An Obama periodic sentence

(Another item in my posting queue from a while ago.)

As suits his complex life history, Barack Obama commands a wide range of rhetorical styles and is adept at shifting from one to another according to the context: American “plain style” used to convey sweet (but lawyerly) reason, distinct echos of black pulpit style, and much more. Including, from a speech to students at the University of Illinois on 9/7/18, a striking periodic sentence. (The whole speech can be viewed on the media space Illinois site, “President Barack Obama Speech at the University of Illinois”.)

The text, formatted here so that you can appreciate the organization of the discourse:

Oh, I am here to tell you that

: even if you don’t agree with me or Democrats on policy,
: even if you believe in more Libertarian economic theories,
: even if you are an evangelical and our position on certain social issues is a bridge too far,
: even if you think my assessment of immigration is mistaken and that Democrats aren’t serious enough about immigration enforcement,

I’m here to tell you that

you should still be concerned with our current course and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.

From Wikipedia:

The periodic sentence emphasizes its main idea by placing it at the end, following all the subordinate clauses and other modifiers that support the principal idea. The sentence unfolds gradually, so that the thought contained in the subject/verb group only emerges at the sentence’s conclusion. Obviously artificial, it is used mostly in what in oratory is called the grand style.

It is the opposite of the loose sentence, also continuous or running style, where the subject and verb are introduced at the beginning of the sentence. Periodic sentences often rely on hypotaxis, whereas running sentences are typified by parataxis.

Parataxis proceeds by simple juxtaposition, while hypotaxis involves explicit subordination, as in the chain of clauses introduced by even if in the Obama example.

A very simple hypotaxis / parataxis contrast, from my 2/4/10 posting “Short shot #35: paratactic conditionals”:

Conditionals can be expressed hypotactically, with the antecedent in a subordinate clause marked by if; or paratactically, with the antecedent and consequent simply juxtaposed:

[hypotaxis] If you break it, you bought it.

[parataxis] You break it, you bought it.

In paratactic examples the semantic relationship between the two clauses is not explicitly marked and has to be “worked out”.

Some literary examples of periodic sentences, significantly more complex than the Obama example (my own analyses; the details are of course disputable):

— from Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” (in translation, obviously):

Even at those hours

: when the gray Petersburg sky is completely overcast and the whole population of clerks have dined and eaten their fill, each as best he can, according to the salary he receives and his personal tastes;
: when they are all resting after the scratching of pens and bustle of the office, their own necessary work and other people’s, and all the tasks that an overzealous man voluntarily sets himself even beyond what is necessary;
: when the clerks are hastening to devote what is left of their time to pleasure;

:: some more enterprising are flying to the theater,
:: others to the street to spend their leisure staring at women’s hats, some to spend the evening paying compliments to some attractive girl, the star of a little official circle,
:: while some — and this is the most frequent of all — go simply to a fellow clerk’s apartment on the third or fourth story, two little rooms with a hall or a kitchen, with some pretensions to style, with a lamp or some such article that has cost many sacrifices of dinners and excursions —

at the time

: when all the clerks are scattered about the apartments of their friends,

:: playing a stormy game of whist,
:: sipping tea out of glasses,
:: eating cheap biscuits,
:: sucking in smoke from long pipes,
:: telling, as the cards are dealt, some scandal that has floated down from higher circles, a pleasure which the Russian do never by any possibility deny himself, or,

: when there is nothing better to talk about,

:: repeating the everlasting anecdote of the commanding officer who was told that the tail had been cut off the horse on the Falconet monument — in short,

even when everyone was eagerly seeking entertainment,

Akaky Akakievich did not indulge in any amusement.

— from Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”:

:: Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
:: Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
:: Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
:: Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
:: Down from the shower’d halo,
:: Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
:: Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
:: From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
:: From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
:: From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
:: From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
:: From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
:: From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
:: From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
:: From such as now they start the scene revisiting,

: As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
: Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
: A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
: Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,

I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

5 Responses to “An Obama periodic sentence”

  1. Geoffrey Nathan Says:

    Something you haven’t mentioned (nor has anyone else that I am aware of) is that in all likelihood Obama can also speak Hawai’ian English. I lived there for ten years in my twenties, and I can (and it returns, often unbidden) when I’m there and interacting with locals. And he went to Punahou, the most prestigious private school in the Islands, where Dakine is the the lingua franca, certainly on the playground and probably somewhat in the classroom too.

  2. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    Thank you for this post, Arnold.

    A side note on Whitman’s style: Your beautiful quotation reminds me that I always used to avoid Whitman. He just seemed too hard for my flighty mind, or the subject matter didn’t grab me. Then the chorus and orchestra I’m a member of performed several pieces that used Whitman poems, mainly from Leaves of Grass, and I gradually became a fan. Vaughn William’s A Sea Symphony is the most striking and moving for me. I think the following, from the subpart of Leaves of Grass called ‘Sea-drift: after the sea-ship’, may be a good example of a periodic sentence. (just catching on to the terminology) Anyway, it’s beautiful, and there’s only one sentence in the whole movement of the Vaughn Williams! (and really not a whole sentence, as I don’t find a main verb — just a noun phrase, ‘a motley procession’.

    After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds,
    After the white-gray sails taut to their spars and ropes,
    Below, a myriad, myriad waves hastening, lifting up their necks,
    Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship,
    Waves of the ocean bubbling and gurgling, blithely prying,
    Waves, undulating waves, liquid, uneven, emulous waves,
    Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant, with curves,
    Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface,
    Larger and smaller waves in the spread of the ocean yearnfully flowing,
    The wake of the sea-ship after she passes, flashing and frolicsome under the sun,
    A motley procession with many a fleck of foam and many fragments,
    Following the stately and rapid ship, in the wake following.

    • Ellen Kaisse Says:

      Oops — I think the main noun is the wake of the sea-ship. Missed it! Fortunately I had already admitted to the flighty mind.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Whitman can be tough. His inclination to postpose the verb of (some of) his sentences to sentence-final position takes some getting used to, and some of his poetry is restless and shifting in its form, with no discernible extended regulation. I’ve always taken “Sea-drift” to be such a work, with its shifting linguistic form iconic of the shifting waves and the vessel shifting on them. But maybe there’s regulation there that I don’t see; no doubt there’s critical literature on the matter.

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