Review of Rhetorical Style
|AUTHOR: Jeanne Fahnestock
TITLE: Rhetorical Style
SUBTITLE: The Uses of Language in Persuasion
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Jan Henning Schulze, German Linguistics, University of Bamberg, Germany
Jeanne Fahnestock presents a well-written, easy-to-read introduction to the
analysis of rhetorical style. Deeply rooted in the rhetorical tradition,
Fahnestock offers templates for analyzing the persuasive uses of language,
templates backed by modern theories of linguistics, argumentation and rhetorical
style. Her credo, as given in the final chapter, is that stylistic methods are
“the substance of argumentation […], since the material of argument is language”
(p. 414). Thus, this textbook demonstrates, by extensive analysis of numerous
examples, how stylistic means can amplify or diminish the persuasive power of
Since Plato’s scorching criticism of the sophists in ancient Greece, rhetoric
has always had a rather ambivalent reputation. New interest in language-driven
persuasion emerged through the re-establishment of oratory and rhetoric in
current humanities with the works of Toulmin 1958, Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca
1958 and others. Fahnestock now brings together important strands of rhetorical
theorizing under the viewpoint of stylistics and persuasion.
The chapters are organized into four parts: “word choice”, “sentences”,
“interactive dimension”, and “passage construction”. Every chapter is prefaced
with an epigraph, to which special attention should always be paid as these
quotations usually are central to one of the main points of this chapter and are
later on referred to as illustrative examples (this may require some thumbing
back through the book). Central concepts and insights are also reviewed in the
summary that closes each chapter.
Part 1 deals with word choice, starting with a short introduction to the
historical layers of English vocabulary. Though each word triggers a specific
rhetorical effect, its persuasive appeal by and large correlates with the word’s
origin: According to Fahnestock, Old English words of the Germanic core convey
simplicity and sincerity (“food”, “thin”), borrowings from Old French
communicate elegance (“viands”, “gaunt”), while words derived from Latin and
Greek suggest higher degrees of abstraction and formality (“comestibles”,
“emaciated”). Fahnestock goes on to discuss further semantic, morphological and
sociolinguistic categories of word choice such as level of generality, lexical
field, part of speech, register and sociolect. The last two chapters of Part 1
offer a catalogue of classical tropes and figures from synecdoche and metaphor
through hyperbole and irony to polyptoton and agnominatio, each illustrated by
attested examples from texts.
Part 2 explores rhetorical aspects of sentence construction. A whole range of
basic syntactic concepts is introduced and then put to analytic use, e.g. for
describing the rhetorical effects of verb choice under the framework of case
grammar or determining the relative proportion of modification versus
predication to assess the style of a certain writer, passage or sentence.
Fahnestock goes on to show how the architecture of a sentence may be used to put
special emphasis on an element and to reinforce the meaning of a sentence by its
iconic form (also referred to as syntactic symbolism: the word order and the
structure of a sentence support its meaning). This idea is developed further in
the following chapters on figures of argument, series, prosody and punctuation,
where the persuasive effects of parallelism, antithesis, repetition,
conjunction, sentence length and the like are discussed.
Part 3 on the interactive dimension of text production opens with a chapter on
speaker and audience construction via the different uses of the pronouns “I”,
“you”, “we”, etc. It goes on to illuminate some ways of managing communication
in settings with mixed audiences and deals with the interactional aspect of
asking questions. Fahnestock addresses the use (and misuse) of other voices by
direct or indirect quotation as well as the stylistic and persuasive value of
incorporating other voices. And she shows some ways of using deixis to create a
rhetorical occasion or to exploit a specific situation.
Part 4, finally, turns to passage construction by introducing the concepts of
coherence, cohesion, topic, and comment. Here one also finds an appendix on
different kinds of meaning relations that can connect clauses in sentences, e.g.
“chronological sequence”, “exemplification”, “conclusion”, etc., and how these
can be verbally constructed with or without using explicit transition words.
Compositional units and passage patterns (e.g. syllogism and enthymeme),
paratactic sequences vs. hypotactic sequences, and figures of discourse
management (e.g. forecast, enumeration) are explained in terms of the rhetorical
The concluding chapter brings together the book’s basic insights under the
heading of “amplification”. The sublime force of stylistically elaborate texts
is traced back to the word level, the sentence level, the passage level, and to
the constructed situation as a whole. By way of analyzing the last paragraph of
Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, Fahnestock demonstrates how all
these factors contribute to the persuasive power of language.
