Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist. Rhetorician. All Around Swell Guy.

Pinker’s Sensible Style [Book Review]

To write good is hard. ::ahem:: Pardon me. To consistently write well is hard. ::ugh:: Let me try again. To write consistently well is hard. (Or is it, “To write well consistently…”?) ::sigh::

Enter Steven Pinker, psycholinguist, cognitive scientist, and author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014). Pinker is a prolific writer with books on a variety of topics: language, violence, human nature, and the mechanics of the mind. Heady stuff.

In The Sense of Style Pinker takes on the role of writing instructor—a compelling one at that. His guidance feels more like notes from a trusted mentor than a tome of commandments. He excels at making style relevant and interesting, two qualities seldom associated with composition pedagogy. In fact Pinker positions himself as a sort-of “anti-GrammarNazi,” a “Grammar Ally” interested in both prescriptive and descriptive assessments of modern writing.

Let’s dig in:

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The iPad Question: Where Do Rhetorical Situations Come From?

Steve Jobs with Apple's iPad. Photo by Flickr user Matt Buchanan.No one needed an iPad before they needed one. Or did they need it and just not know? Is there a difference? Asked differently, did Steve Jobs fill a need or create one?

The answer isn’t simple, and how you think about the issue can reveal a lot about your view of knowledge, persuasion, and even reality. We’re gettin’ deep!

In the field of rhetoric, the iPad question looks more like this: How do rhetorical situations happen? Do we create rhetorical situations or do they exist in the world waiting to be found?

To refresh, a rhetorical situation (as defined by Lloyd Bitzer) is:

“A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.”

Whoa. What does that mean in English?

A rhetorical situation is a context in which a successful argument can occur. The important parts of a rhetorical situation are a problem that can be solved with rhetoric (can’t argue with the weather), an audience that can be persuaded (can’t argue with zombies), and a context convenient for rhetoric (can’t argue during a loud rock concert). For a thorough explanation, check out my introduction to rhetorical situations.

If and only if you have all of those elements, you can respond with an argument.

Bitzer argued that rhetors find rhetorical problems (or exigences) in the world, and respond by resolving them. Voila! Rhetorical situation. But another scholar, Richard Vatz, argued that rhetorical situations are created by the rhetor and are not found “out there” in the world.

Per usual, both academics are wrong. And they’re a little bit right. (They’re wrought.) Let me explain…

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[Figure Friday] Apophasis: The “Lantern” Figure

I probably shouldn’t mention that “lantern” is a stretch for a Halloween post. So I won’t.

Apophasis (eh-PA-fuh-sis) [trope] – Invoking a topic by denying it or by saying it shouldn’t be brought up.

 Eamon: It would be petty of me to bring up my ex-wife’s various indiscretions. I’ll rise above such paltry rhetoric in this court of law.

As a simple form of irony, apophasis is often quite funny. It’s a way to say something without saying it and a great way to “hang a lantern” on a situation. Politicians love it, especially when they make a silly mistake. (Or when they want to attack their opponent, of course.)

Verna: By now you’ve all heard the news, but don’t expect me to talk about that controversial tweet an intern accidentally sent last night. There’s no way I’m throwing MARK SMITH under the bus. We just have too much respect for our team, especially INTERN MARK SMITH, to bring up one tiny, if hilariously truthful, mistake about my opponent’s hatred of strong women. But I’m not going to talk about that.

“Hanging a lantern,” a kind of apophasis, is a term often used in an entertainment context to describe when someone breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges something like an inconsistency in the art or obvious insanity but without directly mentioning it. “Hanging a lantern” can definitely make you more likable to an audience.

For example, in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Basil “hangs a lantern” on the ridiculousness of the plot.

Austin: So, Basil, if I travel back to 1969 and I was frozen in 1967, presumably I could go back and look at my frozen self. But, if I’m still frozen in 1967, how could I have been unthawed in the nineties and traveled back to the—oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.
Basil: I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself. (Looking at the camera.) That goes for you all, too.

