“To try eloquence, now ’tis time”: Virtues and Vices of Rhetoric

Last week, in less than twenty-four hours, our country had the opportunity to experience two important political speeches: President Obama’s farewell address and Donald Trump’s opening statements to the first press conference he has held since last July. Both were prepared statements, though both appeared to involve some measure of ad-lib. Since President Obama’s farewell address was much longer, I chose to examine only a segment of it, of comparable length to Mr. Trump’s opening statement.

By the Numbers
Complexity and elegance in speech are not necessarily about sentence length or vocabulary level: they’re really more about variety. Does the speaker vary syntax? Does the speaker demonstrate a grasp of language’s fluidity and flexibility? Does the speaker use a wide or narrow range of descriptors? As Shakespeare knew, these traits create a character who is verbally facile and engaging. Going too far with them, however, can create a ridiculous character, such as Holofernes:

This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am
thankful for it.

The gift is in knowing how to apply language deftly, which is not the same as the oratory onslaught that defines much of Holofernes’s speech. Then there are characters like Dogberry, who reach for verbal greatness but somewhat miss the mark:

LEONATO
Neighbours, you are tedious.

DOGBERRY
It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the poor duke’s officers; but truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king, I could find it in my heart to bestow it all of your worship.

LEONATO
All thy tediousness on me, ah?

DOGBERRY
Yea, an ’twere a thousand pound more than ’tis; for I hear as good exclamation on your worship as of any man in the city; and though I be but a poor man, I am glad to hear it.

Bless.

Some hard facts on President Obama’s speech segment:

  • 1393 words long, featuring 583 unique words (words used only once in the speech) (42% of the whole)
  • 869 of those 1393 words were monosyllabic
  • 202 had more than three syllables
  • His longest word was “responsibility” (six syllables)
  • His ten most commonly used words (excluding grammatical words like “the”) were I’ve, us, years, just, should, own, Americans, young, because, and up.
  • His Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was 9th, with a Reading Ease score of 57.

Some hard facts on Mr. Trump’s speech:

  • 1365 words long, featuring 401 unique words (29%)
  • 877 of those 1365 words were monosyllabic
  • 7 words had four or five syllables, and none more than five
  • His ten most commonly used words (excluding grammatical words) were: going, very, lot, we’re, news, will, think, great, because, and veterans.
  • His Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was 7th, with a Reading Ease score of 67.

Visualization
To help you get a sense of the “feel” of those numbers, I include two word clouds below, one for each speech. (These clouds also omit, as word clouds typically do, common grammatical words such as “the”, “a”, “with”, “on”, etc. I have, however, opted to include “and”, “that”, “very”, “our”, and “us” in both, as their usage seems to exceed commonality in a significant way).

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Word Cloud of President Obama’s farewell address segment

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Word Cloud of Mr. Trump’s press conference opening statement

By the Rhetoric
(Be ye warned: there are Greek terms within. But fear not! I promise to define all of them)

If you’re interested in the full rhetorical mark-up of each speech, according to our R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric, I’ve appended those at the bottom of the post (with apologies for my handwriting). I’ll just hit a few highlights to discuss overall patterns.

President Obama, as I’ve noted before, is prone to auxesis, the arrangement of a series. In fact, he may be slightly over-prone to it; sometimes his series nest within each other and stretch beyond the set of three that’s most harmonious for a listener.

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His other commonly used devices include:

  • isocolon, repeated sentence structure
  • antithesis, the arrangement of contrast
  • diacope, the repetition of a key word after intervening matter.

These devices often interweave and support each other. Look at the following snippet, where the arrangement of a series coincides with repeated structure:

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When we hear language used this way, whether consciously or not, we recognize the intention behind it. No one speaks like that accidentally. Auxesis and isocolon support each other particularly well: our brains appreciate parallel sentence structure on an almost subconscious level, and when that overlaps with the creation of a list, the speaker can carry us along with his story more easily. President Obama also often uses one device to segue into another — notice how, above, the use of “creed” at the end of his series carries through to his summarizing statement, which in turn shares syntactical similarity with the series. Compare these interwoven patterns to those in Richard II’s speech as he capitulates to his deposition:

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads(1),
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage(2),
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown(3),
My figured goblets for a dish of wood(4),
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff(5),
My subjects for a pair of carved saints (6)
And my large kingdom for a little grave(7;1),
A little little grave (2), an obscure grave(3)

The most commonly used rhetorical devices across Mr. Trump’s speech are:

  • epizeuxis, the immediate or near-immediate repetition of a word
  • polysyndeton, where use of conjunctions creates run-on sentences
  • ellipsis, the absence of key words or phrases, often in the form of unfinished thoughts
  • parelcon, the insertion of redundant or superfluous words such as “very”.

