The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

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

More lessons on writing from the masters.



Yesterday I talked about one way that Lincoln created powerful sentences: he would start with big words derived from Latin, then finish with short words that have Saxon origins. The book from which this discussion comes also talks about Churchill and his way with words. He liked some of the same patterns that Lincoln did. A famous example:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. —Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (1940).

"Human conflict" is Latinate. Every word after it is Saxon. Simply put, the earlier part of the sentence has more complicated words than the later part. The first half sets up the ear for the second, which gains strength by contrast.

But Churchill also made great use of the reverse pattern: starting with simple words, then using language more complex to create a feeling of ascension.

You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. —Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (1940).

What we will do is stated in the simplest conceivable language: 30 words in a row of one syllable apiece, every one of them at least partly Germanic. What we are fighting against is then stated in the opposite way: of the last 13 words of the main sentence, more than half are Latinate, and they create a sense of height and climax. The longer words also allow him to end with a flourish for the ear.

Look at the similar structure of this passage from a speech he gave a few weeks later:

The whole root and core and brain of the British Army, on which and around which we were to build, and are to build, the great British Armies in the later years of the war, seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity. —Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (1940).

The good guys are depicted in short and sturdy words. The disastrous threat they faced is depicted in long and appalling ones.

These examples show that you don't create rhetorical force by just keeping everything simple. You create it by combining simplicity and complexity in ways that take advantage of contrast. The contrasts can move your readers, or amuse them, or hold their attention, or drive a point home.

I'll talk about another aspect of this theme tomorrow. If you're enjoying this discussion, you can find more of it here.