Rhetoric is the art of effective communication; if you communicate with others at all, rhetorical devices are your friends!
Rhetorical devices help you make points more effectively, and help people understand you better. In this article, I'll be covering some important rhetorical devices so you can improve your own writing!
What Are Rhetorical Devices?
A lot of things that you would think of as just regular everyday modes of communicating are actually rhetorical devices That’s because ‘rhetorical devices’ is more or less a fancy way of saying ‘communication tools.’
Most people don’t plan out their use of rhetorical devices in communication, both because nobody thinks, “now would be a good time to use synecdoche in this conversation with my grocery clerk,” and because we use them so frequently that they don’t really register as “rhetorical devices.”
How often have you said something like, “when pigs fly!” Of those times, how often have you thought, “I’m using a rhetorical device!” That’s how ubiquitous they are!
However, being aware of what they are and how to use them can strengthen your communication, whether you do a lot of big speeches, write persuasive papers, or just argue with your friends about a TV show you all like.
Rhetorical devices can function at all levels: words, sentences, paragraphs, and beyond. Some rhetorical devices are just a single word, such as onomatopoeia. Others are phrases, such as metaphor, while still others can be sentence-length (such as a thesis), paragraph-length (hypophora), or go throughout the entire piece, such as a standard five-paragraph essay.
Many of these (such as the thesis or five-paragraph essay) are so standard and familiar to us that we may not think of them as devices. But because they help us shape and deliver our arguments effectively, they're important to know and understand.
Busting out a dictionary isn't the most efficient way to learn rhetorical devices.
The Most Useful Rhetorical Devices List
It would be impossible to list every single rhetorical device in one blog post. Instead, I've collected a mixture of extremely common devices you may have heard before and some more obscure ones that might be valuable to learn.
Amplification is a little similar to parallelism: by using repetition, a writer expands on an original statement and increases its intensity.
Take this example from Roald Dahl’s The Twits:
“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
In theory, we could have gotten the point with the first sentence. We don’t need to know that the more you think ugly thoughts, the uglier you become, nor that if you think good thoughts you won’t be ugly—all that can be contained within the first sentence. But Dahl’s expansion makes the point clearer, driving home the idea that ugly thoughts have consequences.
Amplification takes a single idea and blows it up bigger, giving the reader additional context and information to better understand your point. You don’t just have to restate the point—use amplification to expand and dive deeper into your argument to show readers and listeners how important it is!
Anacoluthon is a fancy word for a disruption in the expected grammar or syntax of a sentence. That doesn’t mean that you misspoke—using anacoluthon means that you’ve deliberately subverted your reader’s expectations to make a point.
For example, take this passage from King Lear:
“I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall—I will do such things,
What they are, yet I know not…”
In this passage, King Lear interrupts himself in his description of his revenge. This has multiple effects on the reader: they wonder what all the world shall do once he has his revenge (cry? scream? fear him?), and they understand that King Lear has interrupted himself to regain his composure. This tells us something about him—that he’s seized by passion in this moment, but also that he regains control. We might have gathered one of those things without anacoluthon, but the use of this rhetorical device shows us both very efficiently.
Anadiplosis refers to purposeful repetition at the end of one sentence or clause and at the beginning of the next sentence or clause. In practice, that looks something like a familiar phrase from Yoda:
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Note the way that the ending word of each sentence is repeated in the following sentence. That’s anadiplosis!
This rhetorical device draws a clear line of thinking for your reader or listener—repetition makes them pay closer attention and follow the way the idea evolves. In this case, we trace the way that fear leads to suffering through Yoda’s purposeful repetition.
When life gives you lemons, use antanagoge!
Antanagoge is the balancing of a negative with a positive. For example, the common phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is antanagoge—it suggests a negative (lots of lemons) and follows that up with a positive (make lemonade).
When writing persuasively, this can be a great way to respond to potential detractors of your argument. Suppose you want to convince your neighborhood to add a community garden, but you think that people might focus on the amount of work required. When framing your argument, you could say something like, “Yes, it will be a lot of work to maintain, but working together will encourage us all to get to know one another as well as providing us with fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers.”
This is a little like procatalepsis, in that you anticipate a problem and respond to it. However, antanagoge is specifically balancing a negative with a positive, just as I did in the example of a garden needing a lot of work, but that work is what ultimately makes the project worth it.
