Ask Language Log: The syntax of inspiration?

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I.B. writes:

I've noticed recently that motivational slogans have a specific sentence syntax that seems to make them more inspirational. A few examples:

In God We Trust.
United We Stand.
In Valor There Is Hope.

Uninverted, these three phrases seem to lack luster:

We Trust In God.
We Stand United.
There Is Hope In Valor.

Do you think you can shed any light on this?

My first thought was to give a link to David Beaver's two recent posts "Charades does not reveal a universal sentence structure" — part I and part II — where he observes that

Plays tend to start with a list of characters. And when we tell a story, we tend to introduce characters before connecting them. And when we describe pictures verbally or in writing, we tend to describe the objects and characters and then how they relate.

Some generalized version of this might be said to apply to Ilan's examples.

But I'm not sure that I can express the generalization in a way that really works. And more important, I'm not sure what the facts about motivational slogans really are — we need more data.

In general, advertising slogans –even fake ones — don't very often have the kind of structure that Ilan asked about. And political slogans usually don't either.

A quick scan of Wikipedia's list of national mottos shows only Belize's Sub umbra floreo, Nicaragua's En Dios Confiamos and Vanuatu's Long God yumi stanap as conforming examples.

Among the motivational slogans on those sappy posters,  "Through effort and determination comes success" has a sentence-initial adverbial phrase, but "Create the life you dream of with every choice you make" doesn't.

So I agree that "We Stand United" is not as good a slogan as "United We Stand", but this seems to be a fact  about the communicative dynamism of this particular slogan (i.e., united is the key concept), rather than anything about the syntax of slogans in general, motivational or otherwise.


  1. William Ockham said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    I would expect find more commonality in the prosody of mottos and slogans than in the syntax. The aim is to create sayings that are pithy and memorable.

  2. Fredster said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    I have a reproduction copy of Alexander Bain's "English Composition and Rhetoric" of 1877. On page 46, under the heading "Order of Words," appears the following comment: "Grammatically, in English, the subject precedes the predicate; and, in the government of an active verb, thr order is — subject, verb, object; but an altered order may add to the force of the expressiob." He goes on to consider various orders such as predicate first: He cites several Biblical examples, such as "Great is the mystery of godliness." He also cites Herbert Spencer's "Philosophy of Style" as providing a rationalization for such alterations in order.

  3. John Lawler said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    … which means putting the pithy parts in the most memorable locations in the phrase or clause, of which the front is in first place.

  4. Ed said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    yep, looks like pretty straightforward topicalization from a syntactic point of view. the "uninspirational" versions do seem flat, because no constituent is given any special attention. it would be interesting to see if in languages that have a sentence-final topic position whether such slogans behave linearly opposite.

  5. GTA said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

    Perhaps, in addition to emphasis, there is an implied opposition or parallelism. "United we stand" is really part of "United we stand, divided we fall". "In God we trust" (God, not ourselves, or our allies). I don't know about "In valor there is hope." It seems to be attributed to Tacitus, but I haven't been able to find the expression in Latin.

  6. William Ockham said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    In phrases this short, I would think that you create memorability by using effective iambs (at least in English).

  7. Bobbie said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

    "United we stand" originally had a second part — Divided we fall. Two equal and distinctive phrases which together had a more persuasive meaning.

  8. S Onosson said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

    I'm always interested in (but have no idea where to start) looking at poetry from a linguistic perspective, and I think many of these examples could qualify, in at least some respect. I think something has to be said for the attention-getting qualities of stepping outside of established conventions.

  9. ed said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    Why does "Live free or die" seem like a threat?

  10. Ken Brown said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    Doesn't "united we stand, divided we fall" expand to "if we are united we stand but if we are divided we fall"?

    But "we stand united" is a description.

    The sloganistic phrase is an exhortation to unity, the other is an observation that we are united.

  11. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    @William Ockham: In phrases this short, I would think that you create memorability by using effective iambs (at least in English).

    But "We Trust in God" is also iambic, more or less.

  12. david hargreaves said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    Much of Gernsbacher's work in the 90s focused on the role of first position in processing. Below is a representative article.

