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Parsing the State of the Union

Sentence length and word incidence in George W. Bush’s State of the Union Addresses.
In a hurry? Go directly to the State of the Union Parsing Tool.

Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that the President

... shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them ....

George Washington gave his first Annual Message on January 8, 1790. Tonight, just over 214 years later, George W. Bush gave his fifth State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress and the American people.

Although modern State of the Union Addresses are produced by teams of writers, it is safe to assume that the final speeches are carefully vetted and approved by the President, a process that makes the Address a good target for analysis. As one friend put it: “Since it’s so obvious that the speech is ruthlessly curated before presentation, it’s interesting to note how often and where certain features appear.”

Rather than discuss the style or presentation of the Address, I’d like to take a comparative graphic look at two easily-measured features: sentence length and word incidence.

Sentence length

This table shows sentence count, word count, and average number of words per sentence in the transcripts1 of George W. Bush’s State of the Union Addresses, as well as his special Address to Congress following the attacks of September 11th:


1st Address to a Joint Session of Congress
Feb 27, 2001
Special Address to Congress
Sept 20, 2001
1st State of the Union Address
Jan 29, 2002
2nd State of the Union Address
Jan 28, 2003
3rd State of the Union Address
Jan 20, 2004
4th State of the Union Address
Feb 2, 2005
Word count 4,385 2,992 3,841 5,361 5,203 5,063
Sentence count 278 182 214 284 278 236
Average number of
words per sentence
15.8 16.4 17.9 18.9 18.7 21.4

To put these numbers in historical context, this chart compares Bush’s fifth address with four additional State of the Union Addresses:


George Washington’s
5th Annual Message

Dec 3, 1793
Abrahan Lincoln’s
1st Annual Message

Dec 3, 1861
Ronald Reagan’s
4th State of the Union Address

Feb 6, 1985
William J. Clinton’s
5th State of the Union Address

Feb 4, 1997
George W. Bush’s
4th State of the Union Address

Feb 2, 2005
Word count 1,971 7,038 4,248 6,793 5,063
Sentence count 57 216 305 440 236
Average number of
words per sentence
34.6 32.6 13.9 15.4 21.4

Sentence mapping

One way to visually represent each speech is to treat each word as a block (), and each sentence as a row of blocks ().

Stacked vertically, the first 15 sentences of George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address tonight look like this:

Sentence #
 

Word count

Using smaller blocks to represent each word, the entire speech looks like this:

Sentence #
 

Word count

Word incidence

Within this visual framework, specific words or phrases can be represented in at least two ways, by highlighting the word itself, or by highlighting the entire sentence that the word appears in. This chart highlights in red the 17 sentences in Bush’s speech tonight that contain the word “freedom”:

Sentence #
 

Word count

Online parsing tool

To search for your own words or phrases, or to compare the occurrence of two words in Bush’s State of the Union Addresses, please try the State of the Union Parsing Tool. A good places to start is freedom and liberty.


 

Transcripts

  1. George W. Bush’s First State of the Union Address: February 27, 2001
     
  2. George W. Bush’s Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People: September 20, 2001
     
  3. George W. Bush’s State of the Union Addresses: January 29, 2002, January 28, 2003, January 20, 2004, February 2, 2005, January 31, 2006, January 23, 2007, January 28, 2008
     
  4. George Washington’s Fifth Annual Message: December 3, 1793
     
  5. Abrahan Lincoln’s First Annual Message: December 3, 1861
     
  6. Ronald Reagan’s Fourth State of the Union Address: February 6th, 1985
    (Although this was Reagan’s fourth address, it was his first address after reelection.)
     
  7. William J. Clinton’s Fifth State of the Union Address: February 4, 1997