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What Is Elocutio?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Elocutio is one of five Western rhetorical techniques that deals with the correct deployment and usage of words and phrases. There are four elements to elocutio: clearness, correctness, appropriateness and ornamentation. Mastery of the technique of elocutio is important to anyone wishing to make a speech, from an after-dinner speaker to someone making a presentation in the board room. This technique is most often seen at rallies, speeches and discourses in politics, whether debating a new law, problem or trying to sway voters in an election.

The term is of Latin origin and is related to ideas on rhetoric developed first in the Greek world, in democracies such as Athens, and then during the final centuries of the Roman Republic. The word comes from the Latin term ‘ioqui’ meaning ‘to speak.’ In modern English, it is related to the world ‘elocution,’ meaning ‘to speak well.’

Elocutio is the middle of the rules concerning good rhetoric as outlined by Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman politician and noted rhetorician, and others. The other canons start with ‘inventio'; the invention or gathering of material for a speech. The second is ‘disposito,’ which is the arrangement of the gathered material. After elocutio comes ‘memoria,’ the memorization of the material, as many speeches are presented without paper or autocue. The final canon is ‘pronuntiatio,’ the correct pronunciation of words and employment of speaking techniques.

Clearness in the elocutio sense refers not to the correct pronunciation of words, which is an element of ‘pronuntiatio.’ Clearness in this sense means clarity; more specifically, the clarity of message contained within the speech. The choice of words and phrases has to avoid ambiguity in order to leave the listener in no doubt about what message the rhetorician is trying to convey.

Correctness is determined by the words and phrases used. In order to be correct, the words must conform first to known rules on grammar and usage. A sheep is a sheep and not a form of attack helicopter, for example. As well as the correct use of semantics, conjunctions and compounds, the words and phrases used must not be archaic. This means they must be in modern usage and, therefore, widely understood.

The content of a speech is elocutio-appropriate if it is relevant to the speech. The content must also avoid taboo words and phrases. For example, Enoch Powell’s speech on race relations in Britain is remembered for his use of the taboo phrase ‘rivers of blood’ to describe inter-racial disharmony. The phrase has obscured other points on the subject.

Ornament is the last and often considered the most important element of a speech. In elocutio terms, it means adding flowery phrases, unusual or powerful words to the speech in order to make it more memorable. Making sure the words are correct and appropriate, but also ornamental, means striking a clear balance. Ornamentation includes figures of speech such as puns, allusions and metaphors.

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