Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Professor Farnsworth's guide to rhetoric and persuasion

Have you purchased your copy of Farnsworth's Guide to Classical English Rhetoric (2010) by B.U. Law Professor Ward Farnsworth? If not, check out the boffo reviews here courtesy of Amazon as well as this one from the Washington Post.

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.

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.”

Hat tip to the ABA Journal.


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