Generative Rhetoric

“Generative rhetoric” is a term first used by composition specialist Francis Christensen nearly forty years ago to describe a system of principles governing the analysis and composition of sentences (and whole passages)1.  Although these principles are not new (indeed, Christensen claimed that modern prose resembles seventeenth-century prose in its reliance on the cumulative or “loose” sentence2), they are not old, either, like some scientific theory displaced by new knowledge.  The value of Christensen’s analysis will be apparent below, I hope, but for now, let me say that I am introducing you to “generative rhetoric” because, if nothing else, it may make you more aware of certain elements of style—elements that are seen in the writing of professionals. 

 I especially want you to learn to recognize and to use the absolute.

 At the least, you may want to incorporate the absolute and other elements in your own style (if they’re not in there already).  At best, studying and practicing the principles of “generative rhetoric” may help you develop your skills of description and analysis, in both narrative and exposition.

 A key principle of generative rhetoric is that the “essential” content in a sentence is found not in the subject-predicate base but rather in what we add onto that base, typically at the end.  Take these sentences, for example:

  • He was married to his work, a union that occupied and gratified him but did not make him happy.
  • She was a superior musician:  technically skillful, emotionally controlled, and intellectually profound.
  • He liked to work in his garden, digging the fragrant earth, preparing the soil, planting geraniums, petunias, and impatiens in various beds and pots.
  • He entered the classroom, his head down, his motions jerky, the burden of his self-consciousness as obvious as the jacket he was wearing that morning, a size too large for his small frame.

In these sentences, the opening base merely prepares the way, establishes the foundation, for the more specific elaboration.  It is in adding to the base that we generate images and ideas. 

Once you recognize the difference between the base clause and the addition, you will be aware of “levels of generality” or “levels of abstraction” as a principle that applies not only to sentences but whole paragraphs.  Look again at the previous example:

  • He entered the classroom,

his head down,

his motions jerky,

the burden of his self-consciousness as obvious as the jacket he was wearing,

 a size too large for his small frame.

In this sentence, there are three levels of abstraction or generality.  The third (deepest) level is occupied by the last “cluster,” a size too large for his small frame.  A sentence may have many more levels, of course.  For a guide to Christensen’s analysis of sentences, and for more examples, click here.

 Effective writing is characterized by this movement from general to specific and then back again.  In whole paragraphs, general statements establish main points and guide the reader along the path of the writer’s thought.  Specific development clarifies and supports main points.  The general statement is the “long shot” in a movie while specific development is the “close-up.”  The general and the specific work together, each contributing to the coherence of the whole work.  Indeed, coherence (or “flow”) is not simply a matter of transition words and phrases (“First,” “Therefore,” “On the other hand”); it is also the result of this interplay between the general and the specific.