Where I Have the Temerity to Copyedit Sir Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the Unite...
(Photo via Wikipedia)

I came across an excellent article in a little journal known as the New York Times about the “music” of language. It really spoke to me, as I’ve always said that while I have no actual musical talent, I do seem to have a knack for understanding the rhythm and flow of language.

That’s probably why I took to speechwriting so quickly back in my agency days. And why I get kind of aggravated when someone clumsily hacks into my prose, leaving a bunch of sour notes behind.

Anyway, among the many useful examples the author uses to illustrate techniques like assonance and alliteration, is the famous quote from Winston Churchill upon taking the reins of leadership in the dark early days of  World War II:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

When I first read this, I found it kind of jarring — a little out of tune. Maybe it’s because I’ve long had a different construction embedded in my head thanks to ’70s pop group “Blood, Sweat & Tears.”

But at the risk of editing the work of a certified literary and oratorical icon, I was thinking it might flow better by ordering the elements this way:

I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears.

Or even this way:

I have nothing to offer but blood, tears, toil and sweat.

But speeches, of course, are meant to be spoken aloud — ideally by the speakers themselves. Here’s the recording of Sir Winston delivering his prophetic line (at about the 3:30 mark):

I have to admit the old man does a pretty bang-up job of it. As the Times article notes, it wasn’t so much a gentle, harmonious flow Churchill may have been going for:

“Churchill’s monosyllables set up a staccato rhythm that is as bold and bracing as the statesman himself.”

This, I suppose, is why I’m not a renowned statesman and leading world figure.