Rhetoric:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Study of writing or speaking effectively: The study of methods employed to write or speak effectively and persuasively.” Encarta World Dictionary

Rhetoric is the craft of setting down words and marks right.” Jacques Barzun

“Grammar is not a set of arbitrary rules concocted by a committee in Zurich. It’s a system whereby words can be combined in the head to make magic.” Philip Gerard

“Rhetoric shows you how to put words together so that the reader not simply may but must grasp your meaning.” Jacques Barzun

“English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education—sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.” E.B. White

“I take the rules of grammar and guides to good language and clutch them to heart-and-mind.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“There is nothing more human (that is, less mineral, vegetal, animal, and even angelical) than grammar.” Jorge Luis Borges

“You may think the sense of motion and pleasure depends on the subject matter. That is not so. It depends on tone, rhythm, sentence structure, selection, and organization.” Jacques Barzun

“Before stirring an inch in the direction of fiction, is a review of the fundamentals. No one can hope to write well if he has not mastered—absolutely mastered—the rudiments: grammar and syntax, punctuation, diction, sentence variety, paragraph structure, and so forth.” John Gardner

“With the proper help and the proper book, any good student can cover the fundamentals, once and for all, in two weeks. The proper book, in my opinion, is W.W. Watt’s An American Rhetoric, the most accurate and efficient book on composition available, also the most interesting and amusing.” John Gardner

The Elements of Style was Will Strunk’s attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.” E.B. White

“I can’t get across this argument that if you write, then surely you must respect things like grammar. Grammar is a bore as an academic subject, but it’s the basic good manners of writing.” John Fowles

“Unlike medicine or the other sciences, writing has no new discoveries to spring on us. We’re in no danger of reading in our morning newspaper that a breakthrough has been made in how to write a clear English sentence—that information has been around since the King James Bible. We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.” William Zinsser

“We are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves (as White put it) with the clear and almost perfect thought.” Roger Angell, foreword to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Fourth Edition

“Our standards for writing are higher and more formal than for speaking. They have to be, because when we read, we don’t have the speaker’s voice and expression and intonation to make half-finished sentences and misused words clear. We have only the words. They must be clear. And, to be clear to as many readers as possible, they have to follow the generally agreed-upon rules, the shared rules, of grammar and usage.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“I see grammar as the choreographer of our language.” Karen Elizabeth Gordon

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” Strunk and White

“Dropping commas is all right except if one’s purpose is to increase the rush of the sentence and thus suggest emotion not justified by what is being said.” John Gardner

“Until further notice, the serial comma continues in force.” Jacques Barzun

“The hyphen is not a lesser dash.” Jacques Barzun

“People who don’t worry at least a little about semicolons aren’t likely to be writers.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“I thought a bloody semicolon was for a long pause. What is it for?” Flannery O’Connor”

“The true measure of civility is the proper use of the semicolon.” Henry James

“The semicolon’s power to hold apart equal portions of thought more sharply than the comma and not so sharply as the period is very useful.” Jacques Barzun

“To understand the double role of the semicolon, take a conscious look at its makeup: clearly it separates, because its two elements—dot over comma—take up more vertical space than a comma and thus keep apart the words before it and after. Equally clearly it unites, because no capital letter and extra white space follow it as they follow the period. In its form you can read its function.” Jacques Barzun

“The colon, needless to say, introduces quotations long or short and serves also to establish a kindred sort of confrontation.” Jacques Barzun

“On some occasions a comma that is not needed for logic is employed the old way, oratorically, for a slight pause and its emphasis.” Jacques Barzun

“Readability should . . . govern the splitting of words at the end of the line, where most hyphens live. You will find several codes of syllabication (as the practice is called) proposed or enforced by editors and others. The doctrines seem to me more interesting than important. What is important, I repeat, is to read without stumbling.” Jacques Barzun

“If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on a whole kit of the most essential, beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“To punctuate means to point, in both senses: putting in little black points and pointing as with a finger.” Jacques Barzun

