How Obama's sentence-structure works

Garth Risk Hallberg diagrams Obama's sentences and detects the Obaman power-grammar trick: tucking away the controversial part between inspiring mottos:
"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..."

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...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."

Diagramming the Obama Sentence (via Kottke)


  1. My English instructor once told me that the use of the word “but” completely negates every point or conviction that was written previously. Hence, I suppose we can only pay attention to anything that comes after the word “but” as being true and real and honest but perhaps a person who is trying to create a balance of many different interests would use it to show that they know another point of view exists and still maintain their own.

  2. Huh? The third “that” is ungrammatical, unless Obama wanted to say that his view is that he’s more interested in A than in B. He presumably knows what he’s interested in, and, if so, standard English would require him to omit the third “that”. You’d then get a different diagram. Using this sentence as evidence that “Obama has a good memory for where he’s been, grammatically” doesn’t work.

  3. The following oberservation may be kind of funny for a Latin-head like me.
    G.W. Bush’s sentence structures were like a drunk Julius Caesar: short, direct, action-focused sentences (Caesar-like) that didn’t make sense sometime (the drunk part).
    Obama’s sentence structure is more like Cicero’s: multi-claused, often indirect, and nuanced in the sophistication of construction.

  4. This sentence is what I would call Political gibberish. Clever political gibberish. It is 2 statements that don’t really say anything. Depending on what you want to hear, it can say a few different things without him having to actually say them, giving him wiggle room. This first part is law and order, prosecute wrongdoers. The second is looking forward not back. The average conservative will put those two ideas together and come up with something like ‘The past administration did something bad in the past, but since I look forward, we won’t cause waves and let it be.’ An average liberal might hear ‘Prosecute the evil doers of the past administration and look forward to better times.’ Of course there are many many different ways to interpret that, which is why it’s clever, he says nothing and everyone hears what they want to hear. Thank the gods for bad grammer, without it politicians would have to be honest.

  5. “..I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.” translated means “..if you didn’t pay your taxes and I want to make you head of the IRS, that should be hunky-dory with the rest of the country.”

  6. I’m amazed someone took the time to diagram his sentences. Isn’t diagramming sentences a form of torture.

  7. #2 ‘the word “but” completely negates every point or conviction that was written previously…’

    That’s right, but it’s also wrong. The world can simply be used to add information that may be needed to qualify the previous clause. “I want a new car, but I don’t need one.”

  8. #11 I get it! very funny!

    ” That’s right, but it’s also wrong.”

    Obama is a politician. All politicians talk in circles like this. Honestly, I can barely stand to listen to him. ALL I ever hear is “…(long pause) and….” blah, blah, blah “…….but…..”

    Pres. Obama IS Conjunction Junction!

  9. Jonathan @ #3: Almost everyone’s written language skills are more accurate than their spoken language. My assumption in this example is that he was speaking off the cuff, trying to explain a complex idea to our not-well-enough-educated citizenry. An extra “that” got thrown in. I’m inclined to give the guy points for understanding the concept of using “that” in a sentence at all, since we’ve just suffered through 8 years of language ignorance I wouldn’t accept from a 1st grader, instead of castigating him for the several small (but understandable in context) errors. YMMV.

  10. Has anyone had any trouble sharing this via “Share This”?

    I wanted to conduct an informal social experiment by sending this to some of my more conservatively minded friends and see how long it takes for Ohbama’s critics to start quoting the science.

    Ain’t the internet interesting!!! :)

  11. @IGPAJO
    Isn’t diagramming sentences a form of torture.

    LOL, I was such a total nerd as a kid that when I got bored in grade school and high school (which was usually about 15 minutes into any given class, after I’d done that day’s work), I pass the time by creating these horribly convoluted, Faulknerian sentences just so I could diagram them. For fun. Like a puzzle.

    Apparently, though, I buy my dorkiness in bulk at wholesale, so YMMV.

  12. #4 “I thought it sounded like a run-on sentence.”

    No, it wasn’t a run-on sentence, and didn’t sound like one. It’s a popular (and frustrating) misunderstanding that “run-on sentence” means “long sentence”. A run-on sentence contains two or more main clauses that are not properly co-ordinated with conjunctions. That’s a very specific error, and the term does not apply to all sentences that are long (nor does it only apply to long sentences).

    A sentence can be infinitely long without being grammatically incorrect; this is part of the modularity of the English language (and most languages).

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