What’s rhetoric got to do with it (writing)?

We have talked about rhetoric and rhetorical strategies in these blog posts before. In particular, we have drawn on the work of Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar and Mark S. LeTourneau’s English Grammar. Kolln has provided patterns of sentence structure and punctuation for posts on stylistic considerations. In two posts, we examined LeTourneau’s arguments for grammar knowledge to improve a writer’s style and ability to edit their own work.

There is value in the knowledge of rhetorical strategies available to writers.

This post was inspired by “The Charm of Novelty” by Barton Swaim, a review article, of Farnsworth’s Classical English Style shared with me by a colleague (and my best friend from my NYU doctoral program) believing I would appreciate it.

I read and enjoyed it, having always appreciated rhetorical style, especially of some of the rhetors (or orators) quoted in the book, many of whom already discussed in this blog space:  Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Samuel Johnson, the King James Bible.

However, I was struck when the reviewer noted that Farnsworth provided examples “from writers no more recent than the mid-20th century.” I began to protest that there were other rhetorical patterns, ones more contemporary and ones from non-dominant cultures, when I remembered that the book’s title says it all: “classical English style.”

The author, Ward Farnsworth, is a law professor and dean, and he has written two previous books, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor. As such, his position in language studies is more conservative, reminding me of Bryan Garner, also a lawyer (and often cited in blog), whose Garner’s Modern American Usage is more prescriptive than descriptive in approach. (Garner, in an article written with Justice Antoni Scalia, argued for the use Oxford comma as discussed in an early post on the use of that punctuation mark.)

Punctuation in legal documents is important: sometimes its use or nonuse have been the basis of lawsuits which is also mentioned in the Oxford comma blog. Rhetoric in the sense of argument and persuasion is important in law, too. Often it is not justice that prevails in a courtroom, but the person who tells the best or most persuasive “story” or version of events.

The contemporary tendency is for efficient communication with clear, usually short, sentences. But as another reviewer, John McIntyre in “You’re Going to Imitate, So Imitate the Best,” this current emphasis on the plain (or Attic) style in prose “leaves little space for eloquent writing.”

Most writing texts emphasize the importance of variety in sentence structures. In English Grammar, LeTourneau presents various structures, but as seen in the post of knowing grammar for editing, he focuses on cohesion, the connection of ideas at the sentence level: the pattern of information in a sentence should be given (or known) information followed by new information. Swaim notes that Farnsworth agrees: generally when you want to draw particular attention to a sentence, put the crucial words last.

McIntyre elaborates on how Farnsworth further distinguishes between two types of sentence patterns: right-branching, with the point stated up front and detail accumulating afterward, or left-branching (sometimes called periodic), accumulating detail with the point presented at the end. The right-branching is much less work for readers (less to be remembered), while the left-branching can involve the readers more and leaves the climax to the end. In addition, Farnsworth recommends other variations: between abstract and concrete words, weak and strong endings, and literal and figurative phrases.

However, as the reviewers note, some readers may be put off by some chapters such as those on the cadence of English sentences in which Farnsworth draws the distinction between iambic, trochaic, anapestic, or dactylic finishes. Indeed, in the post on structural ambiguity, we saw how the use of figurative language and other literary devices may make their compositions less understandable to the reader.

As the titles of the review articles suggest, the imitation of these classical English styles represents imitation of the best, as well as the charm of novelty. You were considered educated and cultured if you acquired the knowledge of the work of the best rhetoricians. In fact, up through the mid-20th century, part of an education would be to study and copy these “best” passages, absorbing the style.

These titles and assertions also demonstrate the explicit and implicit bias in both classical western and English rhetoric. (British and American traditions of rhetoric developed from classical ones, first Greek, then Roman.)

There is value in the knowledge that there are rhetorical strategies other than classical English ones available to writers.

In their book On African-American Rhetoric, Keith Gilyard and Adam Banks point out that Greek rhetoric developed as citizens of a fledgling democracy in fifth century BCE had to learn to make legal claims on redistributed lands and to conduct civic business overall. These and other scholars of African-American rhetoric argue that blacks needed not only to speak well in public and legal forums, but were also arguing for freedom, for a full legal status (11).

African-American rhetors have used classical rhetorical devices, such as repetition, though they did not know it as epizeuxis, a fancy term for repeating. Popular African-American songs also have a logic to their art without their authors being governed by terms such as syllogism or enthymeme.

But, as Gilyard and Banks argue their “strategic language use” incorporates much more: “slave narratives, the spirituals, poetry, fiction, folklore, speeches, music, film and memes”; for instance, the basic call-response process of African-American culture is a dynamic which “has been and continues to be central to the language used by African Americans to make collective cultural and political statements” (6). Indeed, the authors cite Deborah Atwater’s definition of African-American rhetoric: “the art of persuasion fused with African-American ways of knowing in attempts to achieve in public realms personhood, dignity, and respect” (3).

As writers and readers and teachers, we need to be open to these “non-classical” rhetorical strategies. As Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson argue in African-American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives, we need to be open to “alternative literacies” and “counterlanguages” so that all writers can find their authentic voice. Sometimes that voice is influenced by others – not only the dominant culture, but the individual and the counter culture. Free writing, as discussed in the posts on becoming a writer and what is voice, is a strategy that can set your voice free and can even tap into your subconscious for increased creativity and authenticity.

(Resources: Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; LeTourneau’s English Grammar; Swaim, “The Charm of Novelty”; Garner’s Modern American Usage; McIntyre, “You’re Going to Imitate, So Imitate the Best”; Gilyard and Banks, On African-American Rhetoric; Richardson and Jackson, African-American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives.)

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