Obama’s inaugural speech

July 24, 2009



Obama’s inaugural speech is one of the greatest speeches given in our generation, which he delivered without needing to refer to a piece of paper!  From the standpoint of learning English, it is definitely worth learning from it.  For a full transcript of his speech, please visit the New York Times.

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

As with any piece of writing, speeches also contain an introduction.  Here, Obama states the main ideas of what is to follow. In fact, these three themes are to echo throughout his speech.  Notice that one can add an “am” before the three adjectives (humbled, grateful, and mindful), so that it looks like the sentence “I am happy”.  It would be, “I stand here today [and am] humbled…” or rearranged so that the subject ‘I’ stays together with the verb and adjective, “Standing here today, I am humbled…” 

Then, notice that Obama chooses to use the passive voice in the prepositional phrase following the adjective.  The agents (the task, you, and our ancestors) are not concrete or specific.  This ambiguity draws in the listener as Obama is trying to reach a large audience. Also, notice that Obama could have used ‘by’ in the second phrase, “…grateful for the trust bestowed by you…”  Here, the ‘you’ is rearranged to highlight the importance of his audience and to draw them closer. 

Other examples: I am happy about the grade given by my teacher. 

She is blessed with financial stability her job has provided. OR She is blessed with financial stability provided by her job. 

Even though Obama’s speech is spoken and is meant to be heard, in normal conversations, the active voice is usually used.  Using the passive voice profusely in conversation is not appropriate.  Speeches such as these are actually more like a form of writing than conversation.  

The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

The choice of words throughout the speech is very clever, especially in this segment.  To give his audience a visual, Obama adds “rising tides of” in front of ‘prosperity’ and “still waters of” in front of ‘peace’.  To show the contrast of prosperity and peace, he uses two contrasting pictures of water.  Also, rather than saying “…the oath is taken amidst the current economic recession”, this is replaced with “the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms”, very appropriate figurative language and sticking to the same theme of water.  This segment concludes with “ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents”, which replaces the more commonly seen terms “forefathers” with “forebears” and “the Constitution” or “the Bill of Rights” with “founding documents”.  While using a variety of words is encouraged, be careful.  We need to make sure we fully understand the meaning and usage of the words.  One good source to consult is a Cobuild Dictionary. 

The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.

English learners sometimes avoid using short sentences, being afraid that teachers/graders/markers frown upon them.  Yet, actually, it depends on how it is used.  If used correctly, it could be quite effective, as demonstrated here by Obama.  Here, Obama talks about the war scene back when America fought for independence.  With these three short sentences, Obama paints a picture of the war.  Notice also that these three sentences are in the passive voice which makes the tone uniform, heightening the effect.  Such short sentences could be incorporated into writing stories and essays.  For example, in stories, it could be a scene opener.  As for essays, it could be used to put emphasis on a point. 

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.  All this we can do. All this we will do.

In this segment, notice Obama repeats the same sentence structure (We + will + verb + direct object) over and over again.  Here, Obama is trying to identify with his audience and such a uniform structure makes a bigger emphasis. The only exception is the sentence “All this we can do”.  This change in sentence structure is used as an attention catcher and by using “can” (meaning potential), Obama tries to instill confidence in his audience.  Yet, after this, he reverts back to the same structure “All this we will do”.  Such is effective in persuasive writing.

Participles used as Adjectives

July 23, 2009



Do the sentences below have a difference in meaning?

I am bored.

I am boring.

The answer is ‘yes’!  While ‘bored’ and ‘boring’ are both used as adjectives in these two sentences, there is a difference in meaning.

The adjective ending in ‘ed’ is called a –en or past participle, while the one ending in ‘ing’ is called a –ing or present participle.  Usually, these adjectives are derived from verbs which convey emotions. 

Some of the common verbs with such a function include alarm, amuse, annoy, bore, calm, comfort, concern, convince, defeat, disappoint, disturb, embarrass, encourage, excite, interest, love, please, satisfy, surprise, tire, and worry.

When the past participle (-en form) is used, it refers to the person experiencing the emotion.  Here the person is the object of the emotion or experience.

