A thing I enjoy about this job is being encouraged to read books that unexpectedly turn out to be profoundly relevant to my own interests. Jeanne Fahnestock‘s new book, Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion (Oxford University Press, 2011), turns out to be just such a volume. I read it with a constant sense of surprise that this long and distinguished tradition provides insights on many objects of current linguistic enquiry (and indeed a sense of embarrassment that I didn’t already know that). But there is plenty in this book for readers who don’t share my eccentric obsessions. On the one hand, there’s a careful and very readable account of the numerous techniques identified by rhetoricians, from amphiboly to antimetabole. On the other, there’s vivid exemplification of the rhetorical effects that can be achieved, with examples from influential literary, political and scientific texts. The reader is left in no doubt that rhetoric is alive, well, and perhaps more powerful than ever. In this interview, we talk about the status of rhetoric as an object of study, and its recent renaissance. We discuss the usefulness of the exhaustive distinctions identified by rhetoricians of the past, and their relevance to users and analysts of language today. And we consider the ultimate goal of persuasive language use, the attainment of the (rhetorical) sublime.
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