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Readings on Rhetoric and Prose Style

A collection of essays and lectures on rhetoric and English prose style by Jonathan Swift, H.L. Mencken, William Hazlitt, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others.

The Art of Persuasion, by John Quincy Adams
Before becoming the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams served for two years as the first Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard University. In this excerpt from lecture 11, Adams discusses audience and ethos in deliberative rhetoric.

On Rhetoric, or the Art of Eloquence, by Francis Bacon
In chapter 18 of the second part of "The Advancement of Learning," Francis Bacon offers a defense of rhetoric, whose "duty and office," he says, "is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will."

Julian Barnes on the Style Police
In the preface to "Letters From London," Barnes describes how his essays were meticulously "clipped and styled" by editors and fact-checkers at "The New Yorker" magazine. Here he reports on the activities of the anonymous copy editors--the "style police."

For Brevity and Clarity, by Ambrose Bierce
In this humorous essay on ways to "improve" the English language, Bierce proposes the adoption of certain "simple and rational devices": what we now call blends and emoticons.

Teaching the Essay: The British Essayists, by Emma Miller Bolenius
As educator Emma Miller Bolenius demonstrates in this survey, the essay has provided a rich variety of literary pleasures over the centuries. "Teaching the Essay" is a slightly abbreviated version of a study that was first published in 1915.

Teaching the Essay: America and the Essay, by Emma Miller Bolenius
"Teaching the Essay" by Emma Miller Bolenius is a slightly abbreviated version of a survey that was first published in 1915. Following her study of British essayists, she concludes with these two sections: "America and the Essay" and "Composition and the Essay."

The Colours of Style, by James Burnett, Lord Monboddo
In this brief excerpt from Gordon's six-volume study "Of the Origin and Progress of Language" (1773-1792), he identifies the two parts of style: word choice and composition.

Out With the Dilettante, by Henry Seidel Canby
In this short essay on American essays and essayists (originally published in 1922), editor Henry Seidel Canby argues that a "new epoch of the American essay is well under way."

The Essay, by G. K. Chesterton
The author of more than 4,000 essays, G.K. Chesterton was eminently qualified to write on "The Essay."

Teaching the Figures of Speech in Movies
Drawing on N. Roy Clifton's book "The Figure in Film," we look at several examples of visual metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech in movies.

On English Prose, by Arthur Clutton-Brock
In this review essay, British critic Arthur Clutton-Brock identifies the characteristics of what he considers "the best prose" in English.

Outside Literature, by Joseph Conrad
In this essay, originally published in 1922, novelist and master mariner Joseph Conrad considers the merits of a prose style significantly different from his own.

Of Eloquence, by Oliver Goldsmith
In this essay on the art of rhetoric, Oliver Goldsmith challenges the conventional wisdom that effective oratory depends foremost on complex sentence structures and the sophisticated use of figurative language. Instead he advocates a "plain, open, loose style," particularly when addressing the "vulgar" on matters of faith and morality.

A Note on the Writer's Craft, by John Erskine
"Write with nouns and verbs," say Strunk and White in "The Elements of Style," "not with adjectives and adverbs." Yet in this passage from an essay published in 1946, John Erskine challenges that conventional piece of advice. "What you wish to say is not found in the noun," he argues, "but in what you add to qualify the noun."

Of Loquacity and Tediousness in Discourse, by Owen Felltham
In this short essay, Felltham blends forceful figures of speech with uncommon directness and straightforward diction.

Imitating the Style of the "Spectator," by Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin describes an experiment in stylistic imitation that would have been quite familiar to students of rhetoric in ancient Greece and Rome.

William H. Gass on Writing With Lists
In his remarkable essay on the conjunction "AND" ("Habitations of the Word," 1985), author William H. Gass describes the list as "one of the essential elements of a truly contemporary style."

The Graces of Prose
Here are Robert Graves and Alan Hodge's 16 principles concerning the "graceful conveyance" of information.

Some Historians, by Philip Guedalla
In the essay "Some Historians," Philip Guedalla's irreverent tone and witty, epigrammatic style stand in contrast to the formulaic writing that he parodies.

On Familiar Style, by William Hazlitt
In "On Familiar Style," English essayist William Hazlitt explains his preference for "plain words and popular modes of construction."