I am bored. (I feel bored. An outside factor that is not given caused me to feel bored.)

She is disappointed that she failed the test. (She experienced disappointment because she did not do well on the test. The test caused the disappointment.)

He is frightened by the ghost. (He experienced fear. The ghost caused the fear.)

When the present participle (-ing form) is used, it refers to the cause of the experience.  This cause is the subject of the experience. 

I am boring. (I caused boredom meaning ‘I am a boring person’.)

She is disappointing.  (She disappointed someone. She caused the disappointment.)

He is frightening. (He frightened someone. He caused the fright.)

A New Birth of Freedom

July 22, 2009




(This was originally posted during Obama’s inauguration.)

The theme of the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama is “A New Birth of Freedom”, which marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.  Born in 1809, Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States and the chief force behind the emancipation of slavery in the nation.  Less well known is that Lincoln belonged to the Republican Party, which since its founding, opposed slavery, a highly debated issue at the time.  Eventually, the divided opinions over the issue of slavery culminated in the Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865.  Lincoln’s victory preserved the unity of the nation and freed slavery.  Despite being from the Democratic Party, instead, Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president on the same Bible used by Lincoln during his first inauguration in 1861 as the significance of his being the first president of African descent cannot be undermined.

I’m very excited to witness this historic inauguration, are you?


July 21, 2009




(Note that the pronunciation below is not based on the International Phonetic Alphabet IPA. Only stress marks and syllable separation are provided.)

(This post was originally created during Obama’s inauguration)

Listen to this episode

the Capitol (n) (‘ca·pi·tol) – the location where Congress convenes.  Note the difference between the name of this building and ‘the capital’ which is the city of the center of government

commencement (n) (co·’mence ·ment) beginning. One may often see “commencement ceremony” to describe a graduation ceremony as it marks the beginning of advancement to higher education or into the professional world.

inauguration (n) (i ·,nau·gu·’ra·tion)

historic (adj) (hi·’stor·ic) – something of value or has significance in history (i.e. an historic election).  Note the meaning difference between this word and ‘historical’ (adj). ‘Historical’ means from the past (i.e. an historical cultural relic, an historical costume).

oath (n)

president-elect (n) (’pre·si·dent·e·lect)

swearing-in (n) (,swea·ring·’in)

Republican (n, adj) (re·’pub·li·can)

Democrat (n) (’dem·o·crat); democratic (adj) (,dem·o·’crat·ic)

The swearing-in ceremony of the president of the United States marks the commencement of his term in office.  The highlight of the ceremony involves the taking of an oath.  The inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama will be an historic event as he will become the first African American president. Both Republicans and Democrats are expected to gather at the Capitol to witness this momentous event.

Note that ‘an historic’ and ‘a historic’ are both used in spoken English (American English speakers, especially, not sure about British English speakers).  However, in writing, ‘a historic’ is preferred.

Difference between ‘Why’ and ‘How come’

July 20, 2009




Questions using ‘Why’ and ‘How come’ have different forms and are used differently.  With the verb form ‘be’ (i.e. is, am, are, was, were), when used with ‘how come’ there is no inversion of the noun and the verb and the structure is maintained like a sentence (noun-verb form).

How come she is at the party?

How come she was at the party?

How come they are angry?

How come she is writing the letter?


When ‘be’ is used with ‘why’, there is inversion of the noun and the verb.

Why is she at the party?

Why was she at the party?

Why are they angry?

Why is she writing the letter?


If the verb is a form of ‘have’ or another verb (i.e. write, talk), the form also changes.  With ‘how come’ the form is like the above, with no inversion.

How come she went?

How come she has to go?


With ‘why’, an insertion of a form of ‘do’ before the noun is required.

Why did she go?

Why does she have to go?


As for usage, although both ‘why’ and ‘how come’ is eliciting a reason, they are used in different situations. A speaker would use ‘how come’ if what he/she thinks is not the situation.

How come she is at the party? (I thought she wasn’t going to come.)


A speaker would use ‘why’ if he/she wants to know the reason but does not have a presupposition.

Why is she at the party? (I want to know the reason.)