Consider the following segment:

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At first glance, the markup of Mr. Trump’s speech appears more rhetorically dense than President Obama’s, but it is worth noting that rhetoric is not always only about the words. Often, it is also about the delivery of those words, particularly in matters of emphasis, specificity, and intention. Silva Rhetorica discusses this when examining stylistic vices:

Every dimension or aspect of style has vices associated with it, and every vice has a corresponding virtue. Indeed, the very same locution may in one sense be regarded as exemplifying a stylistic virtue, and in another, a vice.

It is helpful to understand that all figurative language alters the normal meaning or arrangement of words to some degree. When figurative language is apt for a given context and purpose, it is eloquent and effective (and thus exemplifies one or more of the virtues of style); when figurative language is not apt for a given context and purpose, it is ineloquent and ineffective (and thus exemplifies one or more of the vices of style).

This distinction often becomes important in regard to devices of repetition, because the speaker’s affect lets the listener know whether the repetition was chosen or unchosen. Chosen repetitions can run the gamut of sounds, words, phrases, and structure. Consider, as I’ve noted before, the repetition of structure in Brutus’s funeral oration, or Antony’s repetition of phrases in his — or look at Edmund in King Lear, musing on the word legitimate:

Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word, legitimate.
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards.

Edmund repeats the word to draw a contrast between the status it confers and his own bastardy. It is hard to imagine an actor performing these lines as though Edmund were not choosing that word in each instance, particularly since he uses with slightly different context each time, and “fine word, legitimate” indicates that he is thoroughly aware of the word’s weight and power.

Unchosen repetitions fall into the category of stylistic vices, including battalogia, the continual unnecessary reiteration of the same words, phrases, or ideas; tautologia, the unnecessary repetition of the same idea in different words; and homiologia, tedious or inane repetition. These devices might tell us much about a speaker’s overall verbal intellect or about their current emotional state. Consider Othello, overwrought with jealous suspicion:

Lie with her? lie on her? We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her: that’s fulsome. Handkerchiefconfessions: handkerchief. To confess, and be hanged for his labour. First, to be hanged, and then to confess: I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus (pish): noses, ears, and lips: Is’t possible? Confess?handkerchief? O devil.

Immediately after this, Othello “falls into a trance”, elucidating that he is not in control of his physical self, and his words indicate that he is likely not in control of his intellectual and emotional selves, either. Those “lies” early in the speech might or might not be an intentional riff on the word, but the whorling repetitions of “handkerchief” and “confess” seem to have no definable pattern. They are disjointed thoughts to which Othello cannot seem but help to return.

Other stylistic vices involve figures of addition, such as:

  •  perissologia, the vice of wordiness
  • pleonasm, the use of grammatically superfluous words
  • periergia, over-use of words or figures of speech
  • bomphiologia, self-aggrandizing exaggeration.

Take Fluellen, for example:

Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore her eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel, to signify to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning, and inconstant, and mutability, and variation: and her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls, and rolls, and rolls.

Is that run-on sentence deliberate or accidental? I have no idea. It’s a choice for the actor to make, and it’s going to create a different character depending on which way it goes. Is Fluellen rambling, absorbed in his own musings and oblivious to the effect on his listeners? Or does he use those conjunctions and parentheticals intentionally, so that no one interrupts him, thus keeping him in control of the scene? Either choice could be correct, but much depends upon the delivery.

More rhetoric is not necessarily better rhetoric. 
We’ve looked before at Claudius’s rhetorically dense and nigh-incomprehensible speech in 1.2 of Hamlet, which I think is as good an example as any in Shakespeare of the maxim that density of rhetoric is not necessarily a virtue. It may be overblown — the vice of macrologia refers to excessive wordiness in an attempt to appear eloquent — or simply inept, as in aschematiston, which may refer to either the unskilled use of figures of speech or starkly unornamented language. As with so many things in life, in speaking, balance is key, lest the speaker turn a virtue into a vice.

