Canons of Rhetoric

The Canons of Rhetoric

invention  | arrangement  | style  | memory  | delivery
Martin Luther King Jr. delivered stirring rhetoric.

Martin Luther King Jr. at a freedom rally. Image from the Library of Congress.

Rhetoric, as an art, has long been divided into five major categories or “canons”:

  1. Invention
  2. Arrangement
  3. Style
  4. Memory
  5. Delivery

These categories have served both analytical and generative purposes. That is to say, they provide a template for the criticism of discourse (and orations in particular), and they give a pattern for rhetorical education. Rhetorical treatises through the centuries have been set up in light of these five categories, although memory and delivery consistently have received less attention. Rhetoric shares with another longstanding discipline, dialectic, training in invention and arrangement. When these disciplines competed, rhetoric was sometimes reduced to style alone.Although the five canons of rhetoric describe areas of attention in rhetorical pedagogy, these should not be taken as the only educational template for the discipline of rhetoric. Treatises on rhetoric also discuss at some length the roots or sources of rhetorical ability, and specific kinds of rhetorical exercises intended to promote linguistic facility.

Sample Rhetorical Analysis: CANONS OF RHETORIC

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the first to claim he had a dream. Some, such as Clayborne Carson and Keith D. Miller have recently shown that the civil rights leader’s most famous speech is in fact largely lifted from the sermons of others. If King is not responsible for inventing the subject matter of this address, he can be credited with ordering and delivering it in a style appropriate to his very mixed audience. Speaking to a huge crowd both in Washington, D.C. and across television, King drew upon commonplaces of our country that lie deep in our cultural memory, and did so with a kind of sober charisma that made his own words memorable and above all, effective.

Sources: Cic. De Inv. 1.7; Cic. De Or. 1.31.142; Quint. 3.3; Melx A8v (“officia”)


The information on this page comes from: Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University. EIL is grateful that his “Silva Rhetoricae” ( is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. The Martin Luther King Jr. image was added by EIL staff.