Rhetorically Basil builds the ethos of the film by indirectly pointing out to the audience that the filmmakers understand and share their concerns. Something like this wouldn’t work in a serious drama, but in a comedy setting it might turn a skeptical audience member into a diehard fan.

But rhetors giving a serious speech shouldn’t dismiss “hanging a lantern” on what might be an otherwise uncomfortable situation.

Esau: I didn’t come here to talk about my past, but about the future of our country.

And somehow (amazingly) “hanging a lantern” on your accomplishments through apophasis doesn’t sound overwhelmingly conceited when done with pizazz.

“I’m not saying I’m responsible for this country’s longest run of uninterrupted peace in 35 years! I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a phoenix metaphor been more personified! I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across anyone man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day! It’s not about me.”
– Tony Stark (Iron Man 2)

I won’t say this post is great, but it did mention both Austin Powers and Iron Man. Just (not) sayin’.

Happy persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]

[Figure Friday] Metonymy: The “Don’t Be Literal” Figure

Friends, Romans, countrymen…keep your ears. Just give me your attention.

Metonymy (meh-TAHN-uh-me) [trope] – Referring to a thing by a related concept.

EvanThe Patriots didn’t look so great in their first game. [Instead of individual players]
Vinney: All of them?
Evan: Well, not every single one. I was using metonymy.
Vinney: Watch your mouth! [Instead of language]
Evan: Exactly.

We use metonymy all the time. And we all have friends who think they’re funny by taking it literally:

Waiter: The quail is our finest dish. [Instead of entrée.]
Annoying friend: Are you sure? Dishes aren’t very tasty!
Waiter: How droll.

Don’t be that guy. This is definitely a figure not to take literally.

Also don’t confuse metonymy with metaphor. While metaphors try to show similarities between two concepts, metonyms don’t require any similarity at all.

The White House‘s ISIS strategy is still unclear. [Instead of President Obama]

When we refer to the actions of the president as coming from “the White House,” we’re not saying that Barack Obama looks like a building in Washington, DC.

Metonyms are most effective when they’re unexpected, since many of the common metonyms are now clichés. Try to be creative!

Why do we love bacon? Because science. [Instead of evolutionary biology & nutrition]

Just try to be more creative than me. Happy persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]

Eulogy for Thomas

You’re worthy of what they say about you, grandpa. Even if you were never good at taking a compliment.

“A great man.”
“A man of integrity.”
“The greatest man I’ve ever known.”

You would shrug off such praise with pressed lips and scowl, a gentle shake of your head, and a raised hand.

A common thread, though, the word no one neglects in their praise is “MAN.” Because you were such a shining example. Certainly, you were the one who taught me what it meant.

You used to ask me a lot: “Would I lie!?” And my “of course” was as expected as my smile and laugh. Because the underlying question (“To me?”) I never had to ask. And you never had to answer, “Of course not.”

You had an answer for all my questions. Even if the answer was, “I don’t know.” That’s a profound thing for a boy to hear from someone who could engineer anything or debate any topic, from a man whose tales from around the world seemed wildly exotic compared to the corn and beans.

“Grandpa, what does ‘inconsequential’ mean?” I remember asking. I found a middle-schooler’s joy in testing your grammar, a man who bragged about never having gone to college. It wasn’t out of superiority but out of respect. Because you always knew. And you always knew *with style.*

“Inconsequential?” you said. “It doesn’t mean shit.”

You loved your family and expressed it how you could, usually through actions more than words—seldom with a kiss, sometimes with gifts, but more so with commitment. Through vacations to Florida and spur of the moment adoptions or road trips to monuments your kids were too young to appreciate—you committed yourself.

Even when it was hard, when the rest of us wanted anything but to stay, that’s exactly what you did.