Apophasis is a form of irony relating to denying something while still saying it. You’ll often see this paired with phrases like, “I’m not saying…” or “It goes without saying…”, both of which are followed up with saying exactly what the speaker said they weren’t going to say.
Take this speech from Iron Man 2:
"I'm not saying I'm responsible for this country's longest run of uninterrupted peace in 35 years! I'm not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a phoenix metaphor been more personified! I'm not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven't come across anyone man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day! It's not about me."
Tony Stark isn’t saying that he’s responsible for all those things… except that’s exactly what he is saying in all of his examples. Though he says it’s not about him, it clearly is—all of his examples relate to how great he is, even as he proclaims that they aren’t.
A scene like this can easily be played for humor, but apophasis can also be a useful (albeit deceptive) rhetorical tool. For example, this argument:
Our neighborhood needs a community garden to foster our relationships with one another. Not only is it great for getting to know each other, but a community garden will also provide us with all kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables. It would be wrong to say that people who disagree aren’t invested in others’ health and wellness, but those who have the neighborhood’s best interests in mind will support a community garden.
That last sentence is all apophasis. Not only did I imply that people who don’t support the community garden are anti-social and uncaring (by outright stating that I wouldn’t say that, but I also implied that they’re also not invested in the neighborhood at all. Stating things like this, by pretending you’re not saying them or saying the opposite, can be very effective.
Assonance and Alliteration
Assonance adds an abundance of attractive accents to all your assertions. That’s assonance—the practice repeating the same vowel sound in multiple words in a phrase or sentence, often at the beginning of a word, to add emphasis or musicality to your work. Alliteration is similar, but uses consonant sounds instead of vowel sounds.
Let’s use Romeo and Juliet as an example again:
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes;
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”
Here, we have repetition of the sounds ‘f’ and ‘l’ in ‘from forth...fatal...foes,’ and ‘loins...lovers...life.’
Even if you don’t notice the repetition as you’re reading, you can hear the effects in how musical the language sounds. Shakespeare could easily have just written something like, “Two kids from families who hate one another fell in love and died by suicide,” but that’s hardly as evocative as the phrasing he chose.
Both assonance and alliteration give your writing a lyrical sound, but they can do more than that, too. These tools can mimic associated sounds, like using many ‘p’ sounds to sound like rain or something sizzling, or ‘s’ sounds to mimic the sounds of a snake. When you’re writing, think about what alternative meanings you can add by emphasizing certain sounds.
Listen, asterismos is great. Don’t believe me? How did you feel after I began the first sentence with the word ‘listen?’ Even if you didn’t feel more inspired to actually listen, you probably paid a bit more attention because I broke the expected form. That’s what asterismos is—using a word or phrase to draw attention to the thought that comes afterward.
‘Listen’ isn’t the only example of asterismos, either. You can use words like, ‘hey,’ ‘look,’ ‘behold,’ ‘so,’ and so on. They all have the same effect: they tell the reader or listener, “Hey, pay attention—what I’m about to say is important.”
Dysphemism and Euphemism
Euphemism is the substitution of a more pleasant phrase in place of a familiar phrase, and dysphemism is the opposite—an unpleasant phrase substituted in place of something more familiar. These tools are two sides of the same coin. Euphemism takes an unpleasant thing and makes it sound nicer—such as using 'passed away' instead of 'died'—while dysphemism does the opposite, taking something that isn't necessarily bad and making it sound like it is.
We won’t get into the less savory uses of dysphemism, but there are plenty that can leave an impression without being outright offensive. Take ‘snail mail.’ A lot of us call postal mail that without any real malice behind it, but ‘snail’ implies slowness, drawing a comparison between postal mail and faster email. If you’re making a point about how going electronic is faster, better for the environment, and overall more efficient, comparing email to postal mail with the phrase ‘snail mail’ gets the point across quickly and efficiently.
Likewise, if you're writing an obituary, you probably don't want to isolate the audience by being too stark in your details. Using gentler language, like 'passed away' or 'dearly departed' allows you to talk about things that might be painful without being too direct. People will know what you mean, but you won't have to risk hurting anyone by being too direct and final with your language.
Generally, fiction books are where you'll find epilogues.
You’ve no doubt run into epilogues before, because they’re a common and particularly useful rhetorical device! Epilogues are a conclusion to a story or work that reveals what happens to the characters in the story. This is different from an afterword, which is more likely to describe the process of a book’s creation than to continue and provide closure to a story.
