More about President Obama's Rhetoric


On the legal writing listserv, two issues were raised about President Obama's inaugural address. 

The first was an objection to the passive voice in the final sentence of this passage: "The challenges we face . . .  will not be met easily or in a short span of time.  But know this America: They will be met."

I think the passive voice works here.  It can be appropriate when a writer prefers not to specify an actor.  In this context, the active "We will meet them" would sound too heavy-handed, because it would seem to pull all listeners into "we."  Some listeners might bristle at being involuntarily signed onto the project.  "They will be met" suggests that some as yet unspecified persons in the Obama administration, in combination with others (maybe many citizens), will meet the challenges.  It's a less overbearing yet still forceful way of stating Obama's resolve.

The phrasing also works for reasons of form.  It creates a pleasing parallel structure, repeating the "be met" language from the previous sentence.  And as one list member observed, repeating the word "they" acts as a transition connecting the two sentences.  Another list member pointed out that the phrasing places the important word "met" in the position of emphasis at the end of the sentence. 

A second issue concerned this sentence: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers."  One list member thought the word "nonbelievers" indicated a value judgment.  But the only alternative wording I can think of is "atheists and agnostics," which would have distracted many listeners for whom that language is emotionally laden.  "Non-believers" seems more neutral, and Obama was being inclusive to mention that category instead of ignoring it (as U.S. politicians often do).

So I think both of these passages work well as Obama originally delivered them.

Hat tips to Ben Opipari, Sue Liemer, and Mary Beth Beazley.


                                 --The Word Aficionado