American Composition and Rhetoric (Davidson)

Davidson, Donald. American Composition and Rhetoric. 4th edition. New York: Scribner’s, 1959.

I wouldn’t normally write a review on a college composition manual.  As the old adage notes, textbooks are where good writing goes to die.  But when the book in question is written by a Vanderbilt Fugitive and Southern Agrarian, one must sit up and take note.  Although most books that take a “little bit of everything” approach usually fail, this doesn’t.  Donald Davidson, speaking as a professor and teacher of students, does just this, but he does so in a way that gives us the best of everything.

I’m breaking with the standard review format and giving the reader gems from Davidson.  His comments on rhetorical style are just too good to present in any other way.

How to Write a Review

I. Approach to the subject: usually a paragraph relating to the book’s timeliness.

II. Presentation of the Subject Matter: present the basic ideas.

III. Critical estimate: Discuss excellencies and defects of the work. Refer to specifics.

The Sentence, or how to write with style

Verbals do not constitute predicates (161).

Rhetorical form: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” (188).  This sentence is organized around two powerful word-groups: (1) a foolish consistency and (2) hobgoblin of little minds. Each contains a strong word (foolish and hobgoblin).  In other words, “Emerson put important words in important places” (189).

The above sentence would be ruined if the adjective were buried in a dependent clause.  When you shift the subject, the emphasis changes.

Rhetorical Analysis

It is the study of the points of a sentence. One such point is the “pivot” word. The emphatic points of a sentence are the beginning and end. In complex sentences pivot words s

Using the right phrase

A phrase in rhetoric isn’t always the same as a phrase in grammar (206). We are thinking more along the lines of combinations than of grammatical units. It will often be an important word and its modifiers.  Psalm 19 in the KJV is a perfect example (207).

“A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination; and now his head was full of nothing but enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, complaints, armours, and abundance of stuff and impossibilities; insomuch that all the fables and fantastic tales which he read, seemed to him now as the most authentic histories.”
–Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote.


“Like ideas require like expression” (214). It isn’t simply grammatical coordination.  It is also “consistency of form as well as equality of rank” (215). Parallelism “directs one’s attention to structural units.” Using too much parallelism, though, will make you seem too ornate and pretentious.

Types of Sentence Structure

Loose Sentence

It has a predicate early in the sequence of its sentence elements (219). The “thought” is complete long before the end. It ends with a modifier.

Charles had a habit of taking early morning walks, perhaps because his aunt had commended the birds, if not the worms, to his attention, or perhaps he just could not sleep late, anyway.

Its goal is to add qualifications after the assertion is made.  

Periodic Sentence

It withholds its predicate until the end, or near the end of the sentence. Its meaning is not complete until the end or close to the end.

How much of this morbid feeling sprant from an original disease of the mind, how much from real misfortune, how much from the nervousness of dissipation, how much was fanciful…it is impossible for us, and would probably have been impossible for the most intimate friends of Lord Byron, to decide.

It aims for the principle of suspension. If used sparingly and wisely, it can have a concentrated and sharp effect.

Balanced Sentence

It is similar to parallelism. “An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia.”  It is good for expressing wit.

Combining Sentences in a paragraph

By grouping short sentences together in a paragraph one creates “distinctness of detail.” It gives a matter-of-fact feel (229).  Groups of longer sentences give a stately feel.

Key Idea: the structure of a sentence is far more important than its length (231). “Structure determines length,” and the complexity of one’s thought determines the structure.


“Abstract terms like progress, tradition, fundamental values, social awareness, constructive, outstanding are often the refuge of writers who do not know what they want to say, yet wish somehow to be impressive and seem important” (271).

Abstract and general terms have a place, though.   Scientific and philosophical writing must usually be general (273).

However, being the woman of the town could be traumatic; it carried certain risks: diseases and possibly death.

Narrative and Fictional Writing, some notes.

“The point of view establishes the scale of the description, and this scale, once established, must not be violated” (293).

On writing short stories: “a naive or unconscious echoing of the method of the folk tale–as in the use of a rigid plot, generalized narrative, stereotyped characters, forced ending–is a certain mark of the novice, and is sure to bring failure” (353).

The prose idiom: must be learned by “close examination of good stories.” It “achieves its results more through suggestion than through explicit statement” (360). The sentences need to be mainly straightforward and direct.


Davidson almost convinced me to use notecards in research.

Literary Criticism

The main point in good style is to get the author’s point across.  Good style is more than good grammar, though rarely less (490).

Informal Essays

They get their unity by “observing a rule of balance.”  This unity is often a “harmony of effect” (495). As Dr Johnson notes, “familiar, but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious.”

The text ends with a brief review of grammar.  Some highlights:

When a noun modifies a gerund, it takes the possessive case (547). This does not apply if there is a clause or phrase intervening between it and the gerund (565).

Because-clauses.  Avoid constructions like the following:

The reason why he refused to sign the petition was because he considered it mere propaganda.”

The clause following was is a predicate complement.  It cannot be used as an adverbial clause.  Instead, it should read:

He refused to sign the petition because he considered it mere propaganda.

The because-clause is now modifying refused.

Odd Rules

“The intensive very, when used with a past participle, cannot be alone in formal discourse, but is correct only when used with the adverb much” (617).

Avoid the “and which” error.  “Two or more phrases or two or more clauses can be coordinated, but not a phrase and a clause” (622).

Absolute phrases = nominative absolutes (651).

“My notes taken, I left the library.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s