Having had five years of graduate study in rhetorical theory (hence my moniker, rhetorician), I gravitate more toward discussions on the persuasive usage of language than the grammatical usage of language. My question is simply this: Is the rhetorical perspective out of place in ELU-StackExchange? I will not be too offended if the answer is yes and will continue making my small contributions to the dialectic as it is structured now. Still, the rhetorical, or persuasive, perspective can be valuable and useful even in discussions on the nitty-gritty of grammar.

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    Since this is new to me, are you talking about asking questions or answering them? If asking, could you give a sample question?
    – user10893
    Dec 31, 2012 at 20:45
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    With your background, then if you would like to do a Good Deed, you might please consider editing the missing tag wikis for the various tags relating to rhetorical figures: anacoluthon, antanaclasis, antimeria, antiphrasis, asyndeton, catachresis, hyperbaton, hyperbole, irony, litotes, paraprosdokian, paronomasia, polysyndeton, syllepsis, synecdoche, and zeugma all exist, but have no tag wikis. Please help us out and add ones for those. Thanks.
    – tchrist Mod
    Dec 31, 2012 at 21:45
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    Bring em on. But make sure they are at least somewhat answerable rather than just discussion topics (sadly the format here doesn't work well for discussions).
    – Mitch
    Jan 1, 2013 at 16:38
  • simchona: probably both. I'll give an example of a question, later. Jan 1, 2013 at 17:11
  • tchrist: As much as I enjoy doing good deeds, I'm afraid I cannot devote the time to editing missing tag wikis, as I am currently a full-time student again (at the age of 62). In lieu of performing that editing work, I'll simply refer you to the "Tool Kit for Rhetorical Analysis," which can be found at <grammar.about/od/rhetoricaltoolkit/Tool_kit_for_Rhetorical_Analysis.htm> I hope this helps. Jan 1, 2013 at 17:21
  • Mitch: will do. Thanks for your response. Jan 1, 2013 at 17:22
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    @rhetorician Thanks, and congratulations.
    – tchrist Mod
    Jan 3, 2013 at 8:46
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    I'm all in favor of talking about the persuasive use of language in EL&U. I often assert that the best usage is the one that works, i.e., that produces the speaker's or writer's desired result, & that it often means that grammar takes a back seat. Jimmie Lunceford, Harry James, & Ella Fitzgerald recorded in 1939: "'Tain't what you bring it's the way that you bring it // 'Tain't what you swing it's the way that you swing it // 'Tain't what you sing) - it's the way that you sing it // (That's what gets results)" [From a song by Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young]
    – user21497
    Jan 3, 2013 at 12:51
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    @Bill Franke. Thanks for the analogy. As Aristotle pointed out in his definition of rhetoric ("the faculty of determining in a given case the available means of persuasion"), public speakers--and by extension, musicians, authors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, ad infinitum--can determine what they believe to be the available means of persuasion for a given audience, but if they fail either to determine the right means, or fail to use the right means artfully, they won't achieve their purpose, whether it's to persuade, inform, entertain, or inspire. Jan 8, 2013 at 1:02

1 Answer 1


I think rhetoric is as natural a part of English as are, say, meaning, etymology, grammar, single-phrase-requests, and what have you. The way words work together not only to mean something, but to mean something in a particular way—persuasive, powerful, subtle, misleading, dramatic, deceptive—has to fall under the rubric of usage.

Without such illumination into the way words in English mean what they do, we might as well merge with Linguistics.SE.

One caveat, however: I don't think this gives us license to discuss rhetoric qua rhetoric. Only when questions about English cry out for an explanation involving rhetoric should that be brought to bear.

From my own responses involving rhetorical figures here on EL&U:

Suitable description for this kind of sentence
Omitting and in a sentence
Is it possible to describe something with a question?

And many more. I'm certainly not the only one who has cited rhetoric to answer questions here.

