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Inaugural Address Rhetorical Analysis, Part Two

andrea_lunsford
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Last week I suggested an assignment inviting students to analyze President Biden’s Inaugural Address, working in small groups to examine various aspects of it—from structure to word choice to allusions and sources—and then come together to share their findings and to discuss, as a group, the values they find underlying the words.

I hope some of you carried out this assignment with your students—or if not, that you will consider doing so soon. If so, you might assign one group to do nothing but an analysis of pronouns used. The speech itself clocks in at 2,350 words. I’ve just reread it and by my rough count, Biden uses the first person plural pronoun “we” 86 times—so roughly 3.7% of his words. If students count occurrences of “our” and “us,” the percentage of words invoking togetherness will be even higher. Then check the number of uses of “I” and “my” —some of which refer not to Biden but as quotations of what other Americans might say—along with the number of references to “you.” Finally, count uses of “they” and “them,” which I expect will be a low number/percentage, as would befit a speech that seeks not to divide into “us” and “them.”

What conclusions can your students draw from this analysis of pronoun use? How does Biden’s use of pronouns underscore and support the appeals he is making to Americans? What does the repetition of the pronouns—like a drumbeat in some sections—do to emphasize those appeals? Do students find places where Biden might have used a pronoun but did not, and what do they make of that choice? Are there points in the speech where they might suggest revision based on their analysis?  

In short, I think it’s worth taking a very close look at Biden’s example of epideictic rhetoric at work—especially since we will have to wait another four years for such an occasion to arise again. You can find the White House’s transcript of the address here.

Image Credit: "Presidential Inaugural Parade [Image 11 of 11]" by DVIDSHUB, used under a CC BY 2.0 license

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.