I have a dream… about structure and rhythm.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech analyzed by Nancy Duarte from Duarte on Vimeo.

I am already cheating with this blog. Rather than an essay, go look at a speech by Martin Luther King. It is only justified because the above video about King’s I have a dream speech explains rhythm and thematic parallelism so very well.

When it comes to language, every one of us is just a rhythm junkie. We will say we like a sentence like “These are the times that try men’s souls…” and note with wonder that it seems better than “These are difficult times for people…” without considering the scansion:

These are the days that try men’s souls…*

x          /     x    /       x       /     x        /

At the larger level we hear “one day” repeated across paragraphs and the ideas are stitched together ready to be contrasted with “this will be the day…” without any of us even noticing.

There are other types of rhythm of course. Take polysyndeton and asyndeton: excessive and unusually little conjunctions respectively.

Hemmingway was a big man for the polysyndeton:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains. (In Another Country , see here for further discussion)

See how the repetition of the conjunctions creates this slow and sleepy rhythm witch matches the content. Churchill’s

…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

is great asyndeton. “We shall never surrender…” stands out much better without an introductory “and.”

Do not become some boring person who tries to scan sentences they write, but do listen to how it sounds. We are never just saying anything. If we are trying to write properly we are looking for the rhythm and pattern from the sentence right up to the essay as a whole. If only we could all appreciate that we might just avoid some of the ugly sentences in the world. Wouldn’t that be great?

* Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis” pamphlet series of course.

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