Language and style

In this part of the study guide, we will analyze the language and overall style of George Saunders' commencement address at Syracuse University. We will focus on choice of words, tone, sentence structure, and the use of personal stori…

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Choice of words

Although George Saunders acts as a formal speaker at The College of Arts and Sciences’ graduation ceremony, his choice of words often reflects a much more informal style.

First, note that Saunders uses several slang words and expressions, such as “old fart”, “pooping”, “corny”, “butts”, or “poop”. The use of these words and expressions give the speech an informal tone and also draws positive reactions from the members…

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Sentence structure

Saunders uses a mixture of long and short sentences to create different effects. In the following examples, Saunders uses an informal and natural style of speaking, to make his words resemble a normal conversation instead of a formal speech. This effect is strengthened by his use of humor and irony: “So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like ‘knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?’ (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that.”;

Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emit…

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Tone

Throughout his speech, Saunders’ tone varies from light-hearted and humorous to serious.

For example, a light-hearted and humorous tone is used when Saunders talks about his experiences:

Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. 

He is also ironic when he talks about people’s existential problems. You should note that when he uses humor he also often touches on rather profo…

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Personal stories and anecdotes

Personal stories are an important part of Saunders’ speech. Through them, Saunders makes it easier for students to relate and sympathize with him. Also, his stories give a personal touch to the speech, which does not seem excessively formal and traditional.

For example, Saunders talks about his experiences in Sumatra, where he swam naked in a river and became very ill. The story helps his audience (who are predominantly students) relate to his experiences and perhaps helps them to remember that the speaker was once young like them:

Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in whic…

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Style

Overall, George Saunders' style is mostly informal and conversational, rather than the formal style one might expect from a professor giving a speech at a university. This informal style comes across in…

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