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Five Traditional Canons of Rhetoric

Updated on October 4, 2012

Rhetoric…it just sounds so old fashioned! Or perhaps it sounds bad. Or confusing. But it’s none of those things, and if you learn about it, you can write (and speak) more effectively, whether it’s for a class, for work, or convincing your parents to let you go to an out of state college.

An obvious time when rhetotic was not used in an argument...thanks, Monty Python!

So what is rhetoric?

Depending on when you’ve heard the term, you probably think negatively about it. The connotation of rhetoric is that it’s something that politicians and lawyers use to get their way. It’s all empty words and argument for the sake of argument. But it’s not.

The reality is that rhetoric has been around for a very long time. It’s actually from ancient Rome, and it’s all about the study of the effective use of language, the ability to use language effectively, the art of making persuasive speeches, and the art of influencing the thought and conduct of an audience. Sounds pretty good now, right?

Roman scholar and teacher Quintilian suggested thinking about certain issues when creating a persuasive argument. These are

  • What there is to say?
  • Before whom?
  • In whose defense?
  • Against whom?
  • At what time/place?
  • Under what circumstances?
  • What is popular opinion?
  • What does the “judge” believe?
  • Express deprecation or desire?

If you boil them down, you come up with the five canons of rhetoric are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Confused? Don’t be.

The Beatles' songs used to explain rhetorical devices...

Edzell Castle, Angus, Scotland. One of the seven liberal arts carvings.
Edzell Castle, Angus, Scotland. One of the seven liberal arts carvings. | Source


Invention is discovering arguments within a situation. You want to convince someone you’re right, but how? Use invention. Here are some questions you can use to help come up with an argument for any situation:

  • Have recent events made the issue urgent right now, or do I need to show its urgency to make it relevant to the present? Will a history of the issue help in this regard?
  • What arguments seem to be favored by what groups at this time? That is, what communities are making which arguments? How are their interests served by these arguments?
  • What venues give voices to which sides of the issues? Does one group or another seem to be in a better position – or a better place – from which to argue? In other words, what are the power dynamics at work in an issue? Who has power? Who doesn’t? Why?
  • What lines of argument would be appropriate or inappropriate considering the prevailing needs and values of the audience?
  • What other issues are bound up with discourse about this issue right now, in this place and in this community? Why?

Was this useful?

Now, the teacher in me wants to take over. Please go ahead and take the poll for me and let me know how you’re going to use what you just read about.

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Arrangement is slightly easier than invention. Arrangement is all about the order to put the argument into. There are generally six parts of every argument: introduction (exordium), statement of facts (narration), division (partitio), proof (confirmatio), refutation (refuatio), and conclusion (peroratio). The exordium (introduction) is there to make the audience well disposed towards the rhetor and the issue and grab the audience’s attention. The statement of facts is basically the thesis statement of your argument. Be as clear as possible. The division is when you set the argument up – like setting up a road map. If you’ve ever been told by an English teacher to write a three-part thesis statement, you’ve already use this theory. The proof is when you present your argument. The refutation is just as important as the proof. It’s when you present counter-arguments. You have to not just tell people why you’re right; now’s the chance to tell them why they’re wrong! Finally, the conclusion is when you bring it home. You summarize your issues and repeat your main points that support your argument.


Unlike invention, which is about finding the argument, the style is about how to argue. You want to look at conventional niceties of written language (like grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.), clarity (does your audience understand what you’re saying), and appropriateness (audience analysis would fall into “appropriateness”). Ornament is the final part of style. Ornament includes figures of speech like “hitting a sales target,” figures of thought like “love is a journey,” figures of language like “the engine roared to life,” and tropes like the Benjamin Franklin quote: “we must hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately” (two different meanings of “hang”).


Memory isn’t just remembering things, although it used to be. In ancient Rome, people would have to prepare and give speeches without the help of any of our commons aids (like PowerPoint or notecards). Instead, they used mnemonic devices and commonplaces.

Common places are things that a culture shares. If you make a reference to them, the entire culture gets the point without needing to go further. For example, if someone were to bring up 9/11, most Americans will automatically think of a terrorist attack. There’s no need to take it further; that “common place” will explain everything for you.


This is potentially the most obvious of the five canons of rhetoric. Delivery is just that – how to give/present a speech. Just like we have actors now, those who gave speeches in public “acted” as well. Their delivery was a critical component in how well they were received. Nowadays, we do more than just deliver things verbally. We also present using words and using the Internet, like this Hub.

A quick video made from a PowerPoint presentation I've used in the past...


Crowley, S. & Hawhee, D. (2009). Ancient rhetoric for contemporary students. 4th Ed. New York, New York: Pearson Longman.

Silva Rhetoricae. (n.d.) The Canons of Rhetoric. Retrieved September 17, 2012, from


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    • KatSanger profile image

      Katherine Sanger 5 years ago from Texas

      For a while, I taught a class on "Rhetorical analysis of non-fiction." It was, I think, an excellent class for all students, regardless of major, because it taught them how to analyze both writing and speeches and gave them a way to discuss what they had analyzed. Many students that took it were surprised to learn that rhetoric wasn't "bad" (as in "political rhetoric" or "meaningless rhetoric"), but instead, they found out that they could use it to make their own arguments more convincing.

    • nsnorth profile image

      nsnorth 5 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      It's hard to believe that no one has commented on this yet, especially given that rhetoric surrounds nearly every aspect of life and that there are so few people formally trained in rhetoric. Your article is very informative and organized. It's an excellent overview for people looking to refresh as well as an introduction for people looking to learn more about the specifics. Thank you for writing! I enjoyed this piece.