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How Presidential Speeches Have Changed Over Time


And now this - the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


Or try this - America is too great for small dreams.

INSKEEP: Memorable presidential quotes often use simple language. It is alleged that language has become less sophisticated over time. The online news site vocativ.com analyzed more than 600 presidential speeches using a well-known scale to determine their grade level.

MARTIN: Many early speeches were written at Ph.D. level. At his first inaugural address, George Washington opened with the words (reading) among the vicissitudes incident to life.

INSKEEP: Which might not catch our attention amid the vicissitudes of our modern lives. Early presidents came from a small, governing elite. Most people were not eligible to vote.

MARTIN: But as voting rights broadened, the audience grew. Different kinds of people voted and ran for office and delivered speeches. Abraham Lincoln was largely self-educated. His Gettysburg Address used shorter sentences and shorter words.


RAYMOND MASSEY: The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to act or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

MARTIN: It would be so cool if that really was a recording of the Gettysburg Address.

INSKEEP: Sadly it's a reconstruction by the actor Raymond Massey. Now, on the Flesch-Kincaid Scale, as it's called, the speech is on a seventh-grade level. One way to think of that is that Lincoln dumbed it down.

MARTIN: But there's another way to think of it, too. Lincoln had the self-confidence to get to the point. His brief address is remembered in a way George Washington's speeches were not.

INSKEEP: Many modern presidential speeches are written using shorter words, too - like George W. Bush's farewell address in 2009 or President Obama's most recent State of the Union Speech. He spoke of putting our shoulder to the wheel of progress.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To free other nations from tyranny and fear, to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

INSKEEP: The sitting president of the United States, referring back to words set to paper by the founders. Although as he referred to them, President Obama used much plainer English than the founders did. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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