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The State of the Union Dissected: Five Highs, Five Lows

Obama’s State of the Union address prompted partisan reactions to its content and delivery, but surely we can unite over the writing itself.

I’ll do my part by sharing five winning passages—followed by five that didn’t fare so well.

Let’s start with some high notes.

1. You’re Out

One of the best lines boasted a rhyming triplet:

“It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts.”

2. JFK Redux

Nor did it hurt for the ghost of JFK to make an appearance:

“Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.”

Clunky, sure, but the reference did the trick.

3. Whole Greater Than Sum

Champions of the regulatory state must have smiled at this burst of detail, a good display of what’s known as the additive style in writing:

“I’m confident a farmer can contain a milk spill without a federal agency looking over his shoulder. But I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago. I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury pollution, or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean. I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny you coverage, or charge women differently from men.”

(The last bit should have read “differently than,” but I’ll save that one for another day.)

4. Ask Away

Obama also posed some provocative rhetorical questions:

“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

5. Fast Lane

I also enjoyed this series of “Starting Gate” sentences, as I call them in Point Made—sentences beginning with one-syllable words that add speed and lilt to the prose:

And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied. How this incredible transformation will end remains uncertain. But we have a huge stake in the outcome. And while it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well.*

Those are my top five, but I’d love to hear more nominees from my faithful readers.

Now let’s turn to five off-notes:

1. Either . . . Or

A parallelism error turned a taut contrast into mush:

We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

“Either-or” constructions need parallel structure, as much for rhetorical force as for grammar. In Obama’s rendition, “either” preceded “settle for,” while “or” preceded “we restore.” In short, a mess.

Here’s one solution:

Either we settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we restore an economy in which everyone gets a fair shot, contributes a fair share, and plays by the same rules.

2. Apples to Apples

The next glitch reflects another common error.

What’s being compared to what here?

“We’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration—and it’s made a difference.”

Comparisons are fraught with peril: You have to make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples.

So in the sentence above, after “twice the rate as,” we needed another rate. Instead, we got the Bush Administration.

One fix would be to replace “as” with “of”:

We’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate of the last administration—and it’s made a difference.

Another option is to compare the rates directly:

We’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate that the last administration did—and it’s made a difference.

3. Dangle It

A third glitch was no “oops” moment, either, but it’s still worth our attention.

Since Reagan, presidents have singled out “regular people” during the State of the Union address. This year was no exception: Besides introducing us to Warren Buffett’s secretary, Obama let us peer into the life of furniture-maker Bryan Ritterby:

“When Bryan Ritterby was laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried that at 55, no one would give him a second chance.”

We understand the point, but who just celebrated his 55th birthday? Was it “no one,” as the sentence suggests? No, it was Mr. Ritterby himself. To fix this dangler, try the following:

He worried that at 55, he would never get a second chance.

4. One or More?

Even in the best writing, you’ll find a lot of subject-verb agreement errors with “collective nouns” like firms, companies, or countries. Here’s one such error from Obama’s speechwriters:

“For less than one percent of what our Nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every State in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning—the first time that’s happened in a generation.”

The states are treated singularly here, so we need “its standards,” not “their.”

5. Impactful

Finally, if you ever needed proof that you should avoid using “impact” as a verb, that ship has now sailed:

“Let’s limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact.”

The “they” makes it sound as though the stocks are doing the “impacting,” but it turns out that the would-be “impactors” are the elected officials themselves. “Impact,” in any event, is at once bureaucratic and vague. And don’t we limit someone “to,” not “from”?

We could try to fix these impactful issues as follows:

Let’s keep elected officials from owning stocks in the industries they regulate.

While we’re at it, let’s keep those same officials—and their speechwriters—honest on the writing front as well.
 



* Strangely enough, President Obama’s Syria passage sounded a bit like Chief Justice Roberts’s brief in Alaska v. EPA:

But the EPA cannot claim that ADEC’s decision was “unreasoned.” Nor can the EPA assert that ADEC’s determination in any way results in emissions exceeding national standards or permitted increments. How to control emissions within those standards, without exceeding available increments, was for the State to decide.

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