Our Dullened Rhetorical Swords

Okay, class, we will now turn to sentence diagramming.  Let’s take the example on page 15, begin reading:

Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John [T] at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.

What is the subject of this sentence?  Who can identify the predicate?

For those of you who prefer using the Reed-Kellogg system, do your efforts resemble those of Ms. Ferriss? If we apply the theory of dependency grammar would it aid in illuminating the meaning?  Or would it be fairer to conceptualize this utterance in terms of phrase structure grammar?  In this context, would it help to know that the sentence was delivered at a political rally?  Would it matter if the sentence was uttered by the most powerful man in the world?

This exercise hints at the concerning state of contemporary legal discourse.  In a recent episode of Against the Rules, a podcast where Michael Lewis examines the endangered role of the referee in modern life, Bryan Garner appears as a remnant of bygone usage authority.  “Bryan Garner has a really nice house.  But his usage manual doesn’t pay his mortgage.  He gives writing seminars for lawyers,” Lewis says, “the rest of his market has mostly vanished.” (17:11)  Lewis’ not-so-subtle implication is that lawyers may be the last English language users in America to even bother to appear to care about standard language conventions.  A proposed mantra for rhetoricians, as Garner famously put it, runs: “To the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important, it’s a good idea to avoid distracting any readers or listeners.”

To the extent that our laws are written, enforced, and interpreted by individuals housed in our representative government, how our politicians communicate matters.  Their and our use of language matters.  And yet, your level of frustration with the grammar in the “nuclear sentence,” may be a function of your political identification.  With party affiliation dividing the electorate on so many issues, I have been wondering about the role of rhetoric in partisan times.  More pointedly, is it possible to convince an audience that does not already agree with you?

Thomas Aquinas is popularly attributed with coining the adage: “For those with faith, no evidence is necessary; for those without it, no evidence will suffice.”  While this is likely a paraphrasing of a more clumsy and tedious quote (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 1, Art. 5, reply obj. 1), the concept is still easily discernable.  How much difference does a persuasive display of reasoning, credibility, and emotion really matter if an argument is premised within a different ideological paradigm?  Take for example the whistleblower complaint.  Praised by the director of the Writing Center at Harvard for its clarity, precision, use of effective topic sentences, section headings, and active voice, the content of the complaint has done little to move the needle of opinion in a consequential direction in Congress or the greater public.

Reading the rambling nuclear sentence in a more favorable light requires us to acknowledge that it was never meant to be a sentence.  Its punctuation is the somewhat arbitrary construct of a more critical framework.  Our invectives are often context dependent and, like social media, increasingly curt.  The predominance of outrage may indicate that our political language is used primarily for rallying purposes. For the flip side of the rhetorical nuclear coin, let’s end by looking at this selection of protest signs from the 2017 Women’s March, possibly the largest single day protest in U.S. history:


Not usually a protester but geez

This is really bad

So bad even introverts are here

[internally screaming]

We f#cked up bigly

There will be hell toupee

Honestly there are too many problems with this administration to adequately summarize in one sign

Literally everything about this is so awful that I have no idea where to even start

Donald Trump uses Comic Sans

Mike Pence likes Nickelback

I’ve seen sturdier cabinets at IKEA

Just, ugh

I wish this were fake news

Trump is an offense to human dignity

my Mama don’t like Trump and she likes everyone

I can’t believe we are still protesting this

this is our cuntry

Sorry world, we will fix this

if Britney can make it through 2007, we can make it through this

Chin up, fangs out

Add pumpkin spice to racism so white women will care

Unite the states of America

We shall overcomb!

We are the resistance!

free Melania!


Joseph Riepenhoff

Joe Riepenhoff graduated from Marquette University Law School in 2014. While at Marquette, he was a student advisory board member for the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, an intern for the Waukesha County Circuit Court criminal division judges, and research assistant for Prof. Daniel Blinka. Since graduating he has worked as a staff attorney for the Wisconsin State Public Defender Office, a conflicts analysts at Foley and Lardner, and is now a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee.

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