If You Rely Too Much on the Word “Very” in Your Writing, This Is For You

31 January 2010 3 comments

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain

Categories: writing Tags: , ,

Why “Honest”?

27 January 2010 3 comments

So why is this blog called “The Honest Rhetorician” anyway?  What’s a rhetorician and why is it significant that he be honest?

Well, let me change the subject for a second.  If you google the word “rhetoric,” you will instantly be met with a barrage of academic definitions and discussions, a sampling of which I have provided here:

Along with grammar and logic or dialectic, rhetoric is one of the three ancient arts of discourse. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric

Aristotle’s rhetoric has had an enormous influence on the development of the art of rhetoric. – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/

In its long and vigorous history rhetoric has enjoyed many definitions, accommodated differing purposes, and varied widely in what it included. – http://rhetoric.byu.edu/encompassing%20terms/rhetoric.htm

Yay. OK, now you click on “News” to find recent mentions of the word “rhetoric” in the news.  Here are the sort of headlines you might see:

America needs reality, not soaring rhetoric, from Obama

Begala: McDonnell’s rhetoric rings false

Obama to address nation tonight; residents want answers, not ‘more rhetoric’

Those are just small snippets in both cases, but hopefully you get the picture:  that we’re looking at vastly different ideas of what “rhetoric” means.  Now let’s take you, the average reader (OK, so you’re not average; neither is anyone else, but for the purposes of this discussion, that doesn’t matter).  If you ever think of rhetoric at all, chances are you think of it more as a smokescreen than an art.  That’s because the only place it is regularly used these days is in politics, where partisans will accuse each other of attempting to hide poor leadership through “empty rhetoric.”

If you listen to the politicians, you will come to view rhetoric as

Rhetoric (rět’ər-ĭk), n. The practice of giving speeches designed to make you think the speaker is a wonderful person doing a wonderful job when in fact he’s so far from great leadership that he wouldn’t recognize it if his plane crashed into Mount Rushmore.

This negative view of rhetoric is nothing new; Plato once compared rhetoric to clever cookery that masks a dish of spoiled food.  But I disagree with Plato — and the politicians.  I think rhetoric is a valuable tool.  Like all tools, it can be used for good or for bad.  It’s certainly worth learning how to use.

That’s what I’m doing, and what I invite you to do with me.  In the course of this blog (Lord willing), I’m going to try to nail down precisely what rhetoric is and why it’s important for everyone to know and use effectively.  I call the blog “The Honest Rhetorician” as a reminder that rhetoric is so much more than what the politicians and columnists say — and that it’s possible to speak (or write) rhetoric honestly.

No, it really isn’t an oxymoron.

Categories: rhetoric

Of Rhetoric and Writing

26 January 2010 1 comment

A guest post by my wife, Lana:

Is Rhetoric just a fancy word for ‘writing’?  (I hope not; otherwise UAFS’  “Rhetoric AND Writing.” degree contains a hated Redundancy – one of the worst beasts a writer can face.)  The two words are certainly very similar in their denotation, but as Dr. Jennings – infamous teacher of HEL – once said, there are no perfect synonyms in the English language. Rhetoric and writing have many overlaps, but are not precisely the same thing. Well actually, they are the same in some people’s minds. Rhetoric is one of those words whose definition scholars debate. Some would say any use of language is rhetoric. I’m more exclusivist.

Rhetoric is an Art form which uses Language – the spoken or written Word – to produce Reactions. It differs from writing in that it is more artful and deliberate than writing necessarily is. Writing, in its broadest sense, contains what I would call rhetoric and also what I would call, for lack of a better term ‘just writing’. I’m not trying to be a snob, just trying to make the term rhetoric more useful. A short mindless chat on gmail, a freewrite journal entry, a facebook status update, a shopping list, an instruction manual – those things I would not consider ‘Rhetoric’.  But the lines are blurry. A chat thoughtfully written to encourage or enlighten, a pondering status update (believe it or not, Art exists on facebook!) – I would include these in my definition of Rhetoric. An essay or speech would easily fall into the category.

Rhetoric is, in my mind, more or a creative act than ‘just speaking’ or ‘just writing’.

This may not help very much, but abstract words are hard to define – it’s much easier to explore them and see where they fit and where they don’t.

But still, words need definitions. Here’s the one Luke and I came up with during his last semester of school, after many readings of and about Rhetoric:

Rhetoric is a purposeful and creative reaction that uses language to produce a specific change in the way the audience thinks or feels.

Lord willing, we will explore the meaning and importance of rhetoric in blog posts for years to come.

Categories: rhetoric, writing Tags: , , ,

Clutch Shooter

24 January 2010 2 comments

My parents tell me I began loving basketball as a baby.  They would stick me in a bouncer seat and turn on the TV, and I would happily watch the NBA On NBC.  When I was six, I received one of my all-time top birthday presents:  a basketball goal (along with an Arkansas Razorbacks outfit from my grandparents).  My parents probably never expected that I would spend so many hours in the driveway, doing nothing but dribbling and shooting, dribbling and shooting, dribbling and shooting.

When I got a little older, I often pretended to be a star player for the Razorbacks, and would act out full games against some of the top teams of the era.  I can’t quite remember exactly how these nailbiters went down, but here’s a reimagining of what invariably happened:

2000 NCAA Final Four - (Fictional) Championship Game

The Game: Arkansas vs. Connecticut
The Stakes: National championship
The Star: Luke Hobbs, age 11, shooting guard, Arkansas
The Announcer: Luke Hobbs, age 11, play-by-play veteran

We pick up the action after a CBS commercial break, with 13.7 seconds left in the game. UConn is about to inbound the ball, clinging to a 93-91 lead.

“…And we’re back, folks, and UConn has to try to get the ball in to the backcourt against this stingy Hog defense. The referee gives the ball to Robertson for UConn, and he’s looking for a man to throw it to. Alonzo Lane of Arkansas is in his face. Robertson fires a pass to the corner, and it is . . . STOLEN by Luke Hobbs!

“He’s bringing it the other way. Time is running out . . . nine seconds . . . eight. Hobbs is at the top of the key, passes inside to Joe Johnson, back to Hobbs. Five seconds . . . Hobbs is going to shoot the three! He gives his man a crossover dribble. Three . . . two . . . one . . he shoots! And it’s –”

My shot clangs off the back of the rim and bounces away. I hurry over to get it, then rush back to the top of the key for the re-do.

“Hobbs is gonna shoot! He gives a head fake . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . he lets it go! And –”

Airball. I run past the goal into Ms. Katherine’s yard and pick up the ball near the south wall of her house. Good thing she doesn’t care about us kids crossing over into her yard to retrieve balls; happens all the time.

“Hobbs gets it back from Johnson! He’s going to shoot it! Three . . . he takes a screen from Gipson! Two . . . pivots toward the hoop! One . . . lets it go! IT’S GOOD! He made it, folks! And Arkansas wins its third national championship — second in a row! Once again Hobbs hits the buzzer-beater for the win!”

Yep, I was such a clutch shooter that it wasn’t even fair.

A Tip for Letting Your Writing Breathe

19 January 2010 1 comment

The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

William Zinsser

Categories: writing Tags:

So Do I, Charlie Brown

18 January 2010 3 comments

In Peanuts, there’s a series of Christmas strips where Lucy and Linus are putting on a show of affection toward each other, in an effort to gain Santa’s favor and garner more presents.  Their charade, naturally, makes the upstanding Charlie Brown sick to his stomach.  In a subsequent strip, Patty calls Charlie Brown out for hypocrisy:  “You’re just as greedy as everyone else, Charlie Brown!  Don’t come around here with your lectures and your moaning and groaning about everybody being greedy!  You’re no different than the rest of us!”

“I am too!” Charlie Brown shouts back.  “I FEEL GUILTY ABOUT IT!”

So do I, Charlie Brown.

I’m good at feeling pangs of conscience for all the terrible things other people are doing, while somehow staying numb to my own sins.  “Does he not realize what a waste of time that is?”  “I don’t think she understands how disrespectful she’s being.”  “Why won’t he listen to what God says about that?”  All those questions spill into my mind even while I’m throwing away my time, dishonoring my elders, and ignoring my Bible.

The Apostle Paul has words for me:  “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Romans 2:1)

Self-righteousness can justly be described as odious, putrid, repugnant.  To be more plain, it smells like poop.  God hates it.  I hate it – that is, when I detect its scent on other people.  I can be a super-sniffing Pharisee, able to point out exactly what it is about ol’ So-and-So that stinks to high heaven.  But God demands that I quit sniffing other people, and take a whiff of myself.

Lord, give me a nose for the reek of hypocrisy in my own heart, rather than in the hearts of those around me.  Make me sick to my stomach at my sin, and lead me to forsake it and embrace you again.