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What Is Decorum?

Decorum (the accommodating of the words to the audience) is a central rhetorical concept requiring one’s words and subject matter to be aptly fit to each other, to the circumstances and occasion (kairos), the audience, and the speaker.

In sum, decorum is the capacity to shape the words appropriately to the audience, in order that they might understand the message.

Using Decorum for Effective Delivery

Although initially just one of several virtues of style (aptum), decorum has evolved to become the most rhetorical of rhetorical concepts, an idea that permeates the whole of classical rhetoric, and an important point of convergence for the social, moral, and aesthetic concerns of the rhetorical tradition.

Essentially, if one’s ideas are appropriately embodied and presented (thereby observing decorum), then one’s speech will be effective. Conversely, rhetorical vices are breaches of some sort of decorum.

Decorum is properly associated with harmony, grace, and comeliness as well as timeliness and appropriateness, just as the beauty of nature is associated with its rational design.

Decorum has been a controlling principle in correlating certain rhetorical genres or strategies to certain circumstances. AristotleOpens in new window describes each of the branches of oratory as being appropriate to judicialOpens in new window, legislativeOpens in new window, or epideicticOpens in new window occasions and to specific time periods (past, future, and present, respectively).

The concept of stasis (equilibrium) included a procedure for discovering and developing arguments appropriate to given circumstances.

CiceroOpens in new window followed the principle of decorum in assigning an appropriate level of style to distinct rhetorical purposes. Throughout rhetoricOpens in new window, decorum structures the pedagogy and procedures of this discipline as much as it governs the overall uses of language.

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  • References
    • Arkins, J.W.H. Literary Criticism in Antiquity: A Sketch of Its Development. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1934.
    • Bate, Walker Jackson, From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth Century England, New York: Harper, 1946.
    • Eimsatt, W.k., and Cleanth Brooks,Literary Criticism: A Short Histroy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957.

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