Category Archives: Declaration of Independence

Do you write in the classical style?

Do you write as if you are talking to someone, not preaching, not teaching, not arguing, but rather having a conversation?

Do you treat that someone as if he or she is your equal, except that you have knowledge which your friend lacks?  For example, do you write much like Elizabeth Bennett speaks to her sister, Jane, in Pride and Prejudice?

Do you simplify difficult concepts by making comparisons to everyday concepts, much like a teacher lining up a flashlight, an apple and a grape to explain an eclipse to children?

Is your meaning clear during the first read without a need to reread?

Do you let facts do the persuading, much like the charges against King George III did in the Declaration of Independence?

Is all the work of your writing hidden so that only the finished product shows, much like the elegant dinners at Downton Abby?

Do you exploit the natural structure of English sentences and paragraphs, putting the stress on the last word or phrase, much like Robert Frost in his poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Are the facts which you present verifiable, much like a scientific experiment which can be replicated to achieve the same result, or like spectators who can be interviewed about what they saw and heard?

Do you use the perfect word or analogy, believing that with a bit of work you can find it?

Is your writing unpredictable, delighting with clever insights?

Is the structure of your writing inconspicuous, allowing the truth of your ideas to shine, much like the stitching of a beautiful garment?

Classical style is one of many writing styles (romantic, oratorical, and practical, among others).  Its roots date to ancient Greece and to 17th century France.  It has influenced American writers like Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain but has not dominated English writing the way it has dominated French writing.

If you want to know more abut the classic style, read Clear and Simple as the truth by F. Thomas and M. Turner, Princeton University Press, 1994.  Most interesting is a section called “The Museum” which quotes varied sources to show what classical style is and is not.

Students need to learn how to choose a good essay topic

Kids think they need to choose a big topic, like the American Revolution, in order to have enough information to write several paragraphs for an essay or a story.  Wrong.  Choosing a smaller topic, a narrower topic, is always better.  But they need help learning how to narrow down a topic.

For example, suppose they need to write about the American Revolution.  Ask them to break down the American Revolution into subtopics such as important people, battles, causes of the war, Tories, boycotts, the Declaration of Independence, smallpox, and Valley Forge.  Wow, the subtopics go on and on.  But even these subtopics are huge.

Now take one subtopic—say the Battles of Lexington and Concord—and help the students break that into subtopics, such as colors of British uniforms, the shot heard round the world, the Old North Church, guerilla warfare, why the British soldiers marched, how far from the boats were Lexington and Concord.  Wow again.  Those subtopics go on and on too.

Okay, now help them take one of those subtopics and break it into smaller subtopics.  Suppose we take Paul Revere’s ride.  Who gave the signal for Paul Revere to go, how was it decided on, where did Paul Revere get the horses he rode, did he ride alone, did he bring his dog, how did he get across the river near the British boats without them noticing him, and how did he escape when he was captured in the middle of the night?  Wow again.  Even the subtopics of the subtopics of the subtopic go on and on.

Encourage students by saying they are getting much closer to a topic for a good essay.  Suppose you have read to your students that famous poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  With them peeking over your shoulder, you go online and find out many artists have created books using the poem and illustrations.  You decide to see how different artists illustrated the poem.  You look at the covers and a few pages.  Wow!  The illustrations are so different.

Now tell the students they are really close to a good topic.  You suggest they take three of the illustrated books they like the most, and compare and contrast the illustrations of one idea such as how Paul Revere rowed across the river quietly so he wasn’t noticed by the British lookouts.  One book shows three men in a row boat under a full moon with a British sailing ship close enough so its shadow almost covers the rowboat.  Another shows the British boats at least a football field away with a tiny, sliver of a moon in the sky.  And a third shows what looks like white rags on the oars and a dog in the boat.

But wait!  In doing this online search for books illustrating the poem, you come upon a version of the famous story written by Paul Revere himself.  You ask the students to read what Revere wrote about how he crossed the river and see which artist nailed it.

Explain to the students how you went from a huge topic to a small but much more interesting topic.  They will be using one primary source (Paul Revere’s own account) and four secondary sources (the poem and three illustrations).

It takes time to find a good topic.  Without modeling, most kids don’t know how to do it.  Take the time to help them narrow their ideas.  A worthwhile assignment is to ask students to go through this process to develop a good topic whether they write the essay or not.

Writing is a process, and part of that process is narrowing down a topic.  Not every researched essay topic needs to be written.

How to write clearly for future generations

Among the hardest materials for students to read today are the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (Lexile scores 1350 and 1560 respectively). Because Thomas Jefferson knew future generations would be reading his words in the Declaration of Independence, he wrote them as carefully as possible in 1776.  Even so, they are difficult to understand by his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren’s generation.

Many reasons exist for this difficulty, including sentence structure, sentence length, relative pronouns, and vocabulary. I would like to analyze the first paragraph of the Declaration to see what we can learn from words Thomas Jefferson penned 240 years ago in order to improve our writing today.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

Here is the Declaration’s original first paragraph:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

To begin, this paragraph is a single, 71-word sentence. We know that the more words a sentence contains, the harder it is to understand (unless the sentence is a list). If a sentence of 30 words is pushing it, a sentence of 71 words is beyond what most people can follow. Many working memories stop after the second clause.

Secondly, this 71-word sentence contains six clauses plus infinitive phrases and prepositional phrases. Three clauses in a single sentence are sometimes two too many for clear understanding. But six?

Another difficulty is the pronoun “which.” It is used three times to introduce three dependent clauses.

But perhaps the greatest problem to modern readers is the vocabulary. Many words are familiar words used in unfamiliar ways. For example, the fourth word, “course” is a word we use all the time today (a math course, the course of a river, of course), but the meaning used in the Declaration is “progress or advancement” which is no longer its primary meaning.

When “course” is combined with “events” to form the phrases “in the course of human events,” the meaning becomes more muddled. What if Jefferson had written, “When, during human history”? Wouldn’t those words have said the same thing yet made more sense? To us, yes. But Jefferson was writing the most formal document of his life.  He chose to use formal language—formal even for the 18th century.

What if Jefferson had written something like this instead?

Sometimes a group of people need to sever their political connections with another group of people and to become an independent country. When this happens, they should explain why they are separating.

My 32 words are not nearly as elegant as Jefferson’s, but to modern ears, they are easier to understand (39 fewer words; two sentences instead of one; one simple sentence and one complex sentence with just one dependent clause; and everyday vocabulary).

Think ahead 240 years to the year 2256. Will Americans then still find my words easy to understand? How can we write diaries, letters, memoirs or war stories  which will make sense to our descendants?

  • Above all, write clearly.
  • Write short sentences.
  • Write mostly simple sentences.
  • Limit the number of dependent clauses to one per sentence.
  • Make sure pronouns have clearly identified antecedents.
  • Use everyday vocabulary.