The Memorable Monosyllables of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”

November 19, 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a work demonstrating the power of simple, powerful, comprehensible language, an aspect of writing Lincoln felt to be vital to a democracy.

Public domain photo from pre-1923 book.
Public domain photo from pre-1923 book.
By Patch Columnist Philip R. Devlin.

I used to teach Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” as a companion piece to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Abraham Lincoln was a big fan of William Shakespeare, and Macbeth was Lincoln’s favorite play. The main link, however, between the two pieces was not thematic but linguistic: Both effectively used monosyllabic language that was rich in imagery.

Some of the most memorable lines from Macbeth are entirely monosyllabic:

“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”

“What’s done is done.”

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

“If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me...”

“I go, and it is done.”

“The queen, my lord, is dead.”

The play’s most famous speech in Act V is also heavily laced with monosyllables: “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!” (39 words, 31 monosyllables.)

In a similar manner, monosyllabic language dominates Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is beautifully structured around the simple metaphor of birth-death-rebirth. Of the 272 words in the address, 210 are monosyllables—almost 75%; additionally, I count another 42 words as having two syllables, leaving just 20 words in the address as having more than two syllables, “dedicate” or “dedicated” being the most common (6x). The point is that the language was simple, powerful , memorable, and evocative. A similar analysis of Lincoln’s” Second Inaugural Address”—believed by some to be even better than the “Gettysburg Address”—yields similar results: 703 words, 505 monosyllables (72%).

Like Shakespeare, unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse) is Lincoln’s preferred method of writing and predominates in his address. Consider this line: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say…” It consists of 14 syllables in perfect iambic pentameter—an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. Just like the most famous speech from Macbeth, the address is full of alliteration—the repetition of initial consonant sounds. “Four…forth; “new nation”; “little note…nor long remember…”; “people…perish,” etc.  I used to tell my students that the “Gettysburg Address” is the closest that prose comes to being poetry.

In September of 1940, another devotee of simple yet powerful language made one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. His name was Winston Churchill, and here is what he had to say about the pending Nazi invasion of England:

We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

That’s 42 memorable words, 85% monosyllabic.

In a conversation once with Hartford’s Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln told her how important it was for him as an elected representative of the people to speak and to write in simple, comprehensible language: “The people will understand it,” he insisted. In the Federalist Papers his notable presidential predecessor, James Madison, expressed a similar preoccupation with simple, clear language from elected representatives:

It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” (39 words; 30 monosyllables.)

Contrast the simple, direct, and clear language of Madison, Lincoln, and Churchill with the following direct quotation from a recent piece of federal legislation:

The Secretary shall adopt operating rules under this subsection, by regulation in accordance with subparagraph (C), following consideration of the operating rules developed by the non-profit entity described in paragraph (2) and the recommendation submitted by the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics under paragraph (3)(E) and having ensured consultation with providers.”

Got that? I didn’t think so. That was a direct quotation from Section 1104-- ironically entitled “Administrative Simplification”-- in the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.”

Senator Thomas Carper, a Democrat and Delaware’s senior senator, said this about the Affordable Care Act: “I don’t expect to actually read the legislative language because reading the legislative language is among the more confusing things I’ve read in my life.” (Senator Carper voted for it anyway.)

The occasion of the sesquicentennial of the “Gettysburg Address” offers us an opportunity to remember the power of simple and clear language. Madison, Churchill, and Lincoln: All are noteworthy and memorable for the beautiful simplicity and clarity of their writings and speeches. All three men used simple and powerful language to connect with their people. Lincoln strongly felt that elected leaders should speak and write in a way that is readily comprehensible to the people who elected them, a goal that he undeniably achieved in the “Gettysburg Address.” 

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