The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

What Did Lincoln Know About Language That We Don't?

Some lessons on writing from the masters.



I've written a new book about language (you can see it here), and Eugene and friends have kindly consented to let me discuss it this week (thanks, Eugene!). The book talks about why the prose of Lincoln, Churchill, Holmes, and other greats is so compelling, and asks what we can learn from them about how to write better ourselves. The book is part of a series on rhetoric—a sequel to this one and this one (which will be reprinted later this summer).

The new book's general claim is that our culture of advice about good writing doesn't explain the power that Lincoln achieved with his words. The usual story is that the best writing is the most efficient—that clarity and concision are everything. It's hard to argue with this; who doesn't want to be clear? But writing can be clear and powerful, clear and memorable, clear and full of fire, or clear without any of those things. The book argues that rhetorical force isn't created by efficiency alone. It's created by the use of contrasts.

Consciously or not, Lincoln understood this. It's how he wrote. Here I will talk about one example: contrast in the kinds of words you use.

English is a language built mostly out of two others. Much of it was created out of the language of invaders who came to Britain around 450 ad from Anglia and Saxony (in what we'd now call northern Germany). About 600 years later the French invaded and brought their language with them, too; it was derived from Latin. The new French competed with Old English, and the outcome was a language—modern English—built out of both.

Often words with similar meanings from the two languages were both turned into English words, such as make (Saxon) and create (from French), or need (Saxon) and require (from French). So in English you can say almost anything with two kinds of words: short, simple ones with Saxon origins, or fancier ones that come from Latin.

It's a fun parlor game to name a Latinate equivalent for every Saxon word you can think of.  If a word ends with –tion or similar suffix, or if it could be made into a similar word that does, then it's usually derived from Latin. Thus the Latinate word acquire can become acquisition or acquisitive; but the equivalent Germanic word get doesn't take endings in that way.

In any event: advisers on English style have long said that it's best to use Saxon words when you can, because those words are most clear and forceful. If you need a single rule, that's as good as any. But Lincoln didn't create his great effects by sticking to one kind of word or another. He created them by skillfully mixing the two kinds of words, and doing the same with other aspects of his language.

For example, Lincoln especially liked to start a sentence with Latinate words and then end with a Saxon finish.  Look at this famous passage from his "House Divided" speech in 1858:

Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

The first half of the sentence has lots of Latinate words: opponents, slavery, arrest, course, ultimate, extinction, advocates. Then it ends with 14 words of one syllable in a row, all of them Saxon except "States" (which might as well be). He expresses the hope in large, uplifting words, and the threat in words that are short and simple. The first round sets up the second.

Another example, this from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.  —Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address (1865).

This is another good case of a simple finish used for the sake of contrast. The opinions and purposes of the parties are put in Latinate words (deprecate, nation, survive, accept, perish). The fact of what happened next is stated in solemn words of one syllable. Large words for complex intentions, plain words for plain truths.

The point: Lincoln is well-known for his love of simple language, but he was also at home with Latinate words and mixed the two types to strong effect.  He especially liked to circle with larger words early in a sentence and then finish it simply. This pattern let him offer intellectual or idealistic substance and then tie it to a stake in the ground.

If you want to experiment with this idea, try finishing your arguments with words that are simpler and shorter than the ones you've recently been using—in other words, with a Saxon clincher.

If you'd like to read more about these ideas, you can find the book here.