Diagramming the Obama Sentence

February 16, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 57 3 min read

coverIn a Slate piece published back in the fall, Kitty Burns Florey took on the unenviable task of diagramming the utterances of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Florey, the author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, clearly has a unusual predilection for sentence diagramming (which I’m pretty sure the Army Field Manual prohibits as a form of torture.) Nonetheless, her project was more journalistic than aesthetic; she suggested that diagramming a sentence “provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator.”

In honor of Presidents Day, I thought I’d return to the “lost art” of diagramming – last practiced (by me) in the Seventh Grade classroom of Mrs. Brenda Wooten – to see what I could learn about the mind of President Barack Obama. I selected a representative, and widely quoted, sentence from last week’s primetime press conference. The topic was the malfeasance of Bush Administration officials. Obama told Huffington Post blogger Sam Stein this:
The basic lucidity of this response, and its analytical ambition (this is the quality Obama critics, and some fans, call “professorial”), may be clearer in the transcript. (With apologies to the HuffPo, I’ve turned the period between “citizen” and “but” to a comma; Obama’s answer is a single, complete sentence, rather than a complete sentence plus a fragment):

My view is also that nobody’s above the law, and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.

The diagram, though, offers several insights. First, the elegant balance of the central construction (My view is that x, and that y, but also that z) shows that Obama has a good memory for where he’s been, grammatically, and a strong sense of where he’s going. His tripartite analysis of the problem is clearly reflected in the structure of the sentence, and thus in the three main branches of the diagram. (Turn it on its side and it could be a mobile.) The third “that” – thrown in 29 words into a 43-word sentence – creates three parallel predicate nouns. And then there’s a little parallel flourish at the end: “I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back.”

Nothing feels tacked on; the “ums” and “ahs” Obama sometimes inserts into his speeches are not meant to buy time to think about substance, or to long for a teleprompter (sorry, conservative bloggers), but to make sure his long sentences stay on solid grammatical terrain. At the same time, Obama’s confidence in the basic architecture of his sentences allows him to throw in some syntactically varied riffs and qualifiers: an absolute phrase here, a correlative conjunction or comparative adjective there.

By contrast with the syntax, the diction is quite straightforward, which may account for why the majority of Americans, unlike their pundit overlords, don’t seem to feel that Obama is talking down to them. The verbs here are all “to be” verbs, given weight by participles like “prosecuted” and “interested,” and by the muscular commonplaces, “above the law,” “looking forward” and “looking back.” The only superfluous adjective is “clear,” which sounds positively Bush-like, even as it serves to qualify the clause it’s attached to. Even more remarkable: by virtue of the third “that,” this is a complex sentence, but not a compound one. Like “I’m the decider,” it has a single, copulative predicate.

This may be the essential Obama gift: making complexity and caution sound bold and active, even masculine… or rather, it may be one facet of a larger gift: what Zadie Smith calls “having more than one voice in your ear.” Notice the canny way that the sentence above turns on the fulcrum of what may be Obama’s favorite word: “but.” What appears to be a hard line – “My view is… that nobody is above the law” – turns out to have been a qualifier for a vaguer but more inspiring motto: “I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back.” The most controversial part of the sentence – “people should be prosecuted” – gets tucked away, almost parenthetically, in the middle.

It is possible – mistaken, I think, but certainly possible – to dismiss this sentence as a platitudinous non-answer, and if comedians ever overcome their Obama anxiety, this may be his Achilles heel: “The beef, assuming it’s in a port wine reduction, sounds, uh, amazing, but on the other hand, given that the chicken is, ah, locally grown, I’d be eager to try it.” But to underrate the subtlety and appeal of Obama the communicator is to be out of touch with Americans’ hunger to be addressed as adults. Indeed, after “You’re with us or you’re against us” and “Putin rears his head,” such thoughtfulness seems positively worth celebrating.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Perhaps, rather than having some grammatical genius that allows him to seem for confident and masculine than he may actually be, he is merely a product of several years of Warriner's English Grammar.

  2. These are not even the words of Obama, but that of his speech writer, whose job is to make him look good. Therefore, diagramming a sentence from his speech should say nothing about the Messiah.

    Kirk, Tx.

  3. Kirk,

    Are you saying Obama's speechwriter is scripting not only his prepared addresses, but ostensibly spontaneous responses to press conference questions (which was the context for this sentence)? I'm not sure I follow your line of argument, but would be happy to know more…

  4. Neil,
    The article does mention "the 27 year old wunderkind," Favreau who helps him with his speeches, so which are Obama's words and which are Favreau's?

