Under the term style in rhetorical studies are grouped all those concerns with effective language that have been part of the rhetorical tradition from its beginnings in ancient Greece. In rhetorical manuals from antiquity through to the present, language issues are typically discussed at the levels of word choice, sentence structure, and passage arrangement according to certain broad principles guiding selection, such as clarity or vivacity. Rhetorical stylistics also describes linguistic devices that can help construct the interaction between rhetor and audience (e.g., apostrophe or direct address), express states of mind (e.g., dubitatio, the expression of doubt), or even control the flow of discourse (e.g., transitio, marking the movement from one section to another). Many of these rhetorical figures of speech survive in the everyday vocabulary of language awareness (e.g., rhetorical question), while others are studied as literary devices achieving aesthetic effects (e.g., personification, extending human attributes like speech to the inanimate and nonhuman).
In the last 20 years, one particular device of word substitution, metaphor, has been promoted as a conceptual principle organizing areas of meaning. In the rhetorical tradition, however, language principles and features are identified for their functional, persuasive potential. Scholars interested in rhetorical stylistics have studied principles of effective language primarily through recovery work in the many texts produced in the 2,500 years of the rhetorical tradition. In the last 50 years, other disciplines, e.g., discourse analysis, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, informal logic, and natural language philosophy, have rediscovered many of the principles of rhetorical stylistics without an awareness of this tradition.
Principles of effective language use, established in antiquity, begin with remarks on the power of language in the speeches of the sophists. But it is the third book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric that introduces features of persuasive language that still dominate the discussion, including the period as a rhythmic unit of language made up of smaller cola (clauses or phrases), and the two contrasting styles based on the connections between successive periods: the additive or paratactic style and the connected or hypotactic style, the former typical of narrative and the latter of reasoned discourse. Aristotle also discusses effective word choice by pointing out the explanatory power of metaphor, and praises language that brings things “before the eyes” and conveys activity. He nominates the antithesis, parallel phrasing with contrasting word choice, as an effective device in argument.
In the centuries following Aristotle, Greek rhetoricians expanded the study of style, but their notions survive principally in a Latin manual from the first century BCE, the Rhetorica ad Herennium. Falsely attributed to Cicero, this succinct treatment of all the parts of rhetoric remained in use through the sixteenth century and has seen some revivals; St. Paul probably studied it, as did Shakespeare. Its fourth book sets principles of selection for effective language: correctness, clarity, appropriateness to situation and audience, and forcefulness. Under appropriateness the ad Herennium introduces the influential notion of levels of style: the grand style, suitable to the most important and emotionally intense subjects; the middle style, typical of exposition and reasoning; and the simple style, matching everyday informal conversation. A single speech should vary its style, rising, for instance, to the grand style in the emotionally charged conclusion of a speech. Under the notion of forceful expression, the ad Herennium offers the first listing of some 64 devices, including many of the word- and sentence-level figures of speech that are still familiar, but also many other devices that yield paragraph-length units of discourse, accomplishing such goals as vividly describing the consequences of an action (like the fall of a conquered city) or elaborating on a premise–conclusion pair to produce a five-part epicheireme or argument. An even fuller treatment of the levels of style and their abuses, and of the figures and their effects, can be found in Quintilian’s first century CE Institutio oratoria, which summarizes earlier Greek and Latin treatises since lost. For Quintilian, examples of effective language are drawn frequently from the political and forensic speeches of Cicero, whose own rhetorical treatises tend to merely list what were then widely known stylistic devices.
In late antiquity, writers on rhetorical style expanded the notion of levels (grand, middle, simple) into types of style, patterns of language selection that would produce overall effects, such as Hermogenes’ clarity, grandeur, beauty, rapidity, character, sincerity, and force. Scholars in the early modern period, recovering the texts of antiquity with honed philological skills, nevertheless made their own contributions to rhetorical stylistics. They emphasized the goal of amplifying a subject and expanded the taxonomy of rhetorical devices; a typical early modern style manual, like Henry Peacham’s The Garden of eloquence (1593), contains well over 100 figures of speech, many of them codifying potential speech acts that a rhetor might want to achieve.
In the twentieth century, many literary scholars, working in isolation, reinvented pieces of a rhetorical approach to language, but in the process they also achieved fresh insights in new terms. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin introduced the notion of heteroglossia, the amalgamation of different registers characteristic of different genres or discourse communities into a single text, which then becomes a pastiche of multiple voices. The American narrative theorist Wayne Booth and other “reader response” theorists looked at narratives as persuasion, discovering the linguistic dimensions of ethos and pathos in novels, etc. Also in the 1970s and 1980s, a group of British literary scholars, influenced by the linguist M. A. K. Halliday, began to study style in a particularly functional and critical way. These practitioners of literary stylistics, including language critics like Walter Nash and Roger Fowler, eventually turned their attention to non-literary genres, producing useful analyses of style in news reporting, bureaucratic announcements, instructions, and the like.
While the process of recovering and debating the rhetorical tradition is well underway, the work of mining that recovery for principles of effective style accessible in different contexts is patchy. There are many descriptions of rhetorical stylistics in different periods, but no accessible overviews of durable rhetorical principles of style that would be useful to current practitioners in applied fields.
- Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays (ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Booth, W. (1961). The rhetoric of fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Fowler, R. (1996). Linguistic criticism, 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Halliday, M. A. K. (1985). Spoken and written language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Nash, W. (1989). Rhetoric: The wit of persuasion. Oxford: Blackwell.