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Grammar and US Presidential Elections: Part Two

2016-11-3

When politicians give speeches, they talk about any number of things, such as their beliefs, personal history, or opinions on major issues.

Politicians have to be careful about how they present their ideas. They want to direct the attention of individual listeners or larger audiences toward important ideas and words. But they also try to limit or avoid unnecessary information.

How do they do this?

One way is to put together sentences in a reasonable way.

In an earlier Everyday Grammar program, we explored how politicians sometimes use deliberate sentence fragments for a rhetorical effect.

Today, we explore another strategy politicians often use to present ideas: sentence cohesion.

What is cohesion?

The word cohesion suggests the action of making something whole. In writing, this means presenting sentences that are related to each other in a reasonable, or logical, way. When sentences are cohesive, they slowly build on an idea until it reaches a clear point.

Consider this example. Imagine you are reading the following sentences.

"I go to work early every day. Classic films are my favorite. English is a fun, if difficult, language to learn."

This short paragraph is not cohesive. How do you know?

The ideas are not connected to each other.

The first sentence talks about a custom – something the writer or speaker is doing every day. The second is about a personal preference. The third expressed an opinion about the English language.

The example is difficult to read because there is no logical continuation between ideas; instead, a different idea is raised in each sentence.

Lack of cohesion can cause the reader or listener to stop paying attention.

Politicians have to avoid this mistake at all costs. They may have to deal with different issues, but they cannot spend too much time on any subject because they might lose their audience.

So, what does cohesion look like?

We can look to the American election campaign for examples of sentence cohesion.

The main candidates for president – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – have used cohesion to develop and present ideas.

Consider these examples

Here is Trump accepting the presidential nomination of the Republican Party.

"Then there's my mother, Mary. She was strong, but also warm and fair-minded. She was a truly great mother. She was also one of the most honest and charitable people that I have ever known, and a great, great judge of character. "

And here is Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic Party's nomination:

"My mother, Dorothy, was abandoned by her parents as a young girl. She ended up on her own at 14, working as a house maid. She was saved by the kindness of others."

Both candidates use cohesion to make their points.

Consider Trump's statement. He speaks about his mother, Mary, and then uses the pronoun "she" when talking about her in later sentences.

This is one example of cohesion: writing a topic sentence and then repeating the subject in every sentence of the paragraph. This makes it clear that you are receiving more information about the same subject.

Clinton uses a similar idea in her statement. She said:

"My mother, Dorothy, was abandoned by her parents as a young girl.

She ended up on her own at 14, working as a house maid.

She was saved by the kindness of others."

Here, Clinton uses a similar idea to begin her sentences. She introduces her mother, Dorothy, in the first sentence and then provides more information about her in the following sentences.

The final sentence, "She was saved by the kindness of others." is especially important.

Hillary Clinton could have said "The kindness of others saved my mother."

Why did she say it the way she did?

Using the passive voice enabled Clinton to use the pronoun "she" at the beginning of the sentence. This means that the sentences look and sound the same; they begin with "she."

Both Clinton and Trump used a similar grammatical structure. The beginning of each sentence presents "known" information – the pronoun "she" - and the end of each sentence presents new information.

Grammar expert Martha Kolln had a name for this structure. She called it the "known-new" contract. In other words, English speakers generally present known information in the beginning of a sentence and new information at the end of a sentence.

What is the rhetorical effect of this grammatical structure?

Here is one possible answer: Both presidential candidates are able to show voters that they are more than just politicians. They are normal people, too.

By giving personal information about their families, they hope to show that they can relate to voters. In other words, the candidates want to show that they share values – a great respect for family – that many voters like to see in political candidates.

What can you do?

So, how can you develop sentence cohesion?

You can start by examining the structures from the speeches of Clinton and Trump. Try to describe your mother in your own words. But be sure to use the same structure that they did!

My mother, ________, was ____________.

She ___________ .

She ___________.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Write to us in the Comments section or on 51VOA.COM.

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Words in This Story

concise – n. not including extra or unnecessary information

deliberate sentence fragment – n. grammar an incomplete sentence usually consisting of a verb or noun phrase

rhetorical – adj. of, relating to, or concerned with the art of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people

cohesion – n. a condition in which people or things are closely united

audience – n. a group of people who gather together to listen to something (such as a concert) or watch something

preference – n. a feeling of liking or wanting one person or thing more than another person or thing

charitable – adj. showing kindness in talking about or judging other people

character – n. the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves :someone's personality

abandon – v. to leave and never return to (someone who needs protection or help)

maid – n. a female servant

topic – n. someone or something that people talk or write about

introduce – v. to make (someone) known to someone else by name

passive – adj. grammar showing that the subject of a sentence is acted on or affected by the verb

grammatical – adj. of or relating to grammar