  • Sounds right to me. I'm sure that for some questions, the rhetorical perspective is central to a comprehensive answer. It probably is often a subcategory of "usage", but I certainly have no problem with the fact that we've got a rhetoric tag. But it's not something that we should be discussing in and of itself on main, any more than we want to be answering general questions about the nature and implications of offensive-language Dec 31, 2012 at 22:16
  • Of course, Rhetoric, the academic subject, is very different from -- and often totally divorced from -- linguistics. To the extent that it ignores grammar and usage, it may not be unwelcome, but it's unlikely to be helpful. Jan 1, 2013 at 0:45
  • @JohnLawler: I specifically assert that rhetoric is inextricably a part of English usage; moreover, that it is not only helpful but essential to an understanding of our great language. I appreciate that yours is and must be the viewpoint of a professor of linguistics, and I appreciate your informed and authoritative contributions to this site. Nevertheless, linguistics is not the be-all and end-all English, and is in fact merely a subset of that domain. Linguistics rules absolutely on Linguistics.SE, as is fitting. But it is not fitting that it rule absolutely here.
    – Robusto
    Jan 1, 2013 at 1:14
  • So yes: helpful at the very least.
    – Robusto
    Jan 1, 2013 at 1:26
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    Usage is certainly part of the name. But it's a little hard to distinguish from "I don't like this usage" and "this is the subjunctive" kinds of response, which as we all know, are unhelpful. I like rhetoric; I've taught pragmatics, which falls within the traditional realm of "rhetoric", and I believe that peoples' motives, however difficulty to construe, are very important in language use. But rhetoric without linguistics is like history without geography; it wanders as a vagrant. Jan 1, 2013 at 2:55
  • In case it isn't clear by now, my intent is not to jettison linguistics in favor of rhetoric. But I would point out that your simile works in both directions.
    – Robusto
    Jan 1, 2013 at 3:11
  • No, not really. Geography comes first, and people have had to adapt to it. Geography is facts; history is interpretation. Jan 1, 2013 at 5:02
  • I see you made a nice use of rhetoric there, first comparing rhetoric and linguistics to history and geography and then abstracting that even further to a battle between interpretation vs. facts. But hey, without human history we wouldn't even be having a conversation about geography. It's just as much an artifact as history is, and just as open to interpretation. Ask the Poles. And while we're on the subject, linguistics isn't exactly settled science, either. Else why does it involve varying schools of thought and differing interpretations?
    – Robusto
    Jan 1, 2013 at 5:21
  • Robusto and John Lawler: I did not intend to spark a rhetorical battle of wits, although I do find the interchange interesting! John: I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around your analogy, "But rhetoric without linguistics is like history without geography; it wanders as a vagrant." Could you unpack your sentence a little bit for me? Jan 1, 2013 at 17:32
  • Robusto: Thanks for the encouragement. I agree with you when you say, "I don't think this gives us license to discuss rhetoric qua rhetoric." In other words, freedom is not license, yes? I can live with that! By the way, I enjoyed your observation about John Lawler's "use of rhetoric" and subsequent commentary. Dialectic (very loosely defined as a dispute over words and their interpretation) can and often does intersect with rhetoric, which Aristotle defined as "the faculty of determining in a given case the available means of persuasion." Jan 1, 2013 at 17:58
  • @FumbleFingers: Thanks for the thumbs up. I'm not 100 percent sure, however, I agree with your caveat about "answering general questions about the nature and implications of offensive-language." General questions? You may be right. Specific questions? I'm not so sure. It is not unusual for the two opposing sides in a dispute to find offensive each others' use of the same word vis-à-vis the way it is used. For example, in the abortion debate the word "fetus" can be fraught with a valence offensive to both sides, depending on its usage. Make sense? Jan 1, 2013 at 18:47
  • I would disagree about the objection to "rhetoric qua rhetoric". Some answers come down to rhetoric qua rhetoric when the querent didn't realise it (something struck them as strange and they wondered if it was grammatically correct). Nor would such questions be any worse if the querent had addressed them as such.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 10, 2013 at 14:12
  • I am so happy here. I wondered when qua would be mentioned. It is not objectionable, of course! It is fun to play with words, little nudges, to and fro. "Dialectic" and especially "fraught with a valence" are quite fine. For @rhetorician you mentioned your age as 62 years. Your choice of "unpack" rather than "parse" caught my eye. EL&U users (I would say habitues if I knew the markup for diacritics) are often users on the other, more programming themed SE sites. "Unpack" evokes zipped files and WinRAR (to me) whereas parse seems to be the trendier usage. Jan 11, 2013 at 22:28

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