Ten Things You Should Know About Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" Speech
What was the original title of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech"? Who helped him write it? Which parts of the speech were improvised? Learn more about the most significant American political speech of the 20th century.

Samuel Johnson on the Bugbear Style
Richard Lanham reintroduced the Greek word "skotison" (literally, "darken") to describe writing that is deliberately obscure--writing in which, as Samuel Johnson observed, "the most familiar propositions [are] so disguised that they cannot be known." Johnson's own name for this "terrific" and "repulsive" kind of prose is "the bugbear style."

On English Composition, by Charles Kingsley
In this address to the young women of Queen's College, London, Charles Kingsley discusses his views on style and outlines his method of teaching composition, a plan that includes class discussions of students' original works.

Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing, by David Hume
In the essay "Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing," Hume considers the merits and deficiencies of the ornamented Asiatic style of writing in contrast to the plainer Attic style.

Clive James on Sentence Styles
A well-known television and radio presenter in England, Clive James is the author of more than 20 books of essays, criticism, poetry, and fiction. The following observations on style originally appeared in his postscript to an essay written 20 years earlier on British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.

On the Style of Jonathan Swift, by Samuel Johnson
After reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal," decide if you agree with Samuel Johnson's assessment of Swift's writing style.

On Conciseness of Style in Writing and Conversation, by Vicesimus Knox
In this essay, Vicesimus Knox argues that one of the effects of concise writing and speaking may lie in "the pleasure which a reader, or spectator, takes in having something left for his own sagacity to discover."

H.L. Mencken's Hyperbolic Prose Style
Though Mencken died ("deoxidized," he would say) over half a century ago, his rip-roaring style--witty, combative, yet graceful--continues to "stir up the animals" and attract fresh admirers.

On Inscriptions and the Lapidary Style, by Vicesimus Knox
British essayist Vicesimus Knox examines the lapidary style, a spare form of writing that has been "polished and cut to the point of transparency."

The Rhythm of Prose, by Robert Ray Lorant
Originally published in 1920 under the title "Free Prose," this essay examines some of the "easily recognizable bit[s] of rhythm" in a variety of prose passages.

Ten Principles of Effective Writing: F.L. Lucas on Style
In his book "Style," F.L. Lucas offered the following basic principles to "shorten that painful process" of learning how to write better.

On Sadler's Bombastic Declamations, by Thomas Babington Macaulay
Thomas Macaulay's merciless attack on the "bombastic" style and "foolish" substance of Michael Sadler's book "The Law of Population" stands as a marvelous specimen of spirited invective.

Of Figures of Speech, by Lindley Murray (1817)
Though hardly a definitive study even for its time, Lindley Murray's treatment of the major figures of speech contains some enduring insights and illuminating examples.

The Style of Woodrow, by H.L. Mencken
In this book review from 1921, H.L. Mencken attacks the empty oratory of the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

Of the Vanity of Words, by Michel de Montaigne
In this essay, Montaigne equates eloquence with bombast and deception. The "stupidity" of the common people, he says, makes them "subject to be turned and twined and led by the ears by this charming harmony of words, without weighing or considering the truth and reality of things by the force of reason."

In Praise of Clichés, by Wright Morris
In this passage from his third volume of memoirs, Wright Morris recalls a discovery he made while writing his award-winning novel "The Field of Vision." Creating genuine vernacular voices for his characters meant that he had to employ "the very clichés [he] had so often ridiculed."

John Henry Newman on Language and Literature
In these excerpts from "The Idea of a University," Cardinal Newman discusses the inseparability of style and substance.

Simplicity in Art, by Frank Norris
In "Simplicity in Art," Norris's opening anecdote concerning a silver ladle functions as an analogy in his discussion of the plain style in the remainder of the essay.

Fine Writing, by Logan Pearsall Smith
In these excerpts from "Fine Writing," originally published in 1936 by the Society for Pure English, essayist Logan Pearsall Smith argues that the art of writing imaginative prose can be learned "by any one who will take the trouble."

Poetry in Prose: Walter Pater on the Imaginative Literature of Fact
In the opening pages of the essay "Style" (1888), Walter Pater rejected the strict "opposition of poetry to prose" and acknowledged the aesthetic value of "the literature of fact"--which would come to be known in the 20th century as creative nonfiction.

