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What is a Commonplace?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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A commonplace is a rhetorical device developed by teachers like Aristotle, and has been used in numerous applications in public speaking for many years. Ironically, the commonplace is less common now, though you’ll still see references to commonplace books, which are quite different. You’d most often find commonplaces in things like the modern sermon or in speaking performances given by motivational or extemporaneous speakers.

Even before Aristotle, the Sophists, a group of itinerant scholars traveling the various Greek city-states often taught how to write and deliver speeches. They often performed such speeches for audiences to gain new students, and were occasionally asked to speak on a specific topic with little preparation time. In order to create material that sounded scholarly, they usually had prepared a number of themes or compositions that could be easily adapted quickly to be performed at will.

Aristotle called these themes commonplaces, and by the term he meant no derision. In fact he taught his students to create a variety of prepared themes, which could be delivered as occasion required. They generally took two forms: encomium or vituperation. Encomiums praised something, usually something virtuous that affected most people, like different emotions, or things like democracy. Vituperation criticized something considered evil.

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Each commonplace could be adapted in praise or criticism of a person or institution that exhibited virtue or vice, and most were studied compositions full of applicable quotes, maxims or adages. This led to many keeping commonplace books or notes that could be used if a speaker needed to give a speech on a particular topic or quickly make over a speech for a unique occasion. Shorter commonplaces could be developed too, usually with a few sentences for or against something and one to two well-placed quotes of familiar material.

There was a turning of the tide in the study and production of rhetoric that began to view commonplaces as too trite, too studied and too “common.” You see such sentiment expressed in fiction of the early 19th century, just before the Romantic era, which valued genuine expression and “spontaneous overflow of feeling.” In Pride and Prejudice for example, both Elizabeth Bennet and her father, laugh at the ridiculousness of their cousin Mr. Collins when he openly confesses to practicing commonplace compliments for his employer Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and mentions that he tries to give them “an unstudied air” when delivering them.

Sentiment in both literature and rhetoric had begun to praise the truly extemporaneous, instead of the prepared, and often dismissed commonplaces as something to be avoided because they sounded trite and repetitious. Nevertheless, students and competitors in speech competitions, especially those who must give extemporaneous speeches, may slightly lean on the commonplace today, by having a few prepared remarks about a variety of subjects that can be fit into a speech that must be given on the spot. Being able to reference a few quotes on “common” themes often makes the extemporaneous speaker appear more knowledgeable, prepared, and relaxed.

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