“Brevity is the soul of lingerie”*…
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (source)
Mark Liberman, professor of both linguistics and computational sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, took issue with an off-hand remark about the declining standard of discourse– then did some research to create some (mitigating) context for his objection:
A couple of days ago, The Telegraph quoted an actor and a television producer emitting typically brainless “Kids Today” plaints about how modern modes of communication, especially Twitter, are degrading the English language, so that “the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us”, and “words are getting shortened”. I spent a few minutes fact-checking this foolishness, or at least the word-length bit of it — but some readers may have misinterpreted my post as arguing against the view that there are any on-going changes in English prose style.
So I wrote a script to harvest the inaugural addresses and state of the union addresses from the site of the American Presidency Project at UCSB, and some other scripts to (I hope) extract the texts of the speeches from their html wrappings, and to count word and sentence lengths. Why use these sources? Well, different kinds of writing have their own norms, and so it wouldn’t be good evidence of an overall historical trend to show (for example) that 20th-century sports reporting is stylistically different from 19th-century sermons, or that 21st-century blogging is different from 18th-century pamphleteering. U.S. Presidential addresses are one accessible example of a body of texts, spanning more than 200 years, which ought to be fairly consistent in genre and register.
The results suggest that mean word lengths have decreased slightly in these addresses over the past century — by 5% or so — while mean sentence lengths have been falling since the founding of the republic, and have undergone a cumulative drop of perhaps 50%.
Read the whole of Dr. Liberman’s fascinating report (replete with charts and text examples) on the always-illuminating Language Log in “Real trends in word and sentence length.”
* Dorothy Parker
As we continue our search for the soul of wit, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that Democrat James K. Polk defeated Whig Henry Clay to become the eleventh President of the U.S. Polk was America’s first “dark horse” candidate, having scored his party’s nomination on the ninth ballot of the Democratic National Convention, after former president Martin Van Buren lost his bid due to his opposition to annexing Texas (a position abhorrent to Southerners and to the still-powerful former president Andrew Jackson.)
Spiked with long words, woven with elegant sentences, Polk’s campaign oration earned him the nickname “The Napoleon of the Stump.” And good thing too: while he took the electoral vote by 170 to 105, Polk won the popular vote by only 38,000.
Resolved to serve only a single term, Polk put his Western Expansionist policies into effect immediately. In just four years, he oversaw the annexation of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain (securing the Oregon Territory for the U.S.), and the reestablishment of an independent treasury system. The Mexican-American War began in April, 1846; at its conclusion in February, 1848, the U.S. acquired from Mexico the land that eventually became California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. In the end, Polk oversaw the addition to the U.S. of territory second in scope only to that of the Louisiana Purchase.