    Gernsbacher , M.A. & Hargreaves, D. 1992. "The Privilege of Primacy: Experimental Data and Cognitive Explanations." in Doris Payne (ed.) The Pragmatics of Word Order Flexibility. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  13. Andrew said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    I suspect it's got something to do with Latin and translations from Latin. Maybe not in every case, but often enough to give some people the idea that "mottos have funny word order." Throw in some mild confusion between mottos and slogans and you're in business. "In God We Trust" was apparently preceded by "In Deo speramus", and although no one can seem to come through with a good cite for the hope in valor one, they do claim it's Tacitus. "United We Stand", on the other hand, I would guess (amateur, here) is just plain poetic inversion. It does sound good.

  14. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    Here's something quite interesting, most of it from

    E pluribus unum — another of these phrases, (and I wondered if it was Latin that was causing this construction, but then I got caught up in this) — comes from Virgil's poem "The Moretum", which is usually translated "salad", would be better called "cheese and garlic paste." In the Ambrosian MS. of Vergil there is a marginal note saying that Vergil's poem was an imitation or translation of that of his teacher — apparently it was a popular subject.

    (…Symilus the rustic husbandman…)
    Th' aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce
    And with his left hand 'neath his hairy groin
    Supports his garment;' with his right he first
    The reeking garlic with the pestle breaks,
    Then everything he equally doth rub
    I' th' mingled juice. His hand in circles move:
    Till by degrees they one by one do lose
    Their proper powers, and out of many comes
    A single colour
    , not entirely green
    Because the milky fragments this forbid,
    Nor showing white as from the milk because
    That colour's altered by so many herbs.

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 2:18 pm


    Tacitus Annals II, 20

    utrisque necessitas in loco, spes in virtute, salus ex victoria.

    "Both [Romans and Germans] were in a desperate plight from their position; valour was their only hope, victory their only safety. "

    Tacitus has (as ever) lots of funky parallelism, but the order in the Latin is actually "hope in valour" rather than "valour in hope".

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

    Sorry, I meant to write

    … rather than "in valour, hope".

    It does support the notion that parallelism is at the back of a lot of these, though.

    The free translation I cited is Church and Brodibb, very well known in its day, and perhaps the immediate origin of the funny word order, rather than the Latin original itself.

  17. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

    Regarding e plurubus unum, Moretum has in the original "color est e pluribus unus."

    Ian Myles Slater commenting at says
    The actual phrase was familiar at the time from the special title page for bound annual volumes of "The Gentleman's Magazine" — many issues made into one.

    But he doesn't say when he means by 'at the time'.

  18. dr pepper said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    Hmm, "e pluribus unum" comes from a cooking demonstration. Heh, maybe we can change the motto to "Bam!". BTW, what is the difference between a motto and a slogan?

    Also, why is it "deus ex machina" rather than "deus e machina"?

    Other such phrases include "in vino veritas", "dum spiro spero", "ilea iacta est". I think that the experience of latin has influenced a feeling for what constitutes pithy.

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

    According to Hale & Buck's Latin Grammar, 'ex' is the only form possible before a word beginning with a vowel or h; before consonants 'e' and 'ex' are found but 'ex' is commoner.

    The distribution of 'a' versus 'ab' is similar.

    I think the 'Latin = pithy' thing goes back to the Silver Latin straining for rhetorical 'point' seen in Tacitus and especially Seneca. (I don't think anybody ever accused Cicero of being pithy, exactly)

    Seneca's ghastly moralizing unfortunately appealed a lot to our mediaeval forbears: maybe that helped make his irritating style a model, until better counsels prevailed in the Renaissance.

    (Obvious bitterness due to actually having had to read Seneca's letters in Latin when I was young and vulnerable …)

  20. Simon Cauchi said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

    Re "at the time", as in 'The actual phrase was familiar at the time from the special title page for bound annual volumes of "The Gentleman's Magazine" — many issues made into one.'

    The Gentleman's Magazine was founded in 1731 and so was quite possibly the source of the motto.

  21. Stephen said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

    I'm no linguist (although I enjoy reading and learning from Language Log), but some commenters have already touched on what I think is the primary explanation. Any decent attempt to replicate Latinate word order, or what English speakers vaguely feel to be Latinate word order, in an English sentence (united we stand vs. we stand united) places that sentence in a higher register of sorts. It becomes somehow nobler, grander, more important, and thereby more forceful; more "motivational," I suppose, although that word seems a bit narrow to me.

