Rhetoric is an odd word.
It survives in phrases such as “rhetorical question” — in other words, a question which isn’t really a question but just a way of drawing attention to something which is supposed to be obvious already.
But although the word is not much seen today, it was in past ages tremendously important. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, rhetoric was the art of structuring language so as to make an argument as clear and persuasive as possible. Speeches were works of art. High-flown and flowery arguments were permissible. Exercises to allow speakers to project their voices were important: there were no loudspeakers, only loud speakers.
As expounded by fine rhetoric, conflicting points of view could be assessed and the true position arrived at. The process was seen as fundamental to the way in which people lived their lives and the way in which societies were organised. Public speakers, skilled in the art of rhetoric, were immensely influential and successful people. In ancient Rome, Cicero, remembered to this day because of the many letters he left behind, was a famous and very effective public speaker.
In europe, between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Renaissance — the rediscovery of ancient learning and culture — saw a renewed in the study of rhetoric. However, in subsequent ages the advent of printing and (in modern times) TV, radio and the internet, have changed the picture.
The process of hearing both sides of an argument, and then reaching a decision, is still very much part of our culture. We see it in Parliament and in the law courts, and in our daily lives. But the focus is rather different. Public speaking in the classical sense rarely takes place. The process of considering opposing arguments is not designed to establish eternal and universally accepted truths. Rather it is a practical matter, intended to establish values and ideas which are generally accepted at the time.
In this sense, rhetoric in its modern form is essential to everything we do. The approach is low-key, practical, and precise. Precision is a modern idea. Our ancient ancestors did not expect everything to be precise. But for us, technology means that things often do have to be precise in order to work and that idea has spread widely through our culture.
Rhetoric still applies to language. Words are slippery things, but there are sources which help us to be as precise as possible in what we say and write. For Property Law Advice, our principal guide is the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, totalling about 3,700 pages. The Shorter Oxford explains the meaning of words, as it currently understood, and it gives examples of how they have been used in the past. But we also use an older work, Lloyds Encyclopaedic Dictionary, published in seven volumes in 1895, to provide a deeper insight into the past use of words.
For us, giving advice is not about being pompous or exaggerating. It’s about writing and speaking as clearly and precisely as we can. If you’re thinking of asking us for advice, please feel free to do likewise.