PDA and Obama

Lovely ‘positive discourse analysis’ of Barack Obama’s speech on David Crystal’s blog:

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.

Far more on Obama’s use of the ‘rule of three’/triples/tiptychs, his pair structures, rhetorical contrasts, slow build-up and elegance at dc-blog.

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