A Review! A Review! Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric

April 6, 2011 | 6 4 min read

These days we tend to write as we speak, with a certain allowance for fancy words and allusions. Our sentences march from subject to verb to object like a horse heading for home, and we quickly become impatient with what is usually considered under the ancient heading of rhetoric: elaborate parallelism, repetition, mirror constructions, and so on. It looks like showing off; it feels tricksy. But until recently those tricks were the foundation of public discourse, and a knowledge of chiasmus and Cicero was a prerequisite for anyone who wanted to be thought cultured. There are many reasons for the change, and they are largely good reasons, but there has still been something lost, and Ward Farnsworth is here to remind us of what it is.

coverFarnsworth is a Boston University law professor whose professional writing runs to texts like “The Use and Limits of Martin-Quinn Scores to Assess Supreme Court Justices.” But he has thought a great deal about what makes for effective writing and in his Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric has amassed an impressive array of illustrative quotations by writers ranging from the famous (Dickens, Lincoln, Churchill) to the now less remembered (Goldsmith, Webster, Kingsley) to the nearly forgotten (Henry Grattan, Richard Lalor Sheil); he has arranged them by their prominent use of various classical devices ranging from epizeuxis to prolepsis and shared them with us. What might have been (and in many texts on rhetoric is) a dry analysis full of rebarbative Greco-Latin terminology (epizeuxis!) becomes an enchanted garden of lively English prose.

Farnsworth begins his preface thus: “Everyone speaks and writes in patterns. Usually the patterns arise from unconscious custom; they are models we internalize from the speech around us without thinking much about it. But it also is possible to study the patterns deliberately….” He asks how one should study “techniques that succeed only when they seem unstudied,” and says “The answer lies in examples,” adding that the selection “reflects one of the chief purposes of the book, which is to help recover a rhetorical tradition in English that is less familiar because it is outside of living memory.” He does not try to cover all the traditional figures, just “the eighteen or so that, in my judgment, are of most practical value.” He omits metaphor and simile “not because they are unimportant but because they are too important; they are large enough topics to require separate treatment of their own.”

But enough theory. What is epizeuxis? It’s a fancy term for repetition; in his introduction to the first chapter he gives well-known examples like Conrad’s “The horror! The horror!” and the Bogart line from Casablanca, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The chapter proper begins with Shakespeare (“Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation!”) and Thoreau (“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”) and continues with the wonderful Grattan, who deserves the prominence Farnsworth gives him: “Like the Draconian laws, this bill had blood! blood! – felony! felony! felony! in every period and in every sentence.” The next chapter is on anaphora, the repetition of the same word at the start of successive clauses; it is used to powerful effect in the Bible (“The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil…”) and Churchill (“we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy – we shall ask for none”) and to very different effect by Henry James: “He’s too delightful. If he’ll only not spoil it! But they always will; they always do; they always have.” After several chapters on various types of repetition, he moves on to “structural matters” like isocolon (parallel structure, as in Burke’s “He practiced no managements. He secured no retreat. He sought no apology”), chiasmus (“when words or other elements are repeated with their order reversed,” as in Chesterton’s “Men need not trouble to alter conditions, conditions will so soon alter men” and Melville’s “Pity if there is nothing wonderful in signs, and significant in wonders!”), or anastrophe (“when words appear in unexpected order”: Chesterton again, “Sad he is; glad he is not,” and Melville again, “breathe he must, or die he will”). The final section, on “dramatic devices,” begins with praeteritio (“saying things by not saying them”: Erskine, “I will not speak to you of his great youth, of his illustrious birth, and of his uniformly animated and generous zeal in Parliament for the constitution of his country”), continues with aposiopesis, or “breaking off in midstream” (Beerbohm: “‘If you are acquainted with Miss Dobson, a direct invitation should be sent to her,’ said the Duke. ‘If you are not –’ The aposiopesis was icy”); metanoia, or “correcting oneself” (Conan Doyle: “And now, Doctor, perhaps you would kindly attend to my thumb, or rather to the place where my thumb used to be”); and others, ending with prolepsis (“when the speaker anticipates an objection … and comments on it”: Fielding, “It may be objected, that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, Not wise in that instance”). By the time you’ve read through the varied examples in each chapter, you not only understand the technique involved, you feel a warm glow of pleasure (and perhaps a desire to read an author who has been only a name to you, if that).

The book is beautifully designed (in Sabon Next type) and provides its examples in a handsome format, laid out on the page with plenty of white space with the source (author, title, date) in smaller type in the outer margin. I admire it; I appreciate it; I recommend it.

is a retired freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.


  1. A nice review. As a writer, I relish sentences that elaborate themselves into unusual constructions that call a natural attention to themselves. Though there are certain “minimalists” I admire, Hemingway’s influence has been a bit too heavy-handed – I don’t want “just the facts, ma’am”, I want words infused with philosophic/lyrical power that meer reporting simply can’t convey. Language is too mutable, too intriguing a tool to be simply parsing out bits of information in the most rote and easily digestible way.

    So, it is with that attitude that I look forward to picking up this book. I would love to acquaint myself with a deeper understanding of techniques I already employ.

  2. What I like most about your review is its artful simplicity. It deploys more rhetorical techniques than it displays, so there is something for every kind of reader, whether unfinished or lacquered.

    Take the first sentence: “These days we tend to write as we speak, with a certain allowance for fancy words and allusions.” This is an ingratiating appeal to the average person, who prides himself on being average and takes gruel for breakfast. I myself start the day with a quail egg, and polish my persona for an hour before riding out in the Park. Thus I bridled at the second part of your sentence.

    Yes, I write as I speak, but also I speak as I write. A certain allowance for fancy words and allusions would not float my boat – I take carte blanche with me when shopping for words.

    But these very considerations were stimulated by your sentence, which is fair enough as it stands. One of the effects of good presentation is assent. Another is to ensnare those who listen and think while balking.

  3. Thanks for the delightful review ! I’d like to add that I’ve enjoyed a similar book that your readers might like to consult. Peregrine Smith published ” Figures Of Speech” by Arthur Quinn in 1982. It is a slim paperback full to the brim with concise descriptions and trenchant examples by authors both famous and obscure. Professor Quinn is a witty guide to rhetorical devices and I think of his book as a companion to and extension of the precepts in Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.” I grab one every time I come across it in a used book shop — it’s one of those extra – copies- to – give – to – my- friends books.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.