“Four score and seven years ago…”
Lincoln’s 271 word Gettysburg Address memorialized the soldiers lost at the Battle of Gettysburg and invoked the principles of human equality contained in the Declaration of Independence.
In less than two minutes, Lincoln eloquently expressed his conviction that the Civil War was the ultimate test of whether the Union created in 1776 would survive or “perish from the Earth.” He charged those living with the “great task” of ensuring that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” Lincoln was able to pack this punch with his use of the English language.
The book, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, by Ward Farnsworth, explores how we can use the English language for persuasion.
English is a jumble of words from the different groups that invaded the British Isles over the years. Words with Anglo-Saxon origins generally come across as plain and direct–e.g., get or need–while those with French origins feel more formal and flowery–acquire or require.
Lincoln, Farnsworth argues, was a master at mixing these two types of words for maximum impact. “Lincoln especially liked to start a sentence with Latinate words and then end with a Saxon finish”, Farnsworth explains, offering Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech as an example:
“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.”
Lincoln kicks off with a formal style, employing many Latinate words like opponents, extinction, and advocates. He then closes with 14 straight single-syllable words in a row, almost all of them of Anglo-Saxon origin.
While more complex Latinate words can convey expertise and help create pretty sentences, shift gears, and end your argument with the plainest terms possible for maximum impact.
Who knew Honest Abe had these smooth moves up his sleeve?