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.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: June 22, 1992

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  1. Thanks.

    When I was a Law Review editor, I devised this hierarchy:


    One shouldn’t be clear at the expense of being exact, or persuasive at the expense of being orderly, etc. Note that the acronym — e.c.s.o.p.i.e. — isn’t catchy, but a catchy acronym would not be “exact”.

    The ideal is to be entertaining while being also all of the above. It’s not really necessary though. What we lawyers write is read by people not because they want to read it, but because they have to read it.

    Lincoln was talking to people who didn’t have to listen to him. However you make a good point about ending with short sentences. I know Churchill is overquoted but I’m reminded of his account of the ceremony with FDR on board the Prince of Wales, which was sunk two months later by the Japanese. He talks about reviewing the sailors, the officers he met, the hymns they sang. Then he ends with: “It was a great hour to live. Over half of those who sang were about to die.”

    1. I like your list.

      Why is it that almost all lawyers are so verbose? Is it somehow rewarded?

      1. Lawyers try to write for clarity, not necessarily for beauty. It takes a lot of hard work to achieve both.

        1. Half page run-on sentences are clearer?

          1. Exactness/precision comes before ease of understanding, as captcrisis mentioned. “Clear” or clarity could refer to either of those things. In a purchase agreement or other contract, the language can be more like a computer code than a communication. You’d be surprised how many potential ambiguities can be teased out. Good drafting should seek to eliminate them, and that can take a lot.

            With that said, many lawyers don’t write or draft very well.

          2. Part of it is that lawyers spend their time trying to think of ways around issue. This means more and more words get built into additional drafts – and the damn thing builds over a couple hundred years.

            The first release ever written probably just said “I release my claims against you.” But then someone argued that it wouldn’t apply to a successor. So it becomes “I, on behalf of myself and my successors, release my claims.” Then someone says, well, I’m an assign, so it doesn’t apply to me. Now it becomes “I, on behalf of my successors and assigns, release my claims.” This goes on and on and, at some point, if you don’t include the added words, that’s used against you.

            Eventually, the simple release goes on for the better part of a page, and not doing so gives someone an argument that you intentionally omitted some group.

            1. Yes!

              At the first firm I worked for, I signed up for the local lawyers’ basketball league. The application form was choked with disclaimers to an extent I’ve never seen before or since. The top half of the page was all fine print. A lawyer’s basketball league — it figured! I thought it was the funniest thing I ever saw. At lunch I passed it around to the other associates, hoping they’d laugh too. They looked at it with poker faces. Finally a woman across the table studied it and said, “This probably isn’t enforceable.” !!

        2. Also, we have clients. And we often have multiple lawyers working on a single document, especially important documents. Everyone wants to include their points in the thing and say things in a particular way.

          The speeches Farnsworth quoted were written by one or two people.

      2. Anorlunda:

        Partly it’s because, subconsciously, they want to sound like a lawyer.

        And partly it’s because it’s what people want. Ask law partners or judges or clients and they will tell you they prefer simple English. But that’s what they want to be seen as preferring. In fact they prefer legalese, if only subconsciously. It’s part of being in the club, perhaps. It took me a long time to realize this. Nowadays I compromise, making myself more or less clear while throwing in the long sentences that impress them.

        Example: If you rewrite a typical Will (or a mergers & acquisition contract) into plain English, the result makes you look less smart, less knowledgeable. It doesn’t look worth the $300/hr.

        1. True. I don’t mind some archaic sounding words or lawyerisms if they are useful and efficient. But I tend to take a hatchet to redundancies and fluff, compared to other attorneys.

          1. Redundancies are to some extent necessary. Early on I prided myself on not repeating things in briefs, not a word wasted — until I began noticing that if I didn’t spend at least a page and a half on an argument, the court ignored it. Finally in a case involving a one-sentence indemnification clause, which I spent less than a page on, I got a decision saying “appellant has not pointed to any indemnification language in a contract, or indeed any contract at all”. My motion to reargue was denied (of course). After that I learned my lesson. Repeat, repeat.

            1. I write the contracts, not the briefs, so it’s a bit different.

        2. I used to write software, and your comment triggered memories of that. Programmer productivity is often measured in lines of code per day (called LOC). So programmers would often say, I can write you an elegant one line program that does what you need, but if I write a 100 line piece of garbage that does the same thing, you’ll pay me 100x more.

          But it’s great for insomnia. I listen to FedSoc teleforum calls when I have difficulty going to sleep. A 10 minute monologue to deliver a point that could be said in 10 seconds puts me to sleep rapidly.

          Remember the blog post above is about Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address was 272 words long. Certainly brief. Would it be more clear if it was longer?

          1. The Gettysburg address is about as perfect a speech as there ever was.

            Of the many things that have been said about it: can any nation dedicated to all men being equal long endure? It had been only fourscore and seven years. The South was (or was about to be) outvoted on the issue of slavery. If the minority could secede whenever it didn’t like what the majority set down, any country would split into smaller and smaller parts.