    I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Obama rehearses his answers to questions that he anticipates. He is the slickest politician since…well, Bill Clinton, so polishing answers just as with speeches would be easy to imagine. After all, any politician who can convince the American people that a trillion dollar spending bill is going to stimulate the economy certainly gets props from me.
    Kirk, Tx.
    PS Garth, at least we agree on Bolano.

  5. Goodness. It must be hard work, Kirk, patrolling the entire internet for instances of flattering or admiring statements about the new President of United States which can be turned into sneering implications that those who flatter or admire him have switched off their brains.

    How do you find the time?

  6. Kirk,
    A speechwriter can only do so much. Like Obama, George W Bush had a team of 3 competent speechwriters yet he couldn't even put together two words coherently. The job of a speechwriter is to write in the speaker's own voice, not be the voice. If you're implying that Obama is just a voicebox, you're sorely mistaken. You've got to be pretty good with language to make the president of the Harvard Law Review.

  7. What troubles me about this sentence is not its grammar, but its content. Obama sees the important issue of bringing to book people who abused executive power under Bush administration as "looking backward"? Ethics are at issue here, and unfortunately Obama has failed to live up to his own pre-election standards on the question of accountability. Check out the delays and settlements he recommended in the subpeona of Rove and the nod he gave to the Justice system to basically uphold security certificates and such from the Bush era. He is not willing to deprive himself of the vast and unconstitutional powers that he inherited from the Bush administration. This will be the most serious credibility issue with his presidency.

  8. I totally agree Obama is a great communicator, which in most instances today means he reads well from a teleprompter. And I concur that Bush was perhaps the worst communicator we've ever had. Laughable. But actions speak louder than words, so after all of Obama's campaign promises he has a mountain to climb.


  9. Kirk,

    It's your cult that wanted Bush's War, so that they could act out The Left Behind series, for "Jesus". I'm not surprised that logic and facts are regarded as the enemy.

  10. Sorry I don't fall into your category of Republican Evangelical. I am an atheist that happens to be a conservative in most cases.
    If you think that the Bush administration regarded logic and facts as the enemy you aint seen nothin' yet!

  11. I don't think magic-talking is a sign of respect. If american people were to be treated as adults the truth would plain and clear (adults can handle the truth, right?). Instead everybody is left to draw his own conclusion (magic talking alert!). The wrongdoers will be prosecuted, or not? Keeping an eye on the future is more important than justice or not? The same political-correctness-BS just in a nicer package.

  12. I've met Obama (I was at the University of Chicago when he taught there). This isn't from a speechwriter; he's always spoken like this.

  13. The sentence analyzed exposes one of Obama's serious weaknesses – lack of precision and clarity.

    When Obama's finally gotten to the period at the end of the long sentence, the listener has no more insight into Obama's views or probable future actions than they did before he uttered the first word of the sentence. While a casual observer (or an Obama worshiper) thinks the question has been answered, it was not. He could either prosecute everyone in sight within the Bush administration (of course, only for "clear" violations), or he could do absolutely nothing (of course, in the interest of "looking forward").

    I am hopeful that Obama's seemingly intentional ambiguity and failure to take a clear position is a political technique he reserves for dodging domestic issues and that he lets experienced people craft his messages for the international stage. In international matters, failure to communicate effectively and clearly can have serious consequences including unnecessary escalation of tensions to the level of warfare.

    The article makes fun of Bush 43 for the statement: "You're with us or you're against us" [I believe the author used a fragment of Bush's sentence here, but that's not material to this discussion]. However, the purpose of speaking is to communicate. It is reasonable to agree or disagree with Bush's position, but it's impossible to not better understand Bush's position and attitude after hearing this statement – he views sitting on the sidelines on the issue of terrorism to be equivalent to supporting terrorism.

  14. If you watch his many interviews or read his two self-authored books and countless articles dating back to his law school days and early marriage life and on through the present, you will see that Obama has always talked this way. His themes, views, syntax and delivery have been remarkably consistent. Say what you want about him, but his voice – with or without a speechwriter's help – is authentically his. To say otherwise is mere ignorance or delusion.

  15. To all who believe Obama's statement is obfuscating but that there's clarity in Bush's "you're with us or you're against us" statement: You are wrong.

    Obama here says we will enforce the laws, but he's not about to set the government toward consuming itself with second-guessing all dubious Bush Administration decisions; that should evidence emerge of clear wrong-doing, your title and your friends will not save you from justice, but that his administration is not about to launch a comprehensive witch hunt. This is pragmatic.

    Bush's alleged clarity is anything but pragmatic. If an overall long-term ally like Mexico or France opposes our invasion of Iraq because they find our charges of Iraqi terrorism-abetting to be unpersuasive — are they now "with" the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11? Is Russia "with" the terrorists, or Syria — or Hamas? It would seem they are. And yet we permit them to go on existing — which makes us "with" the terrorists, doesn't it? Sorry, but I never saw the clarity in Bush's black-vs-white jingoism.

