tax thing," and "man" (as an interjection). She dropped consonants, as in the word "pushin'," and she mispronounced "nuclear." At times her informality covered a lack of substance, as in this response to a question on the Constitution's provisions about the vice president: "We have a lot of flexibility in there."  Does language like this help or hurt the cause of women's progress?

            Responses in the media were instructive. Bill Maher called Palin's language "corny." From the right, Rich Lowry commented that Palin's presentation, including winking, no doubt caused many men to "sit up a little straighter" as she sent "starbursts right through the screen." Neither is of these is the sort of response that most professional women would like to generate in a nationally significant debate.

            A woman physician I know found Palin's informality "unprofessional" and "embarrassing." So I tried to imagine various men using similar language. What if Joe Biden had talked that way? Or former presidents Clinton, Bush I, or Reagan? Each would have seemed comically unprofessional, more like a breathless teenager than a president. And if Barack Obama talked like Palin, he would probably be dismissed as a lightweight or worse.

            In discussing education, George W. Bush once warned against "the soft bigotry of low expectations." We law professors advise our students to avoid colloquialisms in professional discourse. Expecting less professionalism from a female vice presidential candidate than from other professionals fuels soft bigotry against women. And that does not help women's cause.

                                      --The Word Aficionado

Language Quirks in Legal Writing — "This" Without a Clear Antecedent

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Recently, a thread on the legal writing professors' listserv discussed students' increasing use of "this" where the word has no clear antecedent.

            A pronoun must have an antecedent - that is, an identifiable noun, phrase, or clause to which it refers.  When a pronoun has no identifiable antecedent, the writing is unclear, as in this example:

            Example (incorrect): The student stood next to the professor holding his umbrella.

            The reference (or antecedent) of his is not clear.

            Here's an example of the use of this without a clear antecedent:

            Example (incorrect): A lawyer should not ask a witness a question without knowing the answer.  This is a common problem in trial practice.

            In this example, this refers neither to a particular noun nor to the whole preceding sentence, which is a piece of advice, not a problem.  This should have an identifiable antecedent, as in these examples:

            Example (correct):  Here is Smith's letter.  Put this in your file for safekeeping.

            This refers to the letter.

            Example (correct):  He wanted her out of his life.  This was his motive for the murder.

            This has an identifiable antecedent, which is the entire preceding sentence.

            When you use the word this, notice whether you can substitute a particular noun, phrase, or clause for this.  If you can't, or if you are in doubt, rewrite the passage.

                                      --The Word Aficionado

Suggestions for Using Gender-Neutral Nouns

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I define a sexist noun as one that unnecessarily calls attention to a person's sex.   Why is that a problem?   It's because the noun suggests without basis that a person's sex is relevant to the identified role.  That can marginalize, trivialize, or demean women. 

            For example, a word like "actress" marginalizes female performers, making them seem different from the norm of "actors."  Recognizing this problem, many female performers now refer to themselves as "actors."  Similarly, a judge I knew attempted to trivialize women lawyers by calling them "lawyeresses."  And the terms "bachelor" and "spinster" demean single women by connoting that a bachelor is a desirable companion, while a spinster has simply failed at attracting a man.    

            With a little effort, a writer can adopt more gender-neutral language.  Here is a partial list of substitutes for sexist nouns:

 

Sexist noun

Nonsexist substitute

actress

actor

chairman, chairwoman

chair

comedienne

comedian

executrix

executor; personal representative

fireman

firefighter

newsman

newscaster; reporter

poetess

poet

policeman, policewoman

police officer

saleswoman

salesperson

stewardess

flight attendant

testatrix

testator

waiter, waitress

server

weatherman

weather forecaster

 

           Gendered kin-terms fall into in a different category.  "Mother" and "father" are appropriate because they convey parents' distinct biological roles.  Even "sister," "brother," "aunt," and "uncle" still remain appropriate.  Thus I would not avoid the gendered word "uncle" by writing an absurdity like "My parent's sibling came for dinner on Sunday."  And although there seems to be less reason to distinguish between "King" and "Queen," I continue to use these terms.  Referring to "the ruler and the ruler's spouse" seems disturbingly sterile. 

                                      --The Word Aficionado

More Suggestions for Writing Gender-Neutral Pronouns

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Previously, I posted some suggestions for avoiding generic masculine pronouns. Here are some less common ways to avoid them.  I'll use the same gender-biased sentence, "A lawyer should frame his arguments in persuasive language," to illustrate the suggested changes. 

            1.  Replace the male-linked pronoun with "a," "an," or "the."  "A lawyer should frame an argument in persuasive language."

            2.  Use "who," which does not indicate gender: "A lawyer who frames an argument in persuasive language is more likely to win."

            3.  Repeat the noun to avoid the need for a pronoun.  This works best with passages that are longer than a single sentence.  "A lawyer should frame an argument in persuasive language.  By doing so, the lawyer is more likely to win."

            4.  Use a synonym to avoid the need for a pronoun.  This also works best with a longer passage.  "A lawyer should argue in persuasive language.  By doing so, an attorney is more likely to win."  Use caution with this option, though; in legal writing, it is usually best to avoid confusion by referring to the same concept with the same language.

            Added to my earlier suggestions, these hints provide a variety of ways to avoid generic masculine pronouns.  By alternating among them and choosing the best option for the context, writers can craft graceful, unobtrusive gender-neutral language.

 

                                    --The Word Aficionado