Rhetorical Standards

Rhetoric is the skill of using words efficiently, correctly and effectively. Rhetorical standards, then, relate to precision, concision, correctness and efficacy.


TargetA characteristic of English is that it has grown mightily through the importation of countless phrases from other languages to fill gaps in the lexicon. Ironically, the best term in English for the precise word or phrase that fills the requirement of the occasion is “le mot juste” (French for “the exact word.”)

Well, whether you are speaking or writing, your quest should always be for  “le mot juste” and not for just any vagabond word that seems to be at hand.

One such vagabond word, always at hand, is “get.” As a verb, it can mean just about anything: become (get fat), obtain (get an education), repair to (“get thee to a nunnery”), buy (get a new car), arrive (get home), mount (get on a bike), begin (get going), earn (get $8.50 an hour) and much, much more. Without exception, there will always be a more precise verb at hand than “get.”

Clear communication requires, then, the use of the most precise word or term available. As compared with approximate words (like “get” or “thing”), the specific and correct term will be more efficient in expression and more accurate in capturing verbally and communicating exactly what you are thinking.

Precision requires vocabulary. To build it, you should read; that is, read material that will improve your command of vocabulary, not degrade it. You also need to become a “looker-upper.” When you come across a new word, look it up right then. If you left your iPad at home, make a note of it on paper for later. You know, “paper” — that stuff we used to write things on in the old days?

Now, if you are really poor in the vocabulary department, you might think that a fairly common word is obscure, just because you don’t know what it means. That’s not the test! If you are so inclined, download Alan Beale’s word lists. It’s free. His “6 of 12” list contains 32,153 words, which includes words listed in at least 6 of the 12 source dictionaries of American English that he used. (Archaic, scientific-technical and all but widely-used slang are not included.) If the word is in that list, you probably should set about to learn it. (For example, “obsequious” is in the “6 of 12” list, but not “obsequy” (the noun form). That is found, however, in the “2 of 12” list.)

Having command of vocabulary does not imply using long words and high-sounding vocabulary just for show. On the contrary, competent communication requires simplicity — as much as the subject matter can permit. Famous leaders known for their communications skills did not use obscure words; they used simple words, and their speech was direct and specific. In short, their language was precise.

Cesar Chavez

Likewise, be advised: Do not blithely consider all educated speech as acceptable rhetoric. Much academic communication should receive a failing grade. Often it is turgid, prolix and pompous. A good education provides no guarantee of clarity, neither of thought nor expression. Conversely, some uneducated speakers intuitively understand how to reach an audience. For example, Cesar Chavez, who helped to create the United Farm Workers in California, was an enormously effective speaker; yet he left school in 7th grade to work in the fields, so that his mother would not have to.


Wm. Shakespeare

Economy with words is also a rhetorical standard. “Prolixity” is speaking or writing that uses an excess of words. Other antonyms of “concision” are: “verbosity” “wordiness,” grandiloquence” and “expatiation.” Concise language is also called “succinct,” “clear” and “plain language.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare ironically put the following now-famous phrase in the mouth of the wordy Polonius: “… brevity is the soul of wit … .”

Examples of prolixity:

  • There is [a song] that [I would like to play].” Remove the dependent clause and just say [I would like to play a song]; that is, eliminate “there is” and “that,” converting the statement to a simple sentence.
  • “Due to the fact that . . . ” is both wordy and pompous. Just say “Because . . . “.
  • “At this point in time . . . ” is also wordy and pompous; just say “now.”
  • “Perhaps I can paraphrase that, that is, say the same thing in a different way . . . ” (no need to be repetitive).

The use of passive voice is a standard path to prolixity. Avoid it for its own sake:  Active writing is more vivid and motivating than passive writing. But avoid passive writing also because  it uses at least two more words than does active voice: the passive participle and the preposition of agency. (For example, compare “I shot the sheriff” with “The sheriff was shot by me.”)


correctnessA “barbarism” in this context is the use of an incorrect pronunciation, word or phrase. “Barbarous” means “crude.” The ancient Greeks called their Turkish neighbors “barbars” (βαρβαρος) because their language sounded like so much “blah-blah-blah” to them. (In Greek, this must have been “bar-bar-bar.”) Today, verbal barbarisms are deviations from standard usage in the choice of words.

Here are some examples:

  • Please loan me some money (“loan” is a noun; “lend” is the verb).
  • The reason why this happened is because . . . (“The reason is that . . . ” or “This happened because . . . ” but not both.)
  • Don’t pay me no nevermind. (“double negative and confusion of “mind” and “nevermind”)
  • Answering the question “How are you?” with “I am good.” (“Good” means, among other things, well-behaved and competent. “Well” as an adjective means “healthy.” The answer “good” makes no sense, whereas “well” is responsive to the question.)

Some authorities include imports from foreign languages as barbarisms (like “le mot juste!”), even though they may be widely accepted today. Other foreign-source imports remain as barbarisms, such as the many Pidgin words and phrases brought back from the Orient by GI’s (Example: “no can do”).

Everyone seems to agree that barbarisms are inevitable. One authority notes that good writers may be able to use them effectively (and hence, forgivably); however, even if a bad writer studiously avoids them, that alone will not improve his writing.

Like “barbarism,” a “solecism” is an error of language, but it is thought to be more a question of syntax (as in “Them are good!”) than in word use. Good writers can also use solecisms on occasion and to good effect, but the rhetorical standard is, as in the case of barbarisms, to avoid them.


3D person walking on curved arrow isolated over a white backgroundAn effective writer or speaker is one who accomplishes the purpose of the communication. If the writer’s aim is to persuade, then efficacy means “persuasive.” If the objective was to create sympathy or sadness, then efficacy means successfully jerking tears. If the purpose of the writing or speaking is to teach, then efficacy means that the readers or audience actually learn the intended lesson. This is not mysterious; however, many writers/speakers become so wrapped up in their own florid prose that they forget the basic aim of the project.

As a matter of tactics and technique, a good writer/speaker should make clear to the target audience what his or her purpose really is. (Occasionally an author may wish to assert a surface objective, while in truth pursuing hidden agenda; but that is not honest writing or speaking; it’s disingenuous.)

Photo of Warten G. Harding
Warren G. Harding

Sometimes a writer/speaker is his own worst enemy in forging an effective communication. Pomposity does not only obscure meaning, it renders the message ineffective because the target audience becomes distracted by the style. Often, pomposity is simply a smoke screen to obscure the fact that the speaker has little or nothing to say. Famously, William Gibbs McAdoo, a Democratic senator and political opponent of then (Republican) President Warren G. Harding, described Harding’s grandiloquence as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.”

From here, you might want to visit the following:

Precision and Accuracy in Word Choice
Mannerisms to Avoid
Clichés: A Pet Peeve

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Born in Pittsburgh, educated at Yale. Practiced law in Washington DC. Moved to Colorado. Lived in Mexico. Translator and internet content writer.

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