  22. Alan Gunn said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 6:59 pm

    We lawyers call this form the "Cardozo inversion," after a famous practitioner. Someone once parodied his style by writing, "Backward ran sentences until boggled the mind." It never really bothered me until I started teaching and had to re-read opinions year after year. Great judge, though.

  23. James said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

    I believe that "backward ran sentences" quote was originally a parody of Time Magazine's early house style.

  24. Mark Liberman said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

    Cardozo will have to wrassle Henry Luce for the inverted syntax medal.

    Cardozo (1870-1938) has the advantage of priority over Luce (1898-1967), but Luce has the advantage that Wolcott Gibbs actually used the phrase "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind" in a 1936 New Yorker parody of Luce's Time Magazine.

    Gibbs may have purloined this nugget from an earlier joke about Cardozo, but if so, it doesn't seem to have left any traces on the internets, at least according to a quick and casual scan.

  25. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

    To Alan Gunn: you might have heard the "backward ran sentences" as from Cardozo, but I'll think you'll need to come up with an actual cite. This is a (justifiably) famous bit from Wolcott Gibbs's 1936 New Yorker parody of the style of Henry Luce's Time. It goes on for some time with weirdly inverted sentences, and then we get

    … Always mentioned as William Randolph Hearst's "great & good friend" was Cinemactress Marion Davies, stressed was the bastardy of Ramsay MacDonald, the "cozy hospitality" of Mae West. Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind…

    (this from Dwight Macdonald's Parodies anthology (1960), p. 342). It's a hoot. And it made Luce raving angry.

  26. Albert said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

    I thought phrases like these were reminiscent of Old English syntax, and, therefore, appear archaic, foundational, powerful, and inspiring to modern speakers.

    Also, mightn't "with this ring, I thee wed" be another example? Not motivational, but certainly more 'powerful' than the "correct" ordering.

    My $0.02, for what it's worth.

  27. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 9:14 pm

    There is a sort of construction that puts the most important word at the end of the sentence, as a climax. Thus "For God, for country, and for Yale" has been cited as the worst anti-climax ever written.

  28. Jonathan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 12:55 am

    The Imperial Russian motto was 'S Nami Bog', 'God Is With Us', but the order is 'With Us God' (the copula is of course not expressed in the Russian). Yet another example of 'motto-topicalization'.

    It must be said that Russian has a fairly 'free' word order in any case, so I don't know for a fact that the motto has the same stylistic effect as the English or Spanish mottos given above.

  29. dr pepper said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:09 am

    Doesn't seem as powerful as "Gott Mit Uns".

  30. outeast said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 4:53 am

    Twenty-nine comments there have been, and mention Yoda no one has?

  31. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 11:47 am

    The King James Bible, being the first legal edition in the vernacular printed in England, is said to have had enormous influence and maybe this is an instance.

    Upon reading Ilan's examples, despite being an atheist, I immediately thought of the Bible, because once, as a preteen, when I was supposed to be getting religion, instead I got other kids giggling and my Sunday School teacher upset by pointing out inverted Bible sentence structure and connecting it to record albums that, if played backwards, revealed secrets, like whether the "cute Beatle" Paul was dead. Here's some typical red lines, the KJB code for Jesus.

    "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I unto the world…Yet a little while I am with you…These many good works have I shewed you…Greater works than these shall He do.. Happy are ye if ye do them."

  32. Yuval said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

    As Ed has said before me, and as hinted by Mark near the end ("/united/ is the key concept"), the key to effective slogans seems to focus. The 'flatter' versions of the slogans employ the unmarked sentence structure; reversing word order and putting the critical element first does the trick there. "Create the life you dream of" is already marked — it uses the imperative mood. The indicative version would be "You create the life you dream of with every choice you make", which is indeed less effective than "With every choice you make, you create the life you dream of" or even than "The life you dream of is created with every choice you make" (passive!).
    Briefly looking at the list from Wikipedia, I see that most mottos are simply one or three nouns, saving the need to focalise.

  33. neddanison said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    I'm a little amazed that no one has suggested yet that perhaps the reason familiar phrases "seem lackluster" when you mess with them is simply because they have been messed with! I'll call this the "jelly and peanut butter sandwich" view.

  34. Saqib Ali said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

    Recently heard the following in Sherlock Holmes' The Master Blackmailer:

    "A show of temper, my dear, I assure you, will avail you nothing"

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