In “The Sense of Style,” Steven Pinker takes on the role of writing instructor. This book review examines Pinker’s writing lessons for amateurs AND masters.
Do you have a way with words? Ever been told you can “turn a phrase”? Realize it or not you might be naturally adept at using figures of speech. You’re in good company. Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Homer Simpson: All masters of figures of speech. Join Twitter right now.
Broadly speaking a figure of speech is a word or phrase that, in context, is used metaphorically or non-literally. They can add flavor and memorability to your rhetoric and make you sound like Abe Lincoln in his prime. Invest in a top hat. Master figures and you master style.
Ancient rhetoricians and modern linguists have extensively cataloged these poetic flourishes. There are hundreds! But don’t start packing your Tweets, Facebook posts, or YouTube videos with all manners of lexical twists and turns. True, using figures can make you sound like a rhetorical genius, but the overuse of figures can make you sound like a pretentious jerk.
Let’s take a look at these stylistic gems:
Peanut butter and jelly. Gin and tonic. Talking heads and online videos. Some things are just made for each other. Other things…not so much. And unfortunately two things that don’t often correspond are well-constructed arguments and YouTube.
We’ve lost our culture of rhetoric—that is, we’ve lost the ability to reason well and eloquently. YouTube ranters are particularly heinous offenders, taking to the medium in droves with long-winded diatribes, semi-coherent arguments, and a penchant for personal attacks. There’s a lot of #ArgumentJunk. Stuff that mimics an argument but doesn’t really count.
Luckily this guy named Cicero developed a method for constructing arguments in 55 B.C. No one has topped him since, IMHO. So before you make your next YouTube video, consider these five steps (or “canons“) to build your argument: