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Elocutio is the term for the mastery of stylistic elements in Western classical rhetoric and comes from the Latin loqui, "to speak". Although today we associate the word elocution more with eloquent speaking, for the classical rhetorician it connoted "style".
It is the third of the five canons of classical rhetoric (the others being inventio, dispositio, memoria, and pronuntiatio) that concern the crafting and delivery of speeches and writing. Beginning in the Renaissance, writers increasingly emphasized the stylistic aspects of rhetoric over the other divisions of rhetoric.
An orator or writer had a number of things to decide in developing a style for a particular discourse. First, there was the level of style; plain (attenuata or subtile), middle (mediocris or robusta), or high (florida or gravis). Writers were instructed to match the basic style to their subject matter and their audience. For instance, Quintilian in his Institutio Oratoria deemed the plain style suitable for instruction, the middle for moving oration, and the high for charming discourse. Today, we associate elocution and rhetoric with the last of these styles, but for rhetoricians, each style was useful in rhetoric.
The ancient authors agreed that the four ingredients necessary in order to achieve good style included correctness, clearness, appropriateness, and ornament.
Sometimes translated as “purity”, correctness meant that rhetors should use words that were current and should adhere to the grammatical rules of whatever language they wrote. Correctness rules are standards of grammar and usage drawn from traditional grammar. In regard to clarity, most ancient teachers felt that clarity meant that rhetors should use words in their ordinary or everyday senses. The object of clarity was to allow meaning to “shine through”, like light through a window.
Appropriateness probably derives from the Greek rhetorical notion to prepon, meaning to say or do whatever is fitting in a given situation. Ancient teachers taught that close attention to kairos will help to determine the appropriate style.
The last and most important of the excellences of style is ornament, which is defined as extraordinary or unusual use of language. Ornamentation was divided into three broad categories: figures of speech, figures of thought, and tropes. Figures of speech are any artful patterning or arrangement of language. Figures of thought are artful presentations of ideas, feelings, concepts; figures of thought that depart from the ordinary patterns of argument. Tropes are any artful substitution of one term for another.
A great amount of attention was paid to figures of speech, which were classified into various types and sub-types. One Renaissance writer, Henry Peacham, enumerated 184 different figures of speech, although it could be argued that this was a manifestation of the increasing over-emphasis on style that began in the Renaissance.
Also important to elocutio were subjects we would generally regard as grammatical: the proper use of punctuation and conjunctions; the desirable order of words in a sentence (unlike English, many languages are not as dependent on word order to establish relationships between words, and so choices of word order may revolve more around form than function); and the length of sentences.
Even though established in ancient Rome, elocutio is important till this day. Since television can broadcast speeches all over the world, one's image can be impacted immensely by their public speaking. Today in politics, public speaking almost solely determines the way we view a candidate. It is not so much the policies the candidate believes in, but the manner and delivery in which those policies are delivered that affects our opinion of politicians. The importance in delivery of speech and appearance is apparent in the September 26th, 1960 debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Most people who listened to the speech on the radio thought Nixon won the debate, while those who watched it on television thought Kennedy won. Nixon had been recovering from the flu and looked disheveled, drowsy, ill, and uncomfortable during the entire program. In contrary, Kennedy looked good, sounded confident, and was full of energy in his answers. The great presentation and delivery of his information clearly showed Kennedy's elocutio was superior to Nixon's, even though people who listened to the debate on the radio believed the content of Nixon's argument was better.
Many of those who are held in high regard and seen as great leaders in history often are quite experienced in elocutio. Winston Churchill famously quoted, "Speaking to five thousand people through a microphone is no more tiring then talking to a hundred. It doesn't bother me. I'm not overawed by them. I've gotten used to it." Also, Abraham Lincoln's great Gettysburg Address is a form of elocutio that has become one of the reasons he still remains a major icon in America to this day.
Elocutio is probably more important today then it has ever been. With technology and mass media flourishing, videos and public appearances by politicians and others can be spread across to millions of people in a matter of seconds. No longer do we just sit next to a radio and solely base our opinion off what we hear. The modern age of elocutio now demands great physical presentation and style, with the inferior part being the actual content of words.
- Jamieson, Kathleen Hall (1988). Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 5.