“The use of the dash deserves a word. It is the separating mark par excellence, but its playground is inside the sentence, not outside. Only Sterne in Tristam Shandy and Keats in his letters are free to play fast and loose with the dash and substitute it at will for the period.” Jacques Barzun

“Within the sentence a pair of dashes sets off a shorter or longer interruption of the main thought by an aside. The matter thus jammed into the stream of words can be a sentence by itself, though its effect on the reader’s memory of what precedes must be nicely calculated.” Jacques Barzun

“The paired dashes act like parentheses, but with this difference that the dashes within one sentence must not exceed one pair. Otherwise, it is not possible to tell which dash goes with which. The rounded shape of the parentheses takes care of that difficulty, which is why a sentence requiring two interpolations will use either one pair of dashes and one of parentheses or two pairs of parentheses. Count your dashes in revising.” Jacques Barzun

“A second use of the dash is to separate the final portion of the sentence from the earlier, often with a jump in thought suggestive of impatience, afterthought, or summary.” Jacques Barzun

“Very long sentences have to be carefully and knowledgeably managed, solidly constructed; their connections must be clear, so that they flow, carrying the reader along easily.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“To avoid long sentences and the marvelously supple connections of a complex syntax is to deprive your prose of an essential quality. Connectedness is what keeps a narrative going.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“What the sentence says and does is essential in determining its length.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“To make a rule ‘never use the same word twice in one paragraph,’ or to state flatly that repetition is to be avoided, is to throw away one of the most valuable tools of narrative prose.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“People often use the passive voice because it’s indirect, polite, unaggressive, and admirably suited to making thoughts seem as if nobody had personally thought them and deeds seem as if nobody had done them, so that nobody need take responsibility.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“A tense switch in written narrative isn’t a minor thing. It’s a big deal, like changing viewpoint characters.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“To discuss the use of tense, we have to realize that in fictional and nonfictional narrative the ‘past tense’ is not past and the ‘present tense’ is not present. Both are entirely fictive. The story, whether or not it’s based on a real event, exists only on the page. The only real present time is the reader’s.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“When we’re talking about the use of tenses in narrative prose, I’d like to call the past tense the ‘inclusive narrative tense,’ and the present the ‘focused narrative tense.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The reason I call the past tense the ‘inclusive narrative tense’ is that it posits a time that had a past and will have a future. It includes other times.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“I call the present tense the ‘focused narrative tense’ because it sacrifices the larger time-field to achieve keen, close focus. In the present tense, narration is linear, leading to the next moment, excluding global temporal reference.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“When written history, memoir, and fiction embed a present-tense scene in past-tense narration it’s called ‘the historical present.’” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The only genuine narrative present tense I know is concurrent reporting, which is usually oral: ‘Oh, my God, it’s catching fire—” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The tenses have so little connotation of actual presentness or pastness that, in that respect, they’re interchangeable. But they do have different implications regarding continuity.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“A narrow focus isn’t more immediate: it merely leaves out more. . . . avoidance of complexity leads away from inwardness, either of the characters’ or of the author’s mind. So it may gain vividness, clarity, a linear simplicity, at the cost of a great deal else—including real, felt immediacy. . . . By suppressing the shared past that connects the writer and reader, and by its tendency to relate actions externally, the present tense flattens the affect of the writer’s voice.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“There are tenses human language has yet to invent.” John Fowles

“I may be wrong, but as soon as I see flagrant punctuation mistakes, grammatical and spelling errors, something seems to me to insult the craft. It’s like the would-be furniture maker who can’t make a simple joint. Okay, it’s not very important; it may be solid even though it’s badly made. But somehow it shows a hatred of wood. It’s very difficult to convince tyro writers of this. The book starts with love of each separate word.” John Fowles

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.” William Zinsser

“Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.” William Zinsser

The Period. There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” William Zinsser

