Language, Rhetoric, and Clarity

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In this Skill, we’ll look at the different ways in which we use language—and how this affects our thinking. In particular, we’ll examine the ways in which clear thinking and clear writing are connected; what it means to clarify your own and others’ perspectives through the careful use of words; and the ways in which rhetoric seeks to persuade us through emotional rather than reasoned appeals.

Having looked at some of the fundamental ways in which language is used, we’ll investigate the nature of different linguistic registers: that is, the different ways in which all of us use language in different contexts and settings. From here, we’ll look at rhetorical uses of language in particular, and what it means to become a critically engaged reader of others’ rhetoric.

As we’ll see, rhetoric encompasses a wide variety of techniques known as devices that vary from simple turns of phrase to elaborate constructions. Importantly, however, dealing with rhetoric isn’t simply a case of dismissing it as “bad”—or trying to eliminate all persuasive or rhetorical elements from your own work.

This is because all language to some degree entails trying to persuade people of something. It’s thus important to be aware of the ways in which different types of language achieve different effects, rather than focusing on the impossible prospect of perfectly clear, reasonable, or impartial language.

As well as trying to dispel some common myths around language and rhetoric, this skill will invite you to consider the persuasive and emotional implications of scientific as well as populist forms of words and to investigate the ways in which every single choice we make around language entails particular priorities, judgments, and preferences.

Most importantly, thinking critically means being aware of the ways in which all language embodies certain assumptions and connotations—and that changing how we describe something can profoundly affect how both we and others view it. What, for example, is the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, or between a government and a regime, or between an entrepreneur and a profiteer? Sometimes, the only difference is who’s doing the talking—and what they wish their audience to believe.

If you want to take control of your own thinking, rather than letting others think for you, it all begins with the words you use.

Pause for Thought

What do you most enjoy reading—and find most difficult? When you are writing, what style would you most like to emulate? What’s your favorite book, and why?

Further Reading

  • When it comes to the vocabulary of critical engagement, Nigel Warburtons’s pocket-sized guide Thinking from A to Z (Routledge, 2000) is a perfect companion.
  • One of my favorite books about rhetoric, and one of the most readable, is Sam Leith’s You Talkin' To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (Profile, 2011).
  • The University of Illinois Writers Workshop offers some very helpful online resources for improving the clarity and confidence of your own writing.
  • Robert Harris’s handbook of rhetorical devices offers an impressively comprehensive online list of (as the name suggests) different devices and approaches.
  • For a great interview and further reading suggestions around language and politics, David Greenberg’s interview with Five Books around “political spin” is a rich resource.