      3. If you pay someone more the longer they take, they will take longer to do the work.

        1. It actually takes much more work to write a short brief. Droning on is quick and easy.

          1. Indeed.

            A good example is a motion for summary judgment. Such a motion is most likely to be granted if it’s short as possible — you’re telling the judge, “Things are simple — nothing for a jury to decide.” You can go through a file that fills up a cabinet, and the best s/j motion might be seven pages. The important thing (to quote Hemingway) is “to know what to leave out”.

            But the average client, getting a copy of that short document, will not be thrilled when he gets your bill showing 50 hours of preparation time, even though all that time was necessary. No — better to drone on and on, submit a 90-page motion which is sure to be denied because it brings in all kinds of extraneous crap. The judge will throw up his hands and say “let the jury sort this out!” But your client will be happier, knowing that you “tried very hard”.

            1. Client here. All I care about is winning. I won’t even bother to read the thing unless we lose and then I’ll try to figure out why I hired such a loser.

              1. The problem is that the litigation game is not a meritocracy. Sports is. You can’t get to the big leagues (or stay there) if you can’t hit a curveball. Classical music is. You can’t get into a symphony orchestra unless you pass the audition (and they hold auditions behind screens so they can’t see who you are).

                In litigation one can do a great job, and still lose. Or a crappy job, and still win. Add to that the fact that you might have an objectively good case, or an objectively bad case. A good lawyer, over the course of (say) 100 cases, will have a better winning percentage than a poor one, but most clients can’t wait to see which happens.

    2. I suppose that works well enough for academic pieces, but surely for actual filings persuasiveness is far more important than anything else?

  2. I guarantee Lincoln did not think about the etymology of the words he picked. But ignoring that, the actual advice of modulating word length/complexity and ending with short, sharp words is well taken. (And, okay fine it was an interesting etymology lesson as well; just completely irrelevant to anyone who’s actually trying to write anything.)
    Looking forward to the rest of your posts Dean Farnsworth.

    1. I agree with another comment above, Lincoln never though about the etymology of his words. I better example of how Lincoln understood language, is how he, a daily bible reader in a more religious time, makes references that his readers would understand to apply them to the issues of the day.

      “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Wonderful summation of why slavery was tearing the country apart, which also references a famous gospel passage.

      1. Comment above was not meant to be a reply to captcrisis, but what’s done is done.

    2. I guarantee Lincoln did not think about the etymology of the words he picked.

      And what’s the basis for making that guarantee?

  3. Interesting post.

    It strikes me that concluding with a sequence of short words gives a sense of resolution – of settling the tension, complexity, ambiguity, whatever, of what came before.

    Consider the second example: War was threatened. Would it happen?

    “And the war came.”

    I think there is some connection to musical composition there.

    1. Perhaps a connection to a musical composition — perhaps a general artistic technique: I’ve called it “linguistic chiaroscuro” since my high school days.

  4. More than fifty years ago, and perhaps closer to a hundred, the “Fugitive Poet” John Crowe Ransom wrote an essay about the alternation of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words, principally in Shakespeare, though also Lincoln.

    Examples from Shakespeare:

    Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
    The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
    Making the green one red.

    If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
    Absent thee from felicity awhile,
    And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
    To tell my story.

    From Lincoln:

    We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this land.

    Ransom in particular notes the progression: a formal Latin verb (dedicate); a second, more formal Latin word (consecrate); sudden shift to an unusual Anglo-Saxon verb (hallow).

  5. Interesting. I do my best to avoid Latinate words in public writing, having learned from watching the President that Saxon words are far more powerful and persuasive. I can see how, with a selective audience rather than the general public, introducing the argument in Latin terms, leading to a Saxon conclusion would be an excellent rhetorical device.

    Is there a similar rule for Greek words? Should they be used more for technical and jargonistic speech for a professional audience?

  6. In his book on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Gary Wills suggested that Lincoln’s shorter phrasing and simpler language came, in part, from reading the briefer/shorter telegram dispatches/reports in the WH telegraph office that were sent from the generals from the battles – the battle/field reports. Additionally, because reporters who used the telegraphs were limited to the amount of time they could have (hence the origin of the phrase “-30-” at the end of stories) their stories as well were sharper and simpler. Lincoln read these stories too.
    I’m not convinced by Wills’ suggestion but there it is.

    1. That’s a wonderful book by Wills.

      I didn’t know that was the origin of “-30-“.

      It makes sense that the advent of telegrams contributed to general brevity of language. A masterpiece of simple prose is U.S. Grant’s memoirs. Some say Twain ghost-wrote them, but I don’t believe that. Grant was in charge of several armies — every week he had to write dozens of orders, and they had to be short, yet clear and exact. So he had had a lot of practice.

  7. Unless I’m suffering from the “Mandela effect” (possible), this was either in the book or in an interview Wills gave (I believe C-Span).
    As to the -30-. Yes, it was shorthand for “no more.” One suggestion was that it represented the word limit that the military allowed reporters to send since these were lines/telegraphs in the field that that they set up and controlled. But I think that’s been shown to be incorrect: it’s just shorthand for “no more” or “end of story.”

  8. “Will all Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand?
    No, this my hand will rather
    the multitudinous seas incarnadine
    Making the green one red.”

    William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II, Scene 2

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