Full rhetorical mark-up of President Obama’s speech segment

Full rhetorical mark-up of Mr. Trump’s speech

The Rhetoric of Speaking Truth to Power

In 1954, a journalist named Edward R Murrow stood up against the bullying and intimidation of Senator Joseph McCarthy. PBS describes his famous broadcast like this: “Broadcast on March 9, 1954, the program, composed almost entirely of McCarthy’s own words and pictures, was a damning portrait of a fanatic. McCarthy demanded a chance to respond, but his rebuttal, in which he referred to Murrow as ‘the leader of the jackal pack,’ only sealed his fate. The combination of the program’s timing and its persuasive power broke the Senator’s hold over the nation.”

I was inspired to revisit Murrow’s speech recently, when one of our presidential candidates stated, “In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today.” Remembering just what that ideological screening test was reminded me of the film Good Night and Good Luck, and that put me down this particular historical rabbit hole. Beyond the political resonance of Murrow’s speech, however, I was struck by the simple elegance of its rhetoric.

I decided to compare Murrow’s rhetoric to that of two of Shakespeare’s characters who we see in moments of speaking truth to power: Hermione at her sham of a trial and the Lord Chief Justice defending himself to the newly-crowned King Henry V. These are three very different speakers in three very different situations, but there are some strands of rhetorical similarities that perhaps reflect what is most persuasively potent in moments like these. To see the full speeches and my (scribbling) mark-up of them, click here.

In The Winter’s Tale, Hermione’s in a tough position, because she’s been dragged to court from childbed, while suffering a total breakdown of her entire world. It’s not surprising, then, that her speech is disordered. The device known as hyperbaton is what most of us would think of as “Yoda-speak”.

The bug which you would fright me with I seek.
To me can life be no commodity.
The crown and comfort of my life, your favor,
I do give lost.

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Stephanie Earl as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, 2011; photo by Tommy Thompson.

When you encounter disordered speech like this, it’s often helpful to rewrite the sentences as normal syntactical order would have them — so, “The bug which you would fright me with I seek” becomes “I seek the bug with which you would fright me” — and then ask why the words don’t come in that expected order. What information is Shakespeare giving us through the disorder? What I find interesting about Hermione’s structure is that she places the predicate/object first, saving herself for later. Whether this is strategic or an effect of her distress is up to an actor, but it seems to reflect her dissociation from herself and her life.

Despite this disorder, there is still an underlying structure in her speech. Hermione testifies as to her losses: (1) “The crown and comfort of my life, your favor, I do give lost”; (2) “My second joy / And first-fruits of my body, from his presence / I am barr’d”; (3) “My third comfort, / Starr’d most unluckily, is from my breast… Haled out to murder”; (4) Myself on every post / Proclaimed a strumpet; (5)with immodest hatred / The childbed privilege denied… (6)lastly, hurried / Here to this place, i’th’open air, before / I have got strength of limit.” Her order is not precise; it’s broken not only with the aforementioned hyperbaton but with parenthetical statements and somewhat rambling descriptions. But the order is there. My sense is that you can feel in that underlying structure a woman trying to hang on, even through extreme turmoil. And it pays off.

Hermione seems to wrap up with fairly simple statement, including a blistering antithesis (the contrast of opposing ideas): “Tell me what blessings I have here alive that I should fear to die?” Something in her is still fighting through the despair, however; she gives us a telltale “But yet”, a phrase that almost always cues a shift in a character’s speech, and then launches into her longest thought in the speech. (My mark-up shows the breaks where each full thought ends).

Not life,
I prize it not a straw, but for mine honour,
Which I would free, if I shall be condemn’d
Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else
But what your jealousies awake, I tell you
‘Tis rigor and not law.

It’s a tangled thought, with those qualifying parentheticals, but it lands strong. “Rigor and not law” is a wonderful antithesis, and Hermione follows this long thought with a strikingly simple one — her simplest in the speech, with no disorder, no augmentations, no diversions: “Your honours all, I do refer me to the oracle.” Out of her disorder, Hermione finds strength — and the will to speak that truth to the husband and king who wants her dead.

The Lord Chief Justice is similarly challenged to defend himself in public, when King Henry V demands he justify having imprisoned the king when he was still a young, carousing prince. The Lord Chief Justice (hereafter LCJ) speaks in longer thoughts than does Hermione, though their overall monologues are roughly the same length. He paints a picture at length, of Henry having his own son who might disobey him, and throughout the speech, uses language that consciously calls upon Henry to “imagine” what might be.

