Style: Canons of Rhetoric

Style: Canons of Rhetoric

Style concerns the artful expression of ideas. If invention addresses what is to be said; style addresses how this will be said. From a rhetorical perspective style is not incidental, superficial, or supplementary: style names how ideas are embodied in language and customized to communicative contexts (see Content / Form).

Because of the centrality of style, rhetoricians have given great attention to every aspect of linguistic form—so much so that rhetoric has at times been equated with (or reduced to) “mere style,” as though rhetoric were concerned only with superficial ornamentation.

But ornamentation was not at all superficial in classical and renaissance rhetoric, for to ornament (ornare = “to equip, fit out, or supply”) meant to equip one’s thoughts with verbal expression appropriate for accomplishing one’s intentions.

Upon this basic principle of style there has been agreement, but less so respecting how matters of style have been mapped within the rhetorical tradition, especially with respect to categorizing the figures of speech. These are the major groupings of stylistic concerns within the rhetorical tradition:

1. Virtues of Style

Five encompassing concerns of style which relate style to grammar, audience, effective and affective appeals, the guiding principle of decorum, and the importance of ornamenting language through figurative speech. A comparable mapping of seven virtues of style has been laid out by Hermogenes.

2. Levels of Style

From the Roman tradition three levels of style have been laid out, each suited to one of three distinct rhetorical purposes.

3. Qualities of Style

A large descriptive terminology has been developed to critique the qualities of style. These are interpretive in nature, and overlap broadly with figures of speech or the virtues and levels of style.

4. Figures of Speech

Sometimes considered part of “ornateness” (one of the Virtues of Style), and sometimes taken to represent the whole of rhetoric, the rhetorical figures constitute a vast technical vocabulary naming ways that both ideas and language have been configured.

Style is often aligned with pathos, since its figures of speech are often employed to persuade through emotional appeals (see Figures of pathos). However, style has just as much to do with ethos, for one’s style often establishes or mitigates one’s authority and credibility (see Figures of ethos). But it should not be assumed, either, that style simply adds on a pathetic or ethical appeal to the core, logical content. Style is very much part of the appeal through logos, especially considering the fact that schemes of repetition serve to produce coherence and clarity, obvious attributes of the appeal to reason. There are also specific figures of speech that are based upon logical structures such as the syllogism (See Figures of Reasoning).

Style is not an optional aspect of discourse, although those who take issue with rhetorical excesses maintain the fiction that there is a “plain” method of speech. Style is essential to rhetoric in that its guiding assumption is that the form or linguistic means in which something is communicated is as much part of the message as is the content (as MacLuhan has said, “the medium is the message”).

Stylistic Analysis

The analysis of discourse in terms of style has a long history, one that stretches back long before the modern-day field of stylistics or contemporary linguistics came into being. Analysis in terms of style has taken two broad paths in the period from antiquity through the Renaissance. The first of these was stylistic analysis in a pedagogical setting, a process continuous with and often identical to grammatical parsing. The second of these, an approach closer to the general literary sense of style in use today, involved identifying general characteristics of the prose involved, for which there was a technical vocabulary. Certainly these two approaches were not all-encompassing with respect to stylistic analysis up to the Renaissance, but they give a fair sense of the breadth of attention to style.

Sample Rhetorical Analysis:


When Julius Caesar said “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came; I saw; I conquered”) he communicated a lot with a little. In fact, the efficiency of this statement about his military conquest seems to mirror the efficiency of his campaign itself. Nothing is wasted in accomplishing the intended task. Through his use of asyndeton (the lack of conjunctions between independent clauses) he demonstrates that he is direct and to the point. We can only assume that this forthright characteristic of speech reflects his leadership as a general. Caesar’s short saying also constitutes a perfect tricolon (three parallel clauses of identical length—at least in the Latin!). One can almost visualize the orderliness of a phalanx of soldiers, marching rank and file to battle, in the smooth orderliness of these parallel statements. The rhythm of the words in Latin, also, drums out a marching cadence that seems inescapable: VEni; VIdi; VIci. Caesar certainly reflected and probably augmented his credibility, or “ethos,” in making this statement, one that seems completely appropriate for the report of a successful military campaign.

Related Figures: All figures of speech fall within the domain of style.

Related Topics of Invention: See cross references to topics of invention listed at the end of any given entry for a figure.

See Also

Decorum governs style, requiring that one fit one’s words not only to one’s purposes, but to the context (kairos) and audience.

The relationship between invention of ideas and their appropriate stylistic embodiment is emphasized within rhetorical pedagogy.

The entire structure of this resource is commited to demonstrating that style is not independent of all the other aspects of rhetoric. See cross references listed on the page of any given figure of speech. Or, see above to see explanations of how the figures relate to these rhetorical categories:

Sources: Arist. 3.1; Ad Herennium 4; Cic. De Inv. 1.7, 9

The Five Canons of Rhetoric:
invention  | arrangement  | style  | memory  | delivery

The information on this page comes from: Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University. EIL is grateful for his excellent “Silva Rhetoricae” (, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Image on this page added by EIL staff.

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