King’s pathetic English in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

The great American civil-rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., spent eleven days in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963.

While he was there, he wrote the subject of this post: a 310-word sentence whose use of emotional appeals as a means of persuasion is as fine as you will ever see—in English or in any other language.

King’s English as a model for your written Legal English

King and his use of the English language appear often on this blog.

I’ve covered the ground-level mechanics of the eloquent English in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In another post, I explicitly treat King as what might be the essence of his public persona—an advocate. Whereas you advocate the interests of a single person or entity, King advocated the interests of an entire race, whether you define race by the color of one’s skin or, better, as simply one race, the human race. I presented “King as advocate,” as a model for your own work as an advocate, in my post on finding passion and urgency for writing persuasive Legal English.

I’ve even recommended King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—which contains that 310-word sentence that persuades through emotional appeals—as an indispensable part of what ESL attorneys should read in English.

You might get the impression that I think highly of King and specifically of his use of the English language.

And you’d be right. I don’t lightly recommend models to help you in the important work of writing more effectively on legal topics in English for professional purposes.

Why, then, do I insult King’s writing in the headline for this post?

King’s use of pathetic appeals in his “Letter”

The answer is that my headline does not insult King’s writing in the least.

It just neutrally describes King’s writing in a strict, technical sense of the term pathetic.

The word pathetic can convey much more than than a common vernacular insult. The term has a specific technical sense in the study of rhetoric, the study of using language effectively, which often means for an overtly persuasive purpose. In rhetoric, pathetic refers to a speaker’s or writer’s efforts to induce feelings in his audience to make the audience more likely to accept the speaker’s or writer’s positions. (In classical Greek, pathos means emotion. A term in literary criticism, the “pathetic fallacy,” derives from the same root.) In my professional judgment, pathos is part of what all ESL attorneys should know about persuasive English.

In this “rhetorician’s sense” of the term, King’s English in the “Letter” is indeed “pathetic.” And one particular sentence in the “Letter” illustrates how an advocate can use simple, straightforward English to present vivid images that help an audience to feel more willing to accept the advocate’s logical propositions.

In the version of the “Letter” that I link to in this post, the sentence is the fourth sentence of Paragraph 14 (“But when you see vicious mobs . . .”). By my count, that sentence contains 310 words (counting each hyphenated term as one word).

How that pathetic 310-word sentence works

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit once threatened to ban an attorney from practicing in that court for filing a brief whose flaws included a 345-word sentence.

I’ve not read that attorney’s 345-word sentence, but I’m confident that it shows few, and most likely none, of the merits of King’s 310-word sentence.

If you’re familiar with both the “Letter” and the “I Have a Dream” speech, you’ll notice stylistic similarities between the two works. Both works frequently invoke writers and historical figures with whom King assumed his readers would sympathize—much as attorneys cite precedent in legal writing. Both works also heavily use apt and compelling metaphor.

The 310-word sentence mocks the standard guideline that sentences in expository writing in English should average 15-25 words. Even with the sentence’s mammoth length, though, fewer than 10% of its words are three syllables or longer. The simplicity of its vocabulary helps to offset the sentence’s deliberately complex grammar, which violates the standard guideline that most English sentences should follow the straightforward Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O) structure.

The “Letter” is a stand-alone piece of writing that King never intended to deliver as a speech. Even so, written by the same master orator, the “Letter” rivals the “I Have a Dream” speech in its use of the speech-oriented rhetorical strategy of insistent, drumbeat repetition called anaphora.

The persuasive force of simple English vocabulary

Nowhere does the “Letter” use that strategy better than in Paragraph 14’s 310-word fourth sentence. The sentence begins with, not one, but ten subordinate clauses, eventually reaching its grammatical subject (“you”) only after 300 other words have paved the way. Each subordinate clause repeats the basic “when you” theme to show King’s reader one vivid example after another of how degrading and demoralizing it was to live as a black person in the early 1960s in the United States.

Even today, the sentence stirs strong emotions: outrage at images of mobs lynching and drowning one’s closest relatives, sympathy for people ground down by poverty, embarrassment at the racist’s iron partition of inequality, sorrow at the tremendous waste of human potential caused by the all-too-real images that King recites. The sentence is the very heart of King’s argument.

But don’t get so lost in the emotional response that you miss King’s point. The images in this sentence are powerful—but every one of them appears in the “Letter” solely to show why King must decline the advice to “wait.” When injustice occurs to the degree shown by these examples, justice requires that the oppressed wait no more. Even as moving as they are, the images in the sentence appear in the “Letter” only to make King’s readers more likely to accept one of King’s arguments. King is not a weepy, hand-wringing, latter-day emotionalist. He is a tough-minded, intellectually disciplined advocate.

And, especially for your purposes, notice how King’s simple English vocabulary itself allows rather than forces his examples to have emotional impact. The short, simple, concrete words allow the images themselves to generate emotion based on the non-linguistic human drama that they contain. Adding too many descriptions, too many adverbs, too many abstract nouns would only diminish the sentence’s raw emotional power.

Reasoning obviously must accompany any efforts at persuasion: reasoning, logic (logos), is the fulcrum by which persuasion occurs. King’s “Letter” uses methods of reasoning masterfully, too—logic, classification, definition. But sometimes the fulcrum of reason needs extra oil to dispose a reluctant audience more favorably toward your—or your client’s—message.

Emotional appeals then become an essential part of persuasion. When they do, King’s “Letter” gives you a great model for guiding and measuring the persuasive Legal English that you write on your own clients’ behalf.


This post looks at the simple vocabulary, the strategic use of repetition, and a few of the emotional appeals in King’s “Letter.” But what about the pace of King’s sentences? And what about the tone of his phrases and sentences? Does the tone of King’s language contribute to the emotional appeals? How do we even talk intelligently about “tone” in written English? The sounds of words (vowels, consonants), their music, could be a good place to start. Each of these subjects could support an entire future post—or some good focused comments by you at the end of this post to extend the discussion of King’s English.

I know: you’re just an ESL attorney who wants to improve your written Legal English for professional purposes. You’re not a civil-rights activist or any other kind of activist when you write on legal topics in English. You’re not a prose stylist when you write on legal topics in English. You’re not a poet.

Or are you?

#legalenglish #englishforlaw #eslattorneys #esllawyers

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