Like Hermione, he has an underlying listing structure to his speech, though he carries it to greater lengths. His speech is also highly ordered, rather than disordered; the LCJ calls upon the device of isocolon, parallel sentence structure, to drive his lists home, whereas Hermione’s were more scattered in their structure. Below, I’ve numbered the items in the list — each a similarly-structured verb phrase, wherein the LCJ calls upon Henry to imagine specific things:

If the deed were ill,
Be you contented, wearing now the garland,
(1)To have a son set your decrees at nought,
(2)To pluck down justice from your awful bench,
(3)To trip the course of law and (4)blunt the sword
That guards the peace and safety of your person,
Nay, more, (5)to spurn at your most royal image
And (6)mock your workings in a second body.

He then moves from this structure to the even more direct imperatives (a bold thing to use when speaking to a king):

(1)Question your royal thoughts, (2)make the case yours;
(3)Be now the father and propose a son,
(4)Hear your own dignity so much profaned,
(5)See your most dreadful laws so loosely slighted,
(6)Behold yourself so by a son disdain’d.

Like Hermione, the LCJ gives us a wonderful turning point with “And then” — where he finally turns the topic back to his own deeds, both past and potential. Throughout this speech, the Lord Chief Justice is speaking to save at least his job, perhaps his life, but that does not seem to rattle him. Though verbose, he is not disordered, and that insight may tell an actor quite a bit about who this character is.

Cqe6cmrUAAADPntAnd so to Murrow:

Murrow’s dominant rhetorical trait at first glance is that of the double predicate (a simplistic form of zeugma, with one subject governing multiple verbs and objects). He also makes an interesting grammatical shift about one-third of the way through, moving from speaking in the abstract third person (“No one familiar with the history of this country can deny”; “It is necessary to investigate”, etc) to the first personal plural: “We must not confuse”; “We must remember”; “We will not walk in fear”; “We will not be driven by fear”. Murrow takes himself out of the ostensibly dispassionate, objective seat of the reporter and makes himself a part of the whole, which both personalizes the speech and encourages audience complicity in it.

Murrow also makes great use of antithesis, contrasting “dissent” with “disloyalty”, “accusation” with “conviction”, “oppose” with “approve”, “abroad” with “at home”, “allies” with “enemies”, and “create” with “exploit”. His lists are more spread out, but those contrasts in themselves provide the thrumming beat of structure that carries through the speech.

So what do all three have in common? Lists and contrasts seem to make for powerful points. Somewhat strangely, in all three examples I examined, the lists came in sixes — usually with some sort of grammatical patterning shift between the first three and the last three. The arrangement of contrast seems natural when speaking truth to power: the objective is to draw a line between what is and what is not, between the truth and the lie. The starker the contrast, the more successful the argument.

The thing that strikes me most, looking at all three speeches, is that the simplest statement, the least rhetorically embellished, always falls almost at the end of the speech. Hermione’s “I do refer me to the oracle”, the Lord Chief Justice’s “After this cold consideration, sentence me”, and Murrow’s “And whose fault is that? Not really his.” all have a punch-like quality to them. After using different strategies to lay out the situation, all three “put a button on it”, as we say in our Leadership Programs. They also then follow up with a call to action — something that turns the focus from the speaker to the listener. Murrow’s is perhaps the most interesting, because it is not stated outright as Hermione’s “Apollo be my judge” and the LCJ’s “As you are a king, speak in your state / What I have done that misbecame my place / My person, or my liege’s sovereignty”. Rather, Murrow turns back to Shakespeare himself to make his audience think about their complicity in evil actions: “‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night, and good luck.”

Good luck with what? The phrase was Murrow’s standard sign-off, but it carries such weight following the speech he’s just given. Good luck re-examining yourself? Good luck enduring these circumstances? Good luck challenging power? Whatever it is, it’s something the audience has to carry forward with them.

And all three win, in the end. It takes longest for Hermione, but she is, eventually, vindicated by the Oracle and then, sixteen years later, by Leontes. Henry V embraces the Lord Chief Justice. And Edward R Murrow started a chain reaction that eventually brought down Senator McCarthy and his witch hunts.

In an age of constant media, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the truth, the deflections, the distractions, and the outright lies are in the public discourse — but sometimes, it’s not very hard at all. Whenever I give a rhetoric workshop, I tell students that one of the reasons I love it is because rhetoric makes you a better listener. Sometimes that’s about listening for how someone’s using rhetoric to try to fool you, but it can also be about listening for the person who’s speaking the truth that someone else doesn’t want you to hear.

–Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager