The third principle of classical rhetoric, style, was known as elocutio (from loqui “to speak”), and of the five principles, style is the most difficult to define since each orator or writer expresses a unique creative energy. Breathtaking style is one of those nebulous things that is challenging to describe, but you know it when you see it! If invention is what you say, and arrangement is how you organize what you say, then style is how you say it.
What is your Purpose?
Ancient orators defined three levels of style: (1) low or plain, (2) middle or forcible, and (3) high or florid. In preparing the speech, the orator first decided his purpose. Was he going to instruct in the debatable idea? If so, he chose to use the low or plain style with his apprentices or students. His relationship with these individuals was more intimate, and there was no need to impress with sophisticated language or creative pleas. The instructional speech was more like a conversation in that practical information was passed along using normal, everyday language.
Perhaps the orator wanted to persuade an audience to act for the public good or judge a defendant as in political or legal speeches. In that case, he would choose the middle or forcible style of communication. An orator delivering a persuasive speech would probably speak to a larger audience which would have included many members whom he did not personally know or some who may have been enemies. The language for such an audience and purpose would be particular to the specific points of the debatable idea. Urging the audience to adopt his position, the skilled orator would choose convincing words and figures of speech such as metaphors and similes to coax his audience to his point of view.
Finally, many ceremonial occasions demanded oratory. Public holidays, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, and graduations require a lighter touch than the persuasive speech. Themes such as honor, patriotism, and faithfulness might be expounded. For such events, the orator would choose language to charm and entertain.
How will you Arrange the Words?
Which words will you select for your homeschool speech? The choice of and arrangement of words in ancient times depended on the purpose of the speech and the audience to whom the speech was directed. Anyone who puts so much time and effort into preparing a speech or essay cares immensely about the appropriateness of the words because words have the power to move people.
Have you chosen the most appropriate words? Should they be pure and simple or ornate? Is specialized vocabulary needed? Does the grammar appear proper? Are the tenses consistent? Should you use the standard syntax for arranging the words or break a rule to produce an unexpected surprise? Would repetition of words or phrases be effective? Are your points concise? Have you chosen words that emotionally move the audience? Did you consider the sound and rhythm of the words and phrases? Would figures of speech like metaphor, personification, or simile aid in communicating your message?
William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, authors of The Elements of Style, say that style is a high mystery.
“Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?”
Each person approaches the same content differently; each of your homeschool children will manifest a unique style of speaking and writing that reveals something of his or her spirit. There are boundless opportunities for creative expression. Encourage your children to experiment with style as if they were painting pictures with words and delight their audience!
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Here’s a fun exercise. Take a much-quoted sentence, and have the kids play with rearranging the words. Stunk and White offer this example to get you started: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Variations include:
- Times like these try men’s souls.
- How trying it is to live in these times!
- These are trying times for men’s souls.
- Soulwise, these are trying times.
Which sentence do you like best? Now it’s your turn to paint some word pictures in your homeschool speech or essay!