The Exclamation Point. Don’t use it unless you must to achieve a certain effect. It has a gushy aura.” William Zinsser

“An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Semicolon. . . . The semicolon brings the reader, if not to a halt, at least to a pause.” William Zinsser

The Dash. Somehow this invaluable tool is widely regarded as not quite proper—a bumpkin at the genteel dinner table of good English. But it has full membership and will get you out of many tight corners.” William Zinsser

The Colon. The colon has begun to look even more antique than the semicolon, and may of its functions have been taken over by the dash. But it still serves well its pure role of bringing your sentence to a brief halt before you plunge into, say, an itemized list.” William Zinsser

“Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s not stronger word at the start.” William Zinsser

“The ear makes repeated allowances for missing grammar, syntax and transitions that the eye wouldn’t tolerate in print.” William Zinsser

“He [E.B. White] knows that the tools of grammar haven’t survived for so many centuries by chance; they are props the reader needs and subconsciously wants.” William Zinsser

“I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than here words.” Stephen King

“If the moment of quickening is to come, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It is a marvellous and flexible instrument. . . . You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.” Stephen King

“To tell a story in few words, think strong subject, strong predicate.” Constance Hale

“Consider the sentence a story, a mini-narrative, a yarn, with a beginning and an ending and a dramatic arc.” Constance Hale

“Memorable stories are a collection of taut sentences where focus never wanders.” Constance Hale

“The best sentences unify their elements—clear subjects and predicates, elegant phrases, clauses that twist and turn and surprise—into a strong, coursing stream.” Constance Hale

“The art of sentence making comes down to variety.” Constance Hale

“Playing with long sentences does not mean ignoring basic rules. There is still no excuse for muddy thinking, ill-formed ideas, or flooding streams of consciousness.” Constance Hale

“The lack of agents and of strong verbs deprives the sentence of its due motive power and needed signposts.” Jacques Barzun

Jargon. Its appeal lies in the desire to appear learned and its use also favors laziness.” Jacques Barzun

“Simple-&-direct calls for economy. Ideas will best slide into a reader’s mind when the word noise is least.” Jacques Barzun

“The criticism and simplifying of words discloses a hidden thought.” Jacques Barzun

“Yet another cause of the misuse of words is ignorance of what might be called their Direction. By this term . . . I mean the ways that words point when linked with other words. . . . In general, the pair of directions to be attended to are the transitive and intransitive. These two words mean carrying across or not doing so.” Jacques Barzun

“Direction in words is all-important in that it commands the presence or absence of other words.” Jacques Barzun

“A complete sentence, all agree, is a piece of construction; but we should not think of it as a house made of building blocks. Rather, it resembles a skeleton, in which the joints, the balance, the fit of the parts and ther inner solidity combine to make up a well-knit frame.” Jacques Barzun

“Syntax is usually defined as the arrangement of words in a sentence so as to show their relations; it is a set of instructions for linking and against linking.” Jacques Barzun

“A further reason for good syntax beyond that of avoiding nonsense is that the writer wants his sentences to give the reader the feeling of forward motion. Movement makes the difference between prose that reads at a pleasant speed and that which is slow and dull. The analogy of sentence and skeleton continues to hold. All parts of a skeleton or a sentence, small and large, must be properly articulated and balanced.” Jacques Barzun

“Nobody has been able to define sentence satisfactorily—which shows how important the subject it. As in poetry, love, thought, and faith, the reality is familiar but eludes definition. None the less, as a writer you cannot escape the duty of knowing when you have written a genuine sentence. A rough test is to see whether there is too much or too little between the the first capital letter and the final period to give voice to a self-supporting idea.” Jacques Barzun

“Sentences come in three forms, which it is a great convenience to recognize; for as in all technical definitions, the knowledge permits the workman to spot and repair trouble quickly and efficiently. The simple sentence has the general form of A®B: some agent acts on some object or person or is action on by it. A is subject, B is predicate. The compound sentence consists of two simples paired or contrasted: A®B and (or but) X®Y. The complex sentence is made up of two parts, of which the main one is a simple or a compound, and the other is a group of words that could not stand alone yet contributes to the total meaning.” Jacques Barzun

