The Canon of Style

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The Canon of Style

Albert Einstein’s quip, that “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” bespeaks the importance of style in rhetoric. You can muster all the logic at your disposal, but if you fail to move your audience, you will never persuade them. You may convince them, but not persuade them. The end of persuasion is action, and in order to move people to action, you’ve got to move the soul. (There are quite profound implications here if one stops to consider the ancient principle of internal movement . . .) I begin my instruction about the canon of style by, first motivating students to elevate the enterprise of speech composition. This is done by recapping the lecture on human excellence, and asserting that excellence is, in keeping with Einstein’s sentiment, more a matter of creativity than of logic alone. Cultivating one’s imagination and reason must be done simultaneously. I then discuss with them Sir Francis Bacon’s definition of rhetoric, from De augmentis:

“The application of reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.”

Bacon defines rhetoric in a manner congruent with the intellectual climate of his day. “Faculty psychology” was a project that captivated many thinkers in the Renaissance, and faculty psychology is clearly implicit in the above definition. The soul was understood in terms of its constituent parts, or faculties: memory, imagination, reason, will, appetite, and so forth. I think Bacon’s definition makes a good introduction to the canon of style, because it gets one thinking about the relation of style to pathos. Attending to aesthetics in one’s argumentation is important, if for no other reason, than that it exercises imagination (both the speaker’s and the audience’s.) It reminds us that rhetoric attempts to appeal to humans in the fullness of their being. In the traditional liberal arts education, style was learned by studying figures of speech.

Figures of speech are divided into:

Schemes Tropes
(syntactic) (semantic)
| |
rhythm imagery

Here are a few figures of speech for your consideration. There are many, many more examples at the Forest of Rhetoric.

Glossary of Schemes and Tropes (print version)

alliteration     a scheme; repetition of initial or medial consonants in associated words near one another.
anaphora     a scheme; repetition of a word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses.
antithesis     a scheme; expression of contrasting ideas, often in parallel structure.
asyndeton   a scheme; omission of connectives between a series of clauses.
epistrophe   a scheme; ending successive clauses or sentences with the same expression.
hyperbole    a trope; deliberate exaggeration.
irony           a trope; use of a word or words to convey a meaning opposite to their apparent meaning.
litotes          a trope; deliberate understatement.
metaphor    a trope; an implied comparison between two dissimilar things.
metonymy   type of metaphor; the image used to represent the object is closely associated with it–e.g., what contains it, causes it, stands for it, etc.
onomatopoeia     a trope; words whose sound reflects their sense.
oxymoron           a trope; the linking of ordinarily contradictory terms.
parallelism          a scheme; the expression of similar meanings in similar grammatical constructions.
periphrasis          a trope; substitution of a descriptive word or phrase for a name, or of a name for a quality associated with the name.
personification    a trope; endowing objects or abstractions with human attributes.
polysyndeton      a scheme; deliberate use of many connectives.
pun                    a trope; a name given several varieties of plays on words.
rhetorical question  a trope; a question not intended to be answered.
scheme     a deliberate deviation from the ordinary arrangement of words for rhetorical effect.
simile        a trope; a comparison between two dissimilar things.
synecdoche    a trope; the use of a part to stand for a whole.
trope        a deliberate deviation from the normal signification of a word for rhetorical effect.

adapted from Jim W. Corder’s Uses of Rhetoric. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.), 1971.

Teaching Tip: I like to discuss this glossary with my students then give them a copy of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” break them into small groups, and have a contest to see which group can spot the greatest number of figures in ten minutes.