Many books use epilogues to wrap up loose ends, usually taking place in the future to show how characters have changed as a result of their adventures. Both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series use their epilogues to show the characters as adults and provide some closure to their stories—in Harry Potter, the main characters have gotten married and had children, and are now sending those children to the school where they all met. This tells the reader that the story of the characters we know is over—they’re adults and are settled into their lives—but also demonstrates that the world goes on existing, though it’s been changed forever by the actions of the familiar characters.
Eutrepismus is another rhetorical device you’ve probably used before without realizing it. This device separates speech into numbered parts, giving your reader or listener a clear line of thinking to follow.
Eutrepismus is a great rhetorical device—let me tell you why. First, it’s efficient and clear. Second, it gives your writing a great sense of rhythm. Third, it’s easy to follow and each section can be expanded throughout your work.
See how simple it is? You got all my points in an easy, digestible format. Eutrepismus helps you structure your arguments and make them more effective, just as any good rhetorical device should do.
You’ve probably used hypophora before without ever thinking about it. Hypophora refers to a writer or speaker proposing a question and following it up with a clear answer. This is different from a rhetorical question—another rhetorical device—because there is an expected answer, one that the writer or speaker will immediately give to you.
Hypophora serves to ask a question the audience may have (even if they’re not entirely aware of it yet) and provide them with an answer. This answer can be obvious, but it can also be a means of leading the audience toward a particular point.
Take this sample from John F. Kennedy’s speech on going to the moon:
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
In this speech, Kennedy outright states that he’s asking questions others have asked, and then goes on to answer them. This is Kennedy’s speech, so naturally it’s going to reflect his point of view, but he’s answering the questions and concerns others might have about going to the moon. In doing so, he’s reclaiming an ongoing conversation to make his own point. This is how hypophora can be incredibly effective: you control the answer, leaving less room for argument!
Litotes is a deliberate understatement, often using double negatives, that serves to actually draw attention to the thing being remarked upon. For example, saying something like, “It’s not pretty,” is a less harsh way to say “It’s ugly,” or “It’s bad,” that nonetheless draws attention to it being ugly or bad.
In Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave, he writes:
“Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others.”
Notice the use of “not uncommon.” Douglass, by using a double negative to make readers pay closer attention, points out that some slaves still sought superiority over others by speaking out in favor of their owners.
Litotes draws attention to something by understating it. It’s sort of like telling somebody not to think about elephants—soon, elephants becomes all they can think about. The double negative draws our attention and makes us focus on the topic because it’s an unusual method of phrasing.
Onomatopoeia refers to a sound represented within text as a mimicry of what that sound actually sounds like. Think “bang” or “whizz” or “oomph,” all of which can mean that something made that kind of a sound—”the door banged shut”—but also mimic the sound itself—”the door went bang.”
This rhetorical device can add emphasis or a little bit of spice to your writing. Compare, “The gunshot made a loud sound,” to “The gun went bang.” Which is more evocative?
Parallelism is the practice of using similar grammar structure, sounds, meter, and so on to emphasize a point and add rhythm or balance to a sentence or paragraph.
One of the most famous examples of parallelism in literature is the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
In the beginning, every phrase begins with “It was,” which is itself a parallelism. But there are also pairs of parallelism within the sentence, too; “It was the ___ of times, it was the ___ of times,” and “it was the age of ___, it was the age of ___.”
Parallelism draws your reader deeper into what you’re saying and provides a nice sense of flow, even if you’re talking about complicated ideas. The ‘epoch of incredulity’ is a pretty meaty phrase, but Dickens’ parallelism sets up a series of dichotomies for us; even if we don’t know quite what it means, we can figure it out by comparing it to ‘belief.’
Personification is a rhetorical device you probably run into a lot without realizing it. It’s a form of metaphor, which means two things are being compared without the words like or as—in this case, a thing that is not human is given human characteristics.
Personification is common in poetry and literature, as it’s a great way to generate fresh and exciting language, even when talking about familiar subjects. Take this passage from Romeo and Juliet, for example:
“When well-appareled April on the heel
Of limping winter treads.”
April can’t wear clothes or step on winter, and winter can’t limp. However, the language Shakespeare uses here is quite evocative. He’s able to quickly state that April is beautiful (“well-appareled”) and that winter is coming to an end (“limping winter”). Through personification, we get a strong image for things that could otherwise be extremely boring, such as if Shakespeare had written, “When beautiful April comes right after winter.”
