If you're a speechwriter, or if your work requires you to write persuasive copy, I highly recommend that you read David Crystal's superb analysis of the acceptance speech Barack Obama gave last Tuesday. Crystal is a linguist and prolific author (100 books and counting!) who brings a scholarly British perspective to his observations.
Here's an excerpt:
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.
And that's just the beginning. Obama used the full quiver of rhetorical devices: repetition, pairs, triptychs, and contrast (between general and personal, for example). And also this:
One of the things actors know is that, in a long speech, they have to leave themselves somewhere else to go. This is something I've learned from actor son Ben. If you put all your energy into the opening lines of a soliloquy, you'll find it trailing away into nothing before the end. Rather, start low and steadily build up. Or, divide the speech up into sections and introduce peaks and troughs. Or, divide it into sections and treat each section in a different way. Obama's speech goes for this last option. It has several sections, each very different in content, and it is the switch of content which motivates a switch of style and renews the audience's motivation to listen.
Much has been said about the power and brilliance of Barack Obama's March 18 speech on race, even by some of his detractors. The focus has been on the orator's willingness to say things in public about race that are rarely spoken at all, even in private, and his expressed desire to move the country to a new and better place. There has also been attention to the immediate purpose of the speech, which was to reassure white voters that they had nothing to fear from the congregant of a fiery African-American pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Amid all the commentary, I have yet to see an X-Ray reading of the text that would make visible the rhetorical strategies that the orator and authors used so effectively. When received in the ear, these effects breeze through us like a harmonious song. When inspected with the eye, these moves become more apparent, like reading a piece of sheet music for a difficult song and finally recognizing the chord changes.
Clark examines "four related rhetorical strategies" that account for the speech's success:
1. The power of allusion and its patriotic associations.
2. The oratorical resonance of parallel constructions.
3. The "two-ness" of the texture, to use [the black scholar and journalist W.E.B.] DuBois's useful term.
4. His ability to include himself as a character in a narrative about race.
Regardless of what you think of Obama the candidate, you can learn a lot from his oratory and from Clark's thoughtful parsing. And regardless of whether you write speeches, annual reports, or novels, your writing will be stronger if you write to be heard as well as read.
Bible student/Zen mistress Paris Hilton, full of post-pokey philosophy, solemnly told Larry King Wednesday that she has a new outlook on life: "Don't serve the time; let the time serve you."
That statement is a good example of what's known to students of contemporary language as a Russian reversal. The original version went something like this:
In America, you go to the party.
In Soviet Russia, the party goes to you!
In other words, subject and object are reversed in the two halves of the joke, with "Soviet Russia" leading the second statement. The form was popularized by Ukrainian emigré comedian Yakov Smirnoff.
As usual, Uncyclopedia has the last word on the Russian reversal.
Update: Well, maybe not the last last word. I just learned, via Language Log, of the newish Snowclones Database being cultivated by Erin O'Connor (who describes herself as "an animal-loving linguistics geek artist"). (A snowclone is a particular kind of cliché: "X is the new Y" or “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.”) Erin classifies the Russian reversal as a snowclone--"In Soviet Russia, X Ys You!"--and also as a variation on chiasmus, the term in rhetoric for a "crossover" trope. And she links to Chiasmus.com, where you can revel in chiastic quotes from Mae West ("It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men"), Cicero ("One should eat to live, not eat to live"), and other great crossover artists.
Ploce: A rhetorical device in which a word is repeated for emphasis, with a shift in the part of speech. Example: "walk the walk," "talk the talk." Pronounced plo'-siorplo'-kee. Michael Sheehan at Wordmall offers some nice examples, and BYU's rhetoric department splits a few hairs.