Definition and Examples of the Middle Style in Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In classical rhetoric, the middle style is reflected in speech or writing that (in terms of word choice, sentence structures, and delivery) falls between the extremes of the plain style and the grand style.

Roman rhetoricians generally advocated the use of the plain style for teaching, the middle style for "pleasing," and the grand style for "moving" an audience.

Examples and Observations

  • An Example of the Middle Style: Steinbeck on the Urge to Travel
    "When I was very young and the urge to be someplace was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age, I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself."
    (John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Viking, 1962)
  • Three Kinds of Style
    "The classical rhetoricians delineated three kinds of style--the grand style, the middle style, and the plain style. Aristotle told his students that every kind of rhetorical style is capable of being used 'in season or out of season.' They warned against the too grand style calling it 'swollen,' or the too plain style which when misused they called 'meagre,' and 'dry and bloodless.' The middle style used inappropriately they called 'slack, without sinews and joints . . . drifting.'"
    (Winifred Bryan Horner, Rhetoric in the Classical Tradition. St. Martin's, 1988)
  • The Middle Style in Roman Rhetoric
    "The speaker who sought to entertain his listeners would choose a 'middle' style. Vigor was sacrificed for charm. Any and every form of ornamentation was appropriate, including the use of wit and humor. Such a speaker possessed the skill to develop arguments with breadth and erudition; he was master at amplification. His words were chosen for the effect they would produce on others. Euphony and imagery were cultivated. The overall effect was one of moderation and temperance, of polish and urbanity. This style of discourse, more than any other, typified Cicero himself and would later influence us in English through the marvelous prose style of Edmund Burke."
    (James L. Golden, The Rhetoric of Western Thought, 8th ed. Kendall/Hunt, 2004)
  • The Tradition of the Middle Style
    - "The Middle Style . . . resembles the simple in striving to communicate truth to the understanding with clearness, and resembles the grand in aiming to influence the feelings and passions. It is bolder and more profuse in the employment of figures and the various emphatic verbal forms than the simple style; but does not use those appropriate to intense feeling, which are found in the grand.
    "This style is employed in all compositions intended not only to inform and convince, but at the same time to move the feelings and passions. Its character varies with the predominance of one or other of these ends. When instruction and conviction are predominant, it approaches the lower style; when influencing the feelings is the main object, it partakes more of the character of the higher."
    (Andrew D. Hepburn, Manual of English Rhetoric, 1875)
    - "The middle style is the style you don't notice, the style that does not show, ideal transparency. . . .
    "To define a style in this way, of course, means that we cannot talk about the style itself--the actual configuration of words on the page--at all. We must talk about the social substance surrounding it, the historical pattern of expectations which renders it transparent."
    (Richard Lanham, Analyzing Prose, 2nd ed. Continuum, 2003)
    - "Cicero's idea of the middle style . . . lies between the ornateness and perorations of the grand or vigorous style (used for persuasion) and the simple words and conversational manner of the plain or low style (used for proof and instruction). Cicero designated the middle style as a vehicle for pleasure and defined it by what it is not--not showy, not highly figurative, not stiff, not excessively simple or terse. . . . The twentieth-century reformers, up to and beyond Strunk and White, were and are advocating their version of the middle style. . . .
    "An accepted middle style exists for any form of writing you can think of: news stories in The New York Times, scholarly articles in the sciences or humanities, historical narratives, Weblogs, legal decisions, romance or suspense novels, CD reviews in Rolling Stone, medical case studies."
    (Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page. Harper, 2004)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of the Middle Style in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of the Middle Style in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of the Middle Style in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).