The style of an argument is typically regarded as a means for polishing its
surface but not as the core of argumentation, e.g. Eemeren 2010. In the present
work, Jeanne Fahnestock stresses the fundamental importance of style in
persuasion. According to her view, what is primarily given by an argument are
linguistic expressions, and these expressions inevitably exhibit a certain style
which can be analyzed by an external observer. Contrary to other approaches to
the analysis of argumentation, Fahnestock proposes multi-leveled stylistic
analyses in order to understand the persuasive effect of an argument. This makes
“Rhetorical Style” a provocative contribution to the study of argumentation, as
the current literature mainly focuses on logical, semantic or pragmatic aspects.
One of this textbook’s strengths lies in developing handy schemas for analyzing
the style of a given piece of text. These schemas are amply illustrated by real
textual examples that are analyzed in detail. The sources of these examples
range from U.S. presidential speeches, e.g. by Jefferson, Lincoln, and
Roosevelt, on to scientific papers, newspaper articles, blogs, and of course
also some literary sources.
Another asset of the book is the broad historical background against which
Fahnestock explains concepts and templates for stylistic analysis. Throughout
the book she draws from theoretical sources across the broad swath of western
written history, including Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Erasmus, Henry
Peacham, Kenneth Burke, and Richard Weaver, to name only a few. Greek and Latin
technical terms are always introduced first and then used consistently
throughout the book, though not every student might embrace the use of foreign
words like “epicheireme”, “ratiocinatio” or “syllepsis”.
This book, of course, is not a book about linguistics. There are, however,
several references to linguistic theories, e.g. Fillmore 1968 and Cook 1989 on
case grammar, Halliday & Hasan 1976 on cohesion, Grice 1989 on pragmatic
principles, Leech & Short 1981 on iconic form. Fahnestock shows how these
linguistic concepts can be put to good use to establish and explain stylistic
There is not much to criticize, though the inclusion of dialogic communication
might have been an interesting addition. The book exclusively addresses
unidirectional communication, and the templates and examples, accordingly, are
monologic in nature -- also in the chapters on the interactive dimension of
argumentation. Although the neglect of dialogic communication is very much in
line with rhetorical tradition, this textbook might have broadened its domain
significantly by including the contribution of style to persuasion in
discussions, interviews, negotiations, etc.
Another remark relates to the impression that an argument should become more
persuasive by adding more and more figures and tropes. This is because
Fahnestock says little about the rhetorical virtue of “aptum” (i.e. the
appropriate use of figures and tropes) or about the persuasive effect of simple
style in argumentation. Furthermore, Fahnestock’s explanations are
comprehensible, but more often than not they are based on common sense. What I
would welcome is an overall theoretical framework that could show how stylistic
features systematically relate to persuasive effects. But those are simply
suggestions for future research.
Lastly, two minor errata: p. 67 “the indefinite question was always more
comprehensive […] than the indefinite” should read “than the definite”; p. 401
“Of all things nothing is better governed that the universe” should read “than
Overall, “Rhetorical Style” is a rich and rewarding textbook that shows how
stylistic features make for persuasion. It provides readers with a good
introduction to the study of figures in the sense of classical rhetoric.
Cook, W.A. (1989). Case Grammar Theory. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Eemeren, F.H. van (2010). Strategic maneuvering in argumentative discourse:
Extending the pragma-dialectical theory of argumentation. Argumentation in
context, Vol. 2. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Fillmore, C.J. (1968). The Case for Case. In E. Bach & R.T. Harms (Eds.),
Universals in Linguistic Theory (pp. 1-88). New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Grice, H.P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
Halliday, M.A.K., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
Leech, G.N., & Short, M.H. (1981). Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction
to English Fictional Prose. London: Longman.
Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1958). Traité de l'argumentation: La
nouvelle rhétorique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Toulmin, S.E. (1958). The uses of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jan Henning Schulze holds a Dr. phil. in Linguistics. He currently works as
a postdoc in the Department of German Linguistics at the University of
Bamberg, Germany. His primary research interests lie in linguistic and
cognitive aspects of argumentation theory and rhetoric, especially verbally
mediated persuasion. He also does research in historical phonology and has
published a book on Old High German i-umlaut.