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Webster’s dictionary defines it as “the art or science of using words effectively in speaking or writing, especially the art or science of literary composition.” The word “effectively” in this definition is a relative matter. What is effective in one context may be entirely different in another cultural setting. Different languages differ in their rhetorical styles – that is, in the way that they use language to accomplish various purposes. People can be trained in this skill. It is the art or the technique of persuasion, used by orators (public speakers), writers and media.
Its origin was in Ancient Greece of the 5th century. They made their decisions by speaking for or against proposals in a public place. Also, speeches were made when a person was accused of a serious crime before the magistrates. Because rhetoric was so important to them, the Greeks and Romans wrote about how to be a good rhetorician. This is sometimes called 'secondary rhetoric'. It is a technique which can be taught, and used in writing. An early example is Plato, who wrote his works in the form of dialogues. Each question raised is discussed between two characters. In the ancient world, the Romans, who were much influenced by the ancient Greeks, also used the same methods for decision-making. Cicero was one of their famous orators. In their case, the debates did not involve all citizens, just the Roman Senate or the courts.
In medieval universities rhetoric was taught as part of the curriculum. Rhetoric, dialectic and grammar form the trivium which, with the quadrivium, make up the seven liberal arts of Western culture. During Antiquity and the Middle Ages, rhetoric was used for persuasion in public and political arenas, and also in the courts of justice. The words 'rhetoric' or 'sophism' are often used with a negative meaning, of disinformation or propaganda. As the art of persuasion, the rhetoric continues to be important in present-day public life. They are also used to describe a speech with doubtful or slanted arguments. Several hundred rhetorical figures were recognised by classical rhetoricians. Some of these are still in use, such as metaphor, simile and paradox.
In the modern world, speeches made on television, ideas embedded in advertisements or in front of crowds are all rhetorics. They speak to people directly with the intention of persuading them. Before World War II, radio and print media were powerful tools for rhetoric. The newspapers and books persuade readers towards a particular point of view. Rhetoric does not depend only on a live audience.
According to Aristotle, a rhetoric has three elements in persuasion:
- Ethos: depends on the personal character of the speaker (must appear good, worthy of trust).
- Pathos: puts the audience in a fit state of mind (stirs their emotions).
- Logos: proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech (the actual argument).
A 1988 study was conducted by Söter in Australia among students who were native speakers of Arabic, Vietnamese and English. The sample, 6th and 11th grade students were asked to write a bedtime story for a young child. Patterns were immediately evident in the different approaches used by the student's in the story writing task.
The Vietnamese stories placed primary focus on characters and the relationships between them (manifested in a great proportion of dialog). English stories placed primary focus on the sequential forward movement of the plot. Arabic stories placed primary focus on descriptive elements of the setting.
Contrastive rhetorics says that people who share a common language might have different rhetoric styles due the influence of culture and exchanges. The discourse goes beyond the target language's native forms of discourse organization or rhetoric.
A paraphrasing task study was done in the USA among Chinese and Russian students. American students were easily able to paraphrase, but Chinese students found it hard, perhaps due to their academic environment influenced by Confucian traditions. Russian students struggled with the paraphrasing because norm in Russian academic environment was that students are only required to read and describe, and was not required to give a personal interpretation or an opinion.
U.S. rhetorical style: ethnocentric sources describe it as typically direct and relatively logical.
Some very witty things have been said against orators and their rhetoric:
- Plato: "The orator is one who intends to mislead another, without being misled himself".
- Kant: "Oratory is the art of playing for one's own purpose upon the weaknesses of men, and merits no respect whatever".
- "Rhetoric - Examples and Definition of Rhetoric". 10 July 2013. https://literarydevices.net/rhetoric/.
- "Literary Terms and Definitions R". http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms_R.html.
- Kennedy, George A. 1980. Classical rhetoric and its Christian and secular tradition from ancient to modern times. Croom Helm, London.
- Vickers, Brian 1988. In defence of rhetoric. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
- Dixon, Peter. Rhetoric. Methuen, London.
- "New Directions in Contrastive Rhetoric". http://sslw.asu.edu/2002/cr/connor_tq.pdf.
- Eunkyong Lee Yook (2013). Culture shock for Asians in U.S. academia: breaking the model minority myth. Lexington Books. pp. 60+. . https://books.google.com/books?id=oWtBAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA60.
- Hayakawa S.I. Language in thought and action. London: Allen & Unwin.
- Robert A. Harris. A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices. Virtualsalt, 2013.
- The Forest of Rhetoric - silva rhetoricae, Brigham Young University.