Rhetorically speaking: Farnsworth’s guide to verbal persuasion

Soon, all across this fair land, assembled multitudes of young people will sit restlessly listening to commencement addresses. On such solemn occasions, the distinguished speakers, as they look out upon the bright, shining faces of the graduating classes, typically feel obliged to do more than just talk and tell jokes. Instead, they declaim, they orate, they moralize, they rise to the heights of what is commonly called rhetoric. “Let not this generation be one which . . . ” “Into your capable hands I bequeath to you this challenge.” “Go forth with eager heart and sturdy mind.”

Fundamentally, rhetoric is the art of persuasion, embracing all those verbal tricks, patternings and syntactic subtleties used to gain assent from an audience. Yet insofar as any speech varies from the ordinary, we instinctively tend to be suspicious of it. Can such elevated, slightly artificial discourse be sincere? Aren’t we being persuaded by false tugs on our heartstrings or faulty logic dazzlingly presented? Thus, rhetoric is widely regarded as the tool of the fast-talking scam artist, the sleek courtroom showman, the rising political demagogue.

(Michael Dirda/Book World) - "Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric" by Ward Farnsworth

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In fact, as Ward Farnsworth — a professor of law at Boston University — demonstrates in his witty handbook, the various rhetorical techniques are actually the organizing principles behind vivid writing and speech. Unfortunately, because too few of us know Latin and Greek, the terminology describing these devices can seem off-puttingly alien. So “Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric” offers pronunciation guidance, as well as definition: “Anaphora (a-na-pho-ra) occurs when the speaker repeats the same words at the start of successive sentences or clauses.”

More important, this handbook also provides a slew of examples to reveal how great writers have added force and color to their sentences by employing these tropes or figures (as they are sometimes called). Chiasmus, for instance, “occurs when words or other elements are repeated with their order reversed.” John Kennedy’s most famous sentence is built on chiasmus: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Notice that the president also employed anaphora in the initial repetition of the word “ask.” By contrast, repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a series of sentences is called epistrophe. Dan Quayle once boldly likened himself to John Kennedy, provoking Lloyd Bentsen, who was running against him for vice president, to protest: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy; I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Farnsworth points out that here “the repeated element, Jack Kennedy, is put at the front rather than the end of the third clause, then moved back to the end for the finish. The variety adds to the force of the device when it resumes.” Farnsworth concludes that “the general purposes of epistrophe tend to be similar to those of anaphora, but the sound is different, and often a bit subtler, because the repetition does not become evident until each time a sentence or clause ends.”

In anadiplosis, the close of one sentence or phrase is picked up to become the first part of the following sentence or phrase. Farnsworth cites “A Christmas Carol,” when Marley’s ghost says of the chain he wears: “I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” To better appreciate sentence rhythm, Farnsworth suggests that the student “mentally rewrite passages as they might have otherwise been composed and to ask what is gained and lost. This last passage from Dickens could have been written with anaphora (of my own free will I girded it on, and of my own free will I wore it) or epistrophe (I girded it on of my own free will, and I wore it of my own free will). Instead he uses anadiplosis to put the repetition on the inside rather than at the start or finish; this keeps the choices made by the speaker in the more prominent start and end positions, and so makes them strong while still stressing the common feature they share — the free will, which is repeated in succession. Anadiplosis also creates a different cadence than the other devices: a march up the hill and back down again.”

Many sentences or passages contain more than one figure. Isocolon, for instance, is “the use of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases similar in length and parallel in structure.” When I wrote “they declaim, they orate, they moralize,” this parallelism shows isocolon (as well as anaphora). Farnsworth warns that “an excessive or clumsy use” of isocolon can create “too glaring a finish and too strong a sense of calculation.”

Of the 18 rhetorical forms that this book emphasizes, I myself am fondest of polysyndeton and asyndeton. The first is the repetition of conjunctions, as in this extended example from Thoreau: “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.” In contrast, asyndeton shows the avoidance of a conjunction when it might be expected: “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” Insert an “and” before that last phrase and see — or rather hear — how much weaker Lincoln’s sentence becomes.

I haven’t the space here to describe praeteritio, in which “the speaker describes what he will not say, and so says it, or at least a bit of it” — but I have just illustrated its use. Still now that I think about it further, I will discuss praeteritio, or at least write this sentence to demonstrate metanoia, in which a speaker changes his mind about whatever has just been said. No doubt, by this point some readers have already made up their own minds that “Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric” is altogether too arcane. Yet it isn’t really (prolepsis — anticipating an objection and meeting it). Admittedly, the book is not what you’d call an easy read (litotes — affirming something by denying its opposite), but it generously repays the attention you give it.

Let me close with an example of hypophora — asking a question and then answering it: Should you buy “Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric”? If you’re at all interested in the techniques of writing, yes. At the very least, you’ll learn that that last sentence, with its inversion of the usual word order — “yes” at the end instead of the beginning of the sentence — is an instance of anastrophe.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.


By Ward Farnsworth.

Godine. 253 pp. $26.95

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