In its criticism of Donald Trump, the leader article of the current issue (7-13 May) of The Economist shows us five ways to write with power: a strong opening statement; tricola (the plural of tricolon); varied sentence length; alliteration; starting sentences with And and But.
For fear of infringing copyright, however, I’m afraid I’m not going to reproduce the original text. So you can either buy a copy (they should pay me commission) or take it on trust…
A strong opener with a tricolon and varied sentences
How we open any document is vital, as it sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the communication.
The leader opens with a tricolon — a set of three units of speech in a row — that lists three major achievements of the Republican Party in a 31-word sentence. You might think that’s a turgid way of opening, but what follows is a pointed, 9-word sentence that refers to the next six months of Trump campaigning as not being so ‘glorious’.
A staple of oratory, lists of three have been used for millennia, as they relate to how we process information. We recognise and respond to patterns, and three is the smallest number of elements needed to create a pattern. A well-known tricolon is a remark attributed to Julius Caesar after invading Britain in the 1st century BC: Veni, vidi, vici — ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’
Alliteration — repeating consonant sounds
As Sam Leith says in You Talkin’ To Me? (Profile Books, 2011) alliteration is a way of wiring words and ideas together.
Alliteration abounds in The Economist leader, when it links the words Trump, triumph and tragedy in one sentence, and refers to the risk of the fractious Republican Party fracturing.
(I guess when you use three alliterations in one sentence you could call it a ‘tricoliteration’. Have I just invented a new rhetorical figure?)
Beginning a sentence with And and But
The cause of much horror, heckling and harrumphing in my writing workshops, you can do this — despite what you had drummed into you at school.
You were probably told: ‘Never begin sentences with a conjunction (a joining word) like And or But.’ But sometimes they’re the perfect way to switch from one topic to another. And you can do that efficiently by using a single word.
Separating the two clauses that And or But would normally join together calls attention to the new sentence created and spikes the reader’s interest.
So The Economist leader lists the reasons that Trump will probably lose this election, but might win the next one. Then — opening a new paragraph with And (shock horror!) — it reminds us that, given Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity, he might just win this time.
As for But, the leader uses it to herald a change in tone and content. After discussing the unlikelihood of Trump becoming President in November, But introduces the idea of this being scant comfort as his nomination as candidate has already divided American society.
Here’s what Webster’s Dictionary of English has to say about But:
Part of the folklore of usage is the belief that there is something wrong in beginning a sentence with ‘But’: many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘But’. If that’s what you learned, unlearn it — there is no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change.
I like that idea: a simple word priming the reader for a change in tone, content or concept. As exemplified by The Economist, week in, week out.
If you’d like to know more about RHETORICA®, my 1-day writing workshop, then book a 15-minute slot to speak to me. Together we can assess the state of your people’s writing skills and I’ll share some new writing tips with you — whether or not we end up working together. (The only thing I ask is that you complete a short questionnaire, to make sure we’re the right fit and that I can help you; hope that’s OK with you. Here’s the link: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/B2K8P7X.) Speak to you soon.