“The emphatic places in a sentence are beginning and end, the end being the more so.” Jacques Barzun

“Emphasis in speaking and writing is nothing else than pointing to the object you want your audience to attend to.” Jacques Barzun

“Contractions are for sliding over the unimportant.” Jacques Barzun

“We may say that in it [the sentence discussed] all the virtues of a right sentence are comprised: (1) it is a sentence; (2) its meaning is the one intended, in accord with the facts; (3) it is in balance and in motion as well; (4) the emphases direct the reader to the correct view of relative importance.” Jacque Barzun

“The effort of turning the words this way and that may seem disproportionate to the result, which is but a vingette in color. But composition is nothing else than this putting the elements in the best pattern.” Jacques Barzun

“The complex form gives and withholds information, subordinates some ideas to others more important, co-ordinates those of equal weight, and ties into a neat package as many suggestions, modifiers, and asides as the mind can attend to at one stretch.” Jacques Barzun

“What makes for smooth reading is the continuous presence and activity of the original subject—one only—until the comments to be made about it are exhausted.” Jacques Barzun

“Be warned then: follow through! Grasp the subject and do not let go.” Jacques Barzun

“But you will not be able to maintain your hold unless what you begin with is the true subject of your thought, the subject that organizes everything in sight around its central importance.” Jacques Barzun

“This faithfulness to one subject till justice has been done to it is the rule of clear thought. It governs not only the good sentence of whatever type, but also . . . the good paragraph.” Jacques Barzun

“It hardly need be said that varying the length of sentences is a source of pleasure essential to the reader’s satisfaction. . . . Mingling short, long, and medium statements provides change of pace.” Jacques Barzun

“The framing of good sentences cannot be divorced from the raw material supplied by the thinking mind. One’s first notion may be imperfect and need refining, but its rightness at the end depends in part on its potential goodness at the start; for the affinity between form and content is by definition reciprocal.” Jacques Barzun

“The oldest writings, on stone or vellum or parchment, run on from the first word without a break, even between words. The reader’s convenience, someone discovered, would be served by some spacing here and there.” Jacques Barzun

“Do not be afraid to make, from time to time, one paragraph six lines long and the next twenty-two. The aim is not packaging in uniform containers; it is reproducing in visual form the weight and contours of each portion of your thought. A perceptible difference of length will at the same time contribute to variety of effect, so useful in sustaining attention.” Jacques Barzun

“If anything is a brick in composition—and there is some doubt about that—the paragraph is it.” Jacques Barzun

“Ideally, the perfect composition would consist of sentences so formed that the transition to the next would occur, without a word, in the reader’s mind.” Jacques Barzun

“If you can take control of your sentence, then you can write your whole book. There is no such thing as an unimportant sentence: Each sentence must contribute to the effect of the book. Each subject—the doer of the action—ties in to your greater subject; every predicate—the action itself—is a mini drama. Every direct object completes a thought.” Philip Gerard

“Whenever you use the passive voice, the doer of the action recedes into the background—or may not be known at all.” Philip Gerard

“Whenever you use a static verb—is, feels, involves, senses—the effect is static.” Philip Gerard

“Whenever you clutter a sentence with verbs, you risk diffusing the focus, undercutting the power of the one verb that matters.” Philip Gerard

“Whenever a pronoun has no clear referent, the reader is at least momentarily confused.” Philip Gerard

“Don’t skate along on top of the prose, painting with a broad brush and hoping for the best. Climb down into the gears of the sentence: What do you mean to say, and have you said it without ambiguity?” Philip Gerard

“A piece in Time magazine said that in my books grammar was irrelevant. Actually, it’s not irrelevant—it’s expendable. Out it goes if it gets in the way.” Elmore Leonard

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