You said to me once, during a particularly difficult week of hospital visits and late nights by grandma’s side, “When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. What else is there?” And you let out an exasperated exhale. Not a sigh. But preparation for a deep breath. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

To me, grandpa, you could not have been a sinner if that word has any real meaning. For whatever your transgressions you repented and repaid 1000 times over. With your commitment, your love, and the way you made everyone around you feel like a friend. Through endless stories about stealing cars, pulling a BB gun on a cop, Sgt. Major Leech, the Zebra Club in Okinawa, RV road trips, grandma freaking out in a dark cave, Florida alligators, bar fights, or Kraus the Mouse.

“Gratitude” doesn’t express how deeply I thank you for everything you’ve ever done and will still do for me. And yet you were somehow always content with a simple “thanks” or a hug or my own expression of love or, when I forget to express it, a mere wave goodbye. You deserved so much more from me and the world. You deserved so much more happiness and freedom and honesty and time, and I regret that I can give but a “thanks.”

But just a few months ago, when we sat on the porch at night telling and re-telling countless stories, you stopped and paused. And you said so clearly and without a hint of guilt: “I have no regrets, Danny. If I had to do it again, I would do everything the same way. I loved my life.”

There is no greater lesson for being a man. Or for living.

Thank you, grandpa. I love you. Semper Fi.

4 Ends of Discourse: Understand, Dream, Feel, Act

Preach, rhetors! Sing the praises of persuasion far and wide. Spread the eloquent word like George Campbell, Scottish minister and philosopher. His book, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, situated the art within the age of enlightenment, and helped transition rhetoric from the era of Aristotle into a modern context. Thanks, Pastor Campbell!

Among his sophisticated contributions to rhetoric, Campbell’s four ends of discourse are his most well known. What is the purpose of rhetoric? Campbell answers:

“All the ends of speaking are reducible to four; every speech being intended to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions or to influence the will.”

In other words, discourse can move us to understand, dream, feel, or act.

Why is this important? Because the purpose of your discourse—what it can do and what you want it to do—should affect its form and flourish. It’s hard to get someone to act, for instance, if you’re using arguments better suited for understanding.

I already discussed some of these ends as they relate to your motivation to persuade, but let’s have a look at what they mean for content and style…

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Not Everything Is an Argument

Rectangles on a blue background. An excellent demonstration of the shape tool in Photoshop. Yet this painting sells for hundreds of dollars. It may be fine decoration for a Nieman Marcus, but it’s not art.

Indignant Ian: How dare you, man! Who are you to say what is and isn’t art?

A thinking man, that’s who.

It’s a “habit” of mine to use my mind for the purposes of definition and categorization. You may not like my output, and I’m open to hearing your argument, but I’m willing, able, and ready to make a judgement call in this case. Those shapes aren’t art.

One thing I know for sure is that art is something. It’s not everything. (Then it would be nothing.) Art has characteristics, attributes, features. Art has a definition.

Likewise, something I hear all the time when I talk about rhetoric is that “everything is an argument.” ::sigh:: No, it’s not.

Your Wifi key is not an argument. The Florida Keyes are not an argument. Alicia Keyes is not an argument.  Arguments, like art, are something. I’ve covered what they are in previous posts, and I’ll continue to do so. But I want to take some time to discuss other kinds of discourse. What you can engage in if you’re not making an argument.

In composition studies, there are traditionally four categories of discourse:

  • Exposition
  • Description
  • Narration
  • Argument (not covered in this post)

Let’s look at the characteristics and distinguishing features of each:

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The “Mere Rhetoric” Podcast

Mere Rhetoric podcastFor anyone interested in learning more about the practice of rhetoric, its history, or theories, check out the Mere Rhetoric podcast.

It’s hosted by Mary Hedengren. Each week she introduces a new rhetorical idea or influential rhetor. I always learn something new! (Yes, it’s possible.)

This week she covers one of my favorite concepts: Rhetorical Situations. And yours truly gets a shout out for suggesting the topic.

You can listen on the Mere Rhetoric website or through iTunes.