virtues of style
Figures of Speech

The virtues of style are of early date, developed by Theophrastus and Demetrius (disciples of Aristotle) and later by Cicero and Quintilian. However, they are not as consistently carried forward in the rhetorical tradition as other major categories. Still, they are useful in organizing the various concerns taken up under the heading of style; in illustrating the relationship of rhetoric to grammar; and especially in setting positive terms against which to understand the many varieties of rhetorical vices. It is useful to understand the virtues of style as "norms" of style, which can be deviated from productively (as virtues) or unproductively (as vices).

Authors and literary passages exemplifying these stylistic virtues were the object of rhetorical analysis within rhetorical pedagogy. By means of imitation, students were taught to appreciate and assimilate the various virtues of style (and to avoid corresponding vices)

The virtues of style include.

  1. Correctness
  2. Clarity
  3. "Evidence"
  4. Propriety
  5. Ornateness
1. correctness or purity
latinitas, sermo purus

Correctness or purity is that quality of style by which one speaks or writes in a manner consistent with a given language's norms (consuetudo, usus). In other words, one adheres to the conventions of vocabulary and syntax, grammar and usage, that predominate in that tongue. Those conventions, not incidentally, are largely derived from the usage of educated persons and especially from literary authorities.

Correctness or purity was considered with respect to single words (verba singula) and to groups of words (verba coniuncta). Deviations from the customary use of words or groups of words could be either a grammatical vice or a rhetorical virtue:

Deviations from correctness
as grammatical
as rhetorical
of single words barbarismus metaplasm
of groups of words soloecismus schema or figura

Sources: Arist. 3.5; Ad Herr. 4.11.12; Quint. 8.1.2; Trebizond 65v-66v


2. clarity

Clarity (perspicuitas), closely related to correctness or purity (above), is that quality of style by which language is intelligible. This involves using the proper names and terms for things, and following a straightforward style in arranging words. It may perhaps best be understood in terms of its opposites: clarity is a lack of ambiguity (ambiguitas, amphibologia) and the absence of obscurity (obscuritas).

Clarity is measured in terms of how clear our speech seems to our audience, or how well it appeals logically to the understanding (see logos). Thus, clarity can be aided by a variety of rhetorical strategies or figures that render speech more orderly and therefore more clear (such as some forms of repetition or figures of reasonong).

However, figurative language may in fact impede clarity, rather than help it, and there is a natural tension between this qualitiy of style and the quality of ornateness (below). Quintilian describes various rhetorical figures which, when taken too far, reduce clarity and bring about obscurity.

Clarity is a qualitative term, naming a property that is at times simply the achievement of a golden mean—for example, naming verbal expression that is neither too brief (threatening obscurity and ambiguity) nor too long (threatening tedium and inattention).

Vices Threatening Clarity

Sources: Quint. 8.2; Trebizond 65v


3. "evidence"

"Evidence" does not mean logical proof, but as the Latin root of this word suggests, it refers to that which comes before the eyes. If clarity is that quality of style that measures how well language reaches the understanding, then "evidence" measures how well language reaches the emotions (see pathos) through vivid depiction. Indeed, the Greek term for this quality of style, enargeia, also names a set of figures dedicated to vivid description.

This quality of style can be achieved not only through figures directly devoted to description, but through various means of amplification, division, and climax.

Sources: Quint. 8.3.61-71

4. propriety
aptum, decorum
{to prepon}

Although listed as a quality of style, propriety is of course a controlling principle for all of rhetoric, known better by the Latin term decorum. With respect to style, it is necessary that the words be aptly fit to the subject matter.


5. ornateness

This quality of style refers to the various aesthetic qualities of language so fully illustrated among the various figures of speech. It approaches to some degree the canon of delivery, since ornateness also considers the sound and rhythms of words in their oral and aural dimensions. Ornateness aims at producing delight or admiration in the audience, and may thereby jeopardize clarity.

Like clarity, ornateness is a quality of both single words and groups of words, and some of the same choices that might threaten clarity may improve ornateness—for example, the use of old, coined, or metaphorical words.

Sources: Quint. 8.3

See Also

Sources: Cic. De Inv. 1.7

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Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University
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