Speech Criticism, the Development of Standards for Rhetorical Appraisal

By Lester Thonssen; A. Craig Baird | Go to book overview

Chapter 15
THE STYLE OF PUBLIC ADDRESS

The Problem of Style

Joseph Addison once remarked that "there is not so variable a thing in nature as a lady's hairdress." Perhaps he should have added, unless it be the concept of style. Surely no term has been bandied about more freely, or has provoked a fuller measure of controversy. This chapter is intended neither as a refutation of previous claims, nor as a statement of an original thesis. Rather, it represents both a survey and, it is hoped, a common sense point of view which should help to orient the critic in his task of assessing the style of public address.

Style, said Hugh Blair, is "the peculiar manner in which a man expresses his conceptions, by means of Language." This definition affords a useful point of departure because it stresses the relation between thought and language. As Blair observes, "Style has always some reference to an author's manner of thinking. It is a picture of the ideas which rise in his mind, and of the manner in which they rise there; . . ." So "style is nothing else than that sort of expression which our thoughts most readily assume."1 All of which is an indorsement of Quintilian's dictum that we should bestow great care on expression,

provided we bear in mind that nothing is to be done for the sake of words, as words themselves were invented for the sake of things, and as those words are the most to be commended which express our thoughts best, and produce the impression which we desire on the minds of the judges. 2

The functional idea introduced by Quintilian is significant. It postulates style as an indivisible element of the process of persuasion, and focuses attention upon what language does, rather than exclusively upon what it is. John F. Genung emphasizes this thesis by saying that style is "the skillful adaptation of expression to thought."3 And the nature of subject matter determines the extent to which style becomes an operative influence. Certain facts such

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