    I am pleased to have a president with an adult ability to examine the world and address its complexity. That serves the national interest well.

  16. Logosfera, I would argue that letting people come to their own conclusions is, in fact, treating them like adults–especially when compared with the paternalistic alternatives that you offer.

    Secondly, in Obama's answer you can find answers to every question you raised. Will wrongdoers be prosecuted? He says yes, when it is clear that they in fact did wrong. Is keeping an eye on the future more important and "justice" (which, in fairness, is not synonymous with "looking backward" which is what he actually said)? Yes, he says he's more interested in looking forward than dwelling on the past. These are not contradictory–He's more interested in the future than the past, but when clear wrongdoing is occurred then those accountable should be prosecuted.

  17. I think you do a great job showing how Obama's brain works as it is manifest in his construction of syntax and design. He's a remarkable thinker, strategist and writer. I think his sentence structure demonstrates all the complexity he brings to the issue, his understanding of opposing ideas, and an aesthetic sense of parallelism and rhythm.

  18. It's an odd world we live in when sentence structure *is* construed as indicative of morality, but actions aren't.

  19. The commas are misplaced in that sentence. Here I fixed it for you!

    "My view is also that nobody's above the law and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards"

  20. Unfortunately this quote didn't contain the one mistake which I observe fairly regularly in Obama's speech: the use of "a" before a noun beginning with a vowel. For example, he says "launch a attack" instead of "launch an attack." I've also heard several friends who were raised in Hawaii speak similarly, so maybe it's a local Hawaiian thing?

  21. The semicolon was correct. When the first clause contains commas, the punctuation mark before the conjunction should be a semicolon for the sake of clarity.

    Yr pedantic trivia for the day

  22. Anonymous @ 6:01:

    It isn't clear what you hope to imply about the comparative morality of the actions of Presidents Bush and Obama, if anything, in this thread about clear communication.

    No one here is claiming that sentence structure indicates morality, only that it indicates a person's thought patterns. Sentences that become complex without becoming unclear indicate something very promising about the mind producing them. That's all.

  23. Using "a" for the *unstressed* article in all positions is hardly localized to Hawaii; I've heard it all my life. I say it – and I've never been to Hawaii. Many people do it, even if they wouldn't write it; it's simply a phonological feature of a large number of English dialects. You may call it a "mistake", but the difference between "an" and "a" has been a fluid one in English for a long time.

  24. @Ridger–

    I think it's the glottal stop that arises between the "a" and following vowel sound that reminds me of the spoken Hawaiian language. Hawaiian is replete with consecutive vowels that are separated by glottal stops. I was just wondering if that found its way into English as spoken in Hawaii.

    As for it being a "mistake," I was taught that it was incorrect, both in speech and writing.

    Why does it matter that it's unstressed??

  25. What with all the sentence diagramming? He still didn't say anything. Typical politician – platitudes and no substance.

  26. The second "that" clause isn't really parallel to the other two, because it's subordinated to the "if" clause

  27. In my experience as an applied linguist specializing in the American accent, "a" and a following vowel sound overall tends to be more of a male characteristic, and then secondarily, a sub-30 trait.

  28. "I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Obama rehearses his answers to questions that he anticipates."

    Non sequitur; you asserted that these were Obama's speech writers words, not his — strongly implying that they were part of a speech. Your response simply confirms what was evident from the first — that you're a grossly dishonest person.

  29. Can we go easy on Kirk, folks? He's been commenting here for a while and is a Bolano fan, which is two marks in his favor, and while his first comment did strike me as a bit piquant, I'd like to invoke (invent?) the law of proportional snark.

  30. Thanks Garth!
    Nothing against Obama or his supporters. His English is that of a well-healed Ivy Leaguer, I just don't agree with his policies.

    Bolano Rules!

    Kirk, the "Texas Troll"

  31. Sheesh … You would have thought that Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS) would have ended on January 20, 2009, but clearly, it hasn't.

  32. "You would have thought that Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS) would have ended on January 20, 2009, but clearly, it hasn't."

    Seeing as his two wars and 5 trillion dollars of national debt are still with us, I see no reason to let up.

  33. Kirk,

    You are welcome to disagree with Obama's policies, but your critique is not based on much more than unexamined assumptions and rigidified bias, with a liberal (muahaha) dose of snarkiness thrown in for good (read: bad) measure.

    This, unfortunately, is a dire disease of the conservative mind. The previous President and his slavish followers being prime examples. Listening to the likes of Rush Limbaugh only releases more toxins into the body politic and offer no cures at all.

  34. "Bush Derangement Syndrome" not letting up? That's nothing — 8 years later, conservatives are STILL blaming stuff on Clinton.

    Kirk, Obama's been in office a few weeks. Bush was in there screwing things up for 8 years. I'm not willing to talk down the new president, on whom we all depend, for a few years yet.

    I want him to have his chance to make things better, and I'll support him in much of what he does in his early days in office.

    Considering that conservatives spent 7 years shrieking about how unAmerican it was to question the president — calling the rest of us traitors and haters (and a lot of you are still doing it) — I'd think you guys would be willing to give THIS president a little leeway.

  35. @Kirk: "If you think that the Bush administration regarded logic and facts as the enemy you aint seen nothin' yet!"

    Really? This administration is going to play looser with logic and facts than the *Bush administration*?! Now we *know* you're a troll.

  36. There is everything to respect about the wise words of a thoughtful, respectable and intelligent president of the United States – something we have not enjoyed for a while.

    But the sentence in question is remarkably simple; so much so that if it represents such cause for celebration by the author, one would wonder whether he too shared this property.

    I refuse to believe that we have reached the stage where anything uttered in public that is not incomprehensible garbage is reason for elation. Things have surely not grown that bad yet.

  37. I never said anything about Bush…

    As I stated before Obama is an eloquent communicator but what he is communicating is his desire to make us a socialist nation.
    After 7 years of the New Deal, Treasury Secretary Morgenthau said that all the money that had been spent had not worked. Trying to spend our way out of recession is an exercise in futility.
    Kirk, Tx.

  38. I chuckle every time someone uses the phrase "socialist nation" or even the word "socialism" today, in reference to Obama. It's right out of the GOP playbook.

    The funny thing is, the GOP lost this election, and they're not bright enough to notice they continue to lose ground. Their talking points just aren't getting any traction, except among the very small number of Sarah Palin syncophants.

    Keep on digging in your heels, Republicans, and do your best to wreck the country even more than George Bush managed. Stay right out in the open, spreading your lies, where we can see you. The rest of us will get on with business while you squabble in the mud.

  39. Hank,
    Obama wants to "spread the wealth," how is that not Socialism?
    I believe that the GOP message is getting traction…They're certainly not going down without a fight about this "stimulus" package.
    Again, George Bush is no longer in the White House!!!
    But I would rather have the country wrecked by Bush than utterly destroyed by Obama's policies.
    Furthermore, I believe that those that pulled the lever for Obama will live to regret it when they are giving half of their paychecks for programs that only make individuals and businesses more reliant on government.
    Texas Troll

  40. I'm sorry, but I just find it hilarious that Obama making the US a "socialist nation" (which I don't think will happen) is regarded as a bad thing. I, personally feel that we should work to close the ENORMOUS gap between the rich and the poor, and since those who are well-off obviously aren't doing it themselves, I think the government should assume more responsability for that.

  41. "I chuckle every time someone uses the phrase "socialist nation" or even the word "socialism" today, in reference to Obama. It's right out of the GOP playbook."

    Sorry, but there are more than knee-jerk conservatives who think that running a huge deficit is fundamentally immoral. The impulse to control and direct is not unique to the right; you on the left employ the same tools for different ends. The real issue is individual liberty vs. statism, *classical* liberalism versus collectivism, whether progressive or conservative.

    Nationalization of the banking sector doesn't amount to socialism? Read some Von Mises. Please.

  42. Very erudite, I’m sure. I think by now we’ve all concluded that Obama is a thinker, that he doesn’t go off half cocked like Bush and his ball-and-Cheney. But what bothers so me about Obama’s use of language is his frequent grammatical mistakes. He says things like: America is doing our duty. Correct version: American is doing ITS duty or We are doing our duty. He says things like: President Bush has invited Michelle and I to the White House.

    How can someone who has attended Harvard and taught constitutional law not be able to master such mundane and fundamental concepts as which pronoun agrees with its noun? I honestly can’t understand. His grammar is helping to dumb down America.

    Even Mrs. Obama uses this construction. She said, “I am a woman who loves my husband.” She too has been privileged to receive a wonderful education, but helps to dumb down the language.

    Come on, Obamas! Start cracking those grammar books with your kids!


  43. Socialism aside, I’m no “grammar queen,” but this sentence needs a lot of work. Too many “that’s,” a useless “also,” and if one moves “forward,” why would they not alternatively move “backward” (minus the s).

    For example:

    –My view is that no one is above the law. But if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, people should be prosecuted as ordinary citizens. In general, I am more interested in looking to the future, rather than the past.–

    If Obama could put together a really great string of words off the cuff, then, he might be considered a great speaker. Otherwise, in my opinion, he needs all the help he can get–including a teleprompter.

  44. I’m anxious to see an update to this article. How does “word salad” fare in the realm of sentence diagramming.

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