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.”

Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Truss)

Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Penguin House, 2003.

Good punctuation, like good manners, should be invisible (Truss 3).  It shouldn’t draw attention to itself. As Truss notes, punctuation “points” our writing. It’s to keep the story from stumbling.

The Apostrophe

Neither possessive determiners nor possessive pronouns require an apostrophe (40).

“The confusion of the possessive ‘its’ with the contractive ‘it’s’ is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler” (43).

Commas and Style

Commas do not simply serve as proper punctuation markers. They also indicate the pacing of a passage.  Take this sentence:

“They tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop” (85).  As Truss points out, “This was a decelerating sentence. The commas were incrementally applying the brakes.”

Have you ever noticed how an experienced writer sometimes uses a comma splice?  Did he suddenly forget the rules?  Not exactly.  A comma splice, “done knowingly by an established writer…is effective, poetic, dashing…Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful” (88).  Proceed with caution.

While a semicolon functions like a period in that it combines two independent clauses, it has the stylistic effect of leaving the reader expecting more (114). Be careful, though: “They are dangerously habit-forming” (115).

Rules of Colons

Use a colon when two statements are placed “in dramatic opposition” (117). A colon can also have the stylistic effect of an “abrupt ‘pulling up’” (117-118).


This isn’t a how-to of grammar.  To be sure, there are rules.  Most of them, however, can be found in any grammar text.  The book is funny, to be sure, but not nearly as funny as the editorial blurbs suggest.  What the book does deliver are hints on how to use grammatical rules for style.

Dreyer’s English (Guide to Clarity and Style)

Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Complete Guide to Clarity and Style. Random House Publishing.

Benjamin Dreyer is the copy editor at Random House and in this book he shares all of the tips and horror stories he has come across in his career. He is brutally funny. If you have a decent command of grammar and language, then this book should always be at arm’s reach.


1. “Go a week without writing:

In fact

They aren’t wrong but they communicate that your prose might be missing something stronger.

2. Go light on exclamation points (Dreyer 65). By ‘go light’ I mean something like the following: Remember that last time you used an exclamation point? Yeah, never do that again.

67 Assorted Things

This chapter is the nuts and bolts of the book. In it he correctly and heroically defends the ‘series comma’ (Oxford Comma).  The ‘only’ comma: He traveled with his daughter Clara. Is it his only daughter? If so, use a comma. Consider this example from real life:

Elizabeth Taylor’s second marriage, to Michael Wilding.
Elizabeth Taylor’s second marriage to Richard Burton.

Colons. If what follows the colon is a full sentence, capitalize it.

Semicolons. Besides their basic grammatical function, they serve in writing to lay out connections between images and ideas (or at least in T. S. Eliot’s work). The best use of semicolons is the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Nota Bene: semicolons are always set outside terminal quotation marks, periods, and commas.

a) “aggravate” doesn’t mean irritate.
b) don’t use “based off of” when you mean to say “based on.”
c) “Begs the question” is a logical fallacy. What you meant to say was “raises the question.”
d) Something is “centered on,” not “centered around.” If it is centered on something, then it isn’t around it.
d) “Comprised” means “made of,” so you don’t need to add an “of” after comprised.
e) First, second, and third don’t end in -ly.
f) Nonplussed means “confused,” not chilled.
g) reference isn’t a verb.
h) You don’t need to “try and” do something. You just need to try to do it.
i) Place “only” next to the thing that is being “only’d.” Change “If you only see” to “if you see only.”

Always Avoid

1. Never use the phrase “the fact that” (53).
2. Try to avoid: “angry flaring of the nostrils,” “thoughtful pursing of lips,” etc.
3. Also overrated: blinking, grimacing, smiling weakly.
4. Don’t write “he nodded his head.” What else would he nod? Same thing for “shrugging his shoulders.”
5. Instead of saying, “He began to cry,” say “He cried.” Get rid of all “began to”s.
6. Loan is a noun, not a verb. You are thinking of lend.

Similar to always avoid are the “trimmables.” Consider:

a. You don’t need to write “closed fist.” What else can a fist be?
B. Same with “close proximity.”

CS Lewis and the Art of Writing

Image result for c s lewis and the art of writing

The book itself is uneventful.  It’s a summary of writing tips from his Letters and Surprised by Joy.  Mind you, those tips are quite good.   Only towards the end, though, do we get anything in terms of a mechanical “how did Lewis use tip to write.”  See Richard Weaver for more writing tips.

Exercises to be a Good writer

1) Think of one idea or image from your childhood that awakened your imagination. Spend 30 minutes free-writing what it meant (and means) to you.
2) Write 750-1000 about a truth or idea that has shaped your life.  Be specific. Tell a story.
3) In 300 words write about the ways good literature sponsors good writing.
4) What are some good examples of beautiful writing?  What makes them so? In 500 words write about the most beautiful passage you’ve read.
5) In 1000 words write a work of imaginative fiction.  Create characters, plot, and story arc.
6) Consider the virtues that go into literary criticism.  How would you review a (fiction) book based on the following criteria: ability to stir the imagination, clarity of its writing, and ability to communicate timeless truth?
7) In 300 words write a one act play. Once you are finished, write a 300 word story using the same characters and plot of the play. Finally, write a 300 word history of the story’s world.
8) Take your favorite book and write your own adventure piece based on the book’s style, syntax, structure, etc.  How “forced” or “fake” does it feel?
9) For an extended period of time, write 300 words today about a topic, fiction or nonfiction. Do this every day.  Practice, practice, practice.
10) Identify a fault in your writing style–passive voice verbs, unnecessarily complex sentences, etc.–and then try to write 300 words on one topic while avoiding that fault.
11) In 350-400 words write about your style.Where did I learn it?  What elements do I insist on? Which do I neglect.
12) Select something you’ve already written.  Find instances of “abstract” or “ambiguous” language and make them more concrete.

Nota bene:

* Good writers are good readers because good readers keep their ears attuned to language.
* Fancy is a mere mechanical operation of the mind, the accumulation of data.  Imagination is something that has an “almost power” to it.

* Index the book by topics.  I’ve always done my own index but there was no order to it.  

* Create your own system for analyzing the book.  Be careful, though. An overly systematic take can blind you to elements in the book.

* Make the abstract concrete.  A book’s logos (content) will never escape its form.

* Don’t use words that are “too big” for the subject.  Say “very old,” not “extremely old.”
* Never use an adjective or an adverb as a cloak for appealing to the reader to get him to feel as you want him to feel.  Never say a “battle was exciting.” Make the reader feel the excitement.

* Muscles of language: hold on to your finite transitive verb, your concrete nouns, and the muscles of language (but, though, for, because, etc.).  You need finite “verbs with clear subject and object, specific nouns, and sentence elements like functional conjunctions.”

* Sum up a complex paragraph with a punchy short sentence.


The author says things like “he might have been the most literate man who ever lived.”  At best this is impossible to prove, and it is probably false.  

Ending a sentence with a preposition

From Dryer, Dryer’s English

“Two women are seated side-by-side at a posh dinner party, one a older frosty matron, the other an easygoing Southern gal.

Southern gal, amiably to Frosty Matron: So where y’all from?

Frosty Matron: I’m from a place where people don’t end a sentence with a preposition.

Southern gal, sweetly, after a moment’s hesitation: Ok.  So where y’all from, bitch?