Jim Terry
Obama's, you know, eloquence
By Jim Terry
November 4, 2008

More than a year ago, Senator Joe Biden described his future running mate, Senator Barack Obama, "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Biden apologized almost immediately for the controversial statement.

Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language says the word articulate includes speech that is: "jointed; spoken in distinct syllables or words; expressing oneself clearly; well formulated." But it also includes the definition, "able to speak," which could describe my two year old granddaughter, Natty, who recently spoke the ten word sentence, "I like to listen my music in Mommy's silver car." Her speech was jointed, spoken in syllables distinct enough to be understood, clearly expressed, with some two year old pronunciation challenges, and the sentence was well formulated. She communicated her thoughts, and we understood her communication. But, she has communicated in full sentences for almost six months and usually with properly conjugated verbs.

As far back as January 2005, the Rockford Register Star, in an editorial stated, "Most people know Obama as the eloquent speaker..." However, the sentence ended with, "...who talks in stirring generalities."

In April of this year, Peggy Shapiro wrote in The American Thinker, "Barack Obama, the eloquent speaker who mesmerizes the media..." and Edwin Paff, wrote in October in the Chicago Tribune, "Barack Obama is an eloquent speaker..."

Obama has been called articulate and eloquent. Which are not the same. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language describes eloquence: "speech or writing that is vivid, forceful, fluent, etc.; the art or manner of such speech or writing; the power to persuade with speech or writing." Obama has certainly been persuasive in his eloquence, but his articulation is questionable.

Several years ago I wrote a poem which I titled, To a virus lingua of Todayspeak, loosely translated, to a virus of the tongue in today's speech. The poem was inspired by a writing instructor who may have been able to write, although none of us in the class ever read or heard anything she wrote, but could not speak a sentence without at least one insertion of "you know." More often, her sentences contained multiple "you knows."

About fifteen years ago, "you know" wiggled its way into our speech and multiplied, as a virus, to infect speech at all levels of society: teenagers, adults, old people, professionals, illiterates. The pause for, "you know," is called a verbal crutch. It follows its cousins, um and errr, as a speaking distraction.

Verbal crutches occur for several reasons. The speaker may be attempting to gather thoughts and a well placed "you know," while instantaneous, can allow a new stream of data to enter the speaker's thoughts which emerge as words. A speaker who constantly throws out, "you know," may be ill prepared to present his thoughts through speech. In other words, the speaker doesn't know anything about what he is speaking. Verbal crutches may also cover, or fill time, when the speaker is lying, doesn't believe the words he is saying or is otherwise uncomfortable with what he is saying. We all use verbal crutches, especially those who are not accustomed to public speaking, but verbal crutches cause our speech to be disjointed, inarticulate.

Many politicians have honed their speaking skills with attention to eliminating verbal crutches. However, many politicians are poor public speakers who are neither articulate nor eloquent.

Does Obama rise to his descriptions of articulate and eloquent? He certainly is eloquent because his speech is persuasive, notwithstanding, the Rockford Register Star's assessment of Obama "...who talks in stirring generalities." I have listened to many of his stump speeches and find them full of words which say nothing. Pretty words, abstract words, empty words. I have also noticed his use of the verbal crutch, "you know."

I studied five public appearances Obama made in the past year: the three presidential debates with John McCain; an interview with Larry King aired July 15, 2008; and the August 16, 2008 interview with Rev. Rick Warren.

The worst Obama performance for use of the tongue virus, "you know," was the August 16, 2008 interview with Rev. Rick Warren when Obama invoked "you know" forty times. In one sentence, alone, he used the crutch twice in answer to the question, "At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?"

Obama's answer, " Well, you know, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade." I suspect he was uncomfortable with being asked that question, and, of course, he didn't answer it.

The interview with Larry King last July contained twenty-one verbal crutch, "you knows." In one segment of six sentences, Obama inserted "you know" four times.

Whether Obama was coached, we will never know, but his use of the verbal crutch diminished with each of the presidential debates. In the first debate, "you know" appeared sixteen times; thirteen times in the second debate; and five times in the last debate.

Articulate? As his running mate, six term Senator Joe Biden, described him. Not really. The syllables are distinct; but his speech is not jointed because of his verbal crutches; the clarity of his ideas is questionable by the generalities he spouts; and his speeches are not always well formulated, again, because of his use of verbal crutches, particularly the language virus, "you know," and the generalities and abstractions of his speech.

Eloquent? Probably, because of his persuasive manner. But, Obama's supporters probably do not know about verbal crutches. They are, you know, probably, you know, persuaded by his, you know, speech because they, you know, employ the same, you know, verbal crutch-you know.

I began my poem, To a virus lingua of Todayspeak, with the line, "You know, I've heard it a million times, you know." I ended the poem with the line, "You know, I've heard it a million times, you know."

By the way, my two year old granddaughter has yet to utter the phrase, "you know." She is articulate and eloquent. Her eloquence is most persuasive when she sits in my lap and says, "PawPaw, I want cocolate milk."

© Jim Terry


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Jim Terry

Jim Terry has worked in Republican grassroots politics for 40 years. Terry was an administrative assistant to a Republican elected official in Dallas for twenty years. In 1996, he ran for and was elected to Justice Court 2 in Dallas County where he served eight years. Contact Jim at tr4guy62@yahoo.com


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