"Murder Your Darlings": Quiller-Couch on Style
While serving as a professor of English at Cambridge University, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch published a series of lectures titled On the Art of Writing (1916). In these excerpts from his lecture "On Style," Q discusses the dangers of "fine writing," advising students to "Murder your darlings."

The English Manner of Discourse, by Thomas Sprat
In this excerpt from the History of the Royal Society (1667), poet and publicist Thomas Sprat advocates the use of a "scientific" prose style.

The False Refinements in Our Style, by Jonathan Swift
Originally untitled, Swift's witty complaint about "the continual corruption of our English tongue" has been reprinted under various names, including "Against Bad English."

Copia: Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style
To learn more about "copia," let's see how a 20th-century French author applied this ancient rhetorical strategy.

Synonyms and Variety of Expression, by Walter Alexander Raleigh
This discussion of synonyms (along with the stylistic vice that Henry Fowler would later call "elegant variation") originally appeared in "Style" (1897), Raleigh's short book on "an art . . . bewildering in its variety."

How the French Boy Learns to Write, by Rollo Walter Brown
In these excerpts from Rollo Brown's study of the French school system a century ago, he describes the practice that we now call "writing across the curriculum" and discusses the benefits that accompany one particular teaching strategy--dictation.

Punctuation in Prose, by Gertrude Stein
In this excerpt from the lecture "Poetry and Grammar," Stein exhibits her famously repetitive style while offering her thoughts on the marks of punctuation.

Swift on Style: Keep It Simple
Widely regarded as one of the finest prose stylists in English, Jonathan Swift once defined style as "Proper words in proper places." But who's to say what's "proper"--and just what does Swift's maxim really mean? To find out, let's return to the source.

Truth of Intercourse, by Robert Louis Stevenson
In the essay "Truth of Intercourse," Robert Louis Stevenson reflects on the nature of sincerity and the art of effective communication

Good Casual Prose
Good casual prose--writing that's simple, direct, and informal--doesn't have to be sloppy, choppy, cutesy, or clichéd. Quite the opposite, as these professional writers make clear.

Lionel Trilling on Mark Twain's Colloquial Prose Style
In this excerpt from his essay on "Huckleberry Finn," Lionel Trilling discusses the "robust purity" of Mark Twain's prose style and its influence on "almost every contemporary American writer."

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences, by Mark Twain
In one of the best known critical essays in English, Mark Twain comically attacks the renowned author of "The Deerslayer" for his poverty of invention, "inaccurate observation," and "a word-sense" that is "singularly dull."

A Vigorous Prose Style by Henry David Thoreau
In this metaphorically rich passage, Thoreau discusses the virtues of a plain style, arguing that "steady labor with the hands" is the the most effective way of "removing palaver and sentimentality out of one's style, both of speaking and writing."

Passages on English Prose Style
Some of the key principles underlying an effective style have proved remarkably enduring. With this thought in mind, we present five passages from our collection of Readings on Rhetoric and Prose Style.

Mark Twain on Students' Compositions at Tom Sawyer's School
With customary comic scorn, Mark Twain recalls the formulaic nature of students' "original" compositions, which were ornamented with purple prose and weighed down with tiresome moral bromides.

Dr. Mardy Grothe's Mountain of Metaphors
Dr. Mardy Grothe has assembled the largest and most authoritative collection of metaphors, similes, and analogies on the Web.

Pure Word Music: How to Write Like P.G. Wodehouse
Enjoy these passages from the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse--a sampler of his favorite stylistic tricks and rhetorical strategies.

Kurt Vonnegut on Writing with Style
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., offers some deceptively simple principles on writing with style.

Hyperbole, by William S. Walsh
One of the most entertaining sections of William S. Walsh's "Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities" (1892) is his discussion of hyperbole, with some wonderfully outsized examples drawn from literature, history, and journalism.

Pathos and Persuasion: The Validity of Emotional Appeals
As Richard Whately acknowledges in these excerpts from chapter two of "Elements of Rhetoric" (7th ed., 1846), his reflections on the validity of emotional appeals (known in classical rhetoric as pathos) show the influence of both Aristotle and the notable Scottish rhetorician George Campbell.

Words, by Agnes Repplier
As you read the essay "Words" (originally published in 1896), consider what Agnes Repplier reveals about her own tastes in literary subject matter and style.

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