Procatalepsis is a rhetorical device that anticipates and notes a potential objection, heading it off with a follow-up argument to strengthen the point. I know what you’re thinking—that sounds really complicated! But bear with me, because it’s actually quite simple.
See how that works? I imagined that a reader might be confused by the terminology in the first sentence, so I noted that potential confusion, anticipating their argument. Then, I addressed that argument to strengthen my point—procatalepsis is easy, which you can see because I just demonstrated it!
Anticipating a rebuttal is a great way to strengthen your own argument. Not only does it show that you’ve really put thought into what you’re saying, but it also leaves less room for disagreement!
Synecdoche is a rhetorical device that uses a part of something to stand in for the whole. That can mean that we use a small piece of something to represent a whole thing (saying ‘let’s grab a slice’ when we in fact mean getting a whole pizza), or using something large to refer to something small. We often do this with sports teams–for example, saying that New England won the Super Bowl when we in fact mean the New England Patriots, not the entirety of New England.
This style of rhetorical device adds an additional dimension to your language, making it more memorable to your reader. Which sounds more interesting? “Let’s get pizza,” or “let’s grab a slice?”
Likewise, consider this quote from Percy Bysshe Shelly’s “Ozymandias”:
“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them.”
Here, Shelly uses ‘the hand’ to refer to the sculptor. The hand did not sculpt the lifeless things on its own; it was a tool of the sculptor. But by using just the hand, Shelly avoids repeating ‘the sculptor,’ preserves the poem’s rhythm, and narrows our focus. If he had referred to the sculptor again, he’d still be a big important figure; by narrowing to the hand, Shelly is diminishing the idea of the creator, mirroring the poem’s assertion that the creation will outlast it.
Poes' bells are a great example of a tautology.
Tautology refers to using words or similar phrases to effectively repeat the same idea with different wording. It’s a form of repetition that can make a point stronger, but it can also be the basis of a flawed argument—be careful that your uses of tautology is the former, not the latter!
For example, take this section of “The Bells” by Edgar Allen Poe:
“Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme…
From the bells, bells, bells, bells.”
Poe’s poetry has a great deal of rhythm already, but the use of ‘time, time, time’ sets us up for the way that ‘bells, bells, bells, bells’ also holds that same rhythm. Keeping time refers to maintaining rhythm, and this poem emphasizes that with repetition, much like the repetitive sound of ringing bells.
An example of an unsuccessful tautology would be something like, “Either we should buy a house, or we shouldn’t.” It’s not a successful argument because it doesn’t say anything at all—there’s no attempt to suggest anything, just an acknowledgment that two things, which cannot both happen, could happen.
If you want to use tautology in your writing, be sure that it’s strengthening your point. Why are you using it? What purpose does it serve? Don’t let a desire for rhythm end up robbing you of your point!
That thing your English teachers are always telling you to have in your essays is an important literary device. A thesis, from the Greek word for ‘a proposition,’ is a clear statement of the theory or argument you’re making in an essay. All your evidence should feed back into your thesis; think of your thesis as a signpost for your reader. With that signpost, they can’t miss your point!
Especially in longer academic writing, there can be so many pieces to an argument that it can be hard for readers to keep track of your overarching point. A thesis hammers the point home so that no matter how long or complicated your argument is, the reader will always know what you’re saying.
Tmesis is a rhetorical device that breaks up a word, phrase, or sentence with a second word, usually for emphasis and rhythm. We often do this with expletives, but tmesis doesn’t have to be vulgar to be effective!
Take this example from Romeo and Juliet:
“This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.”
The normal way we’d hear this phrase is “This is not Romeo, he’s somewhere else.” But by inserting the word ‘other’ between ‘some’ and ‘where,’ it not only forces us to pay attention, but also changes the sentence’s rhythm. It gets the meaning across perfectly, and does so in a way that’s far more memorable than if Shakespeare had just said that Romeo was somewhere else.
For a more common usage, we can turn to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which often has Eliza Doolittle using phrases like “fan-bloody-tastic” and “abso-blooming-lutely.” The expletives—though mild by modern standards—emphasize Eliza’s social standing and make each word stand out more than if she had simply said them normally.
Rhetorical devices and literary devices can both be used to enhance your writing and communication. Check out this list of literary devices to learn more!
Ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos are all modes of persuasion—types of rhetorical devices—that can help you be a more convincing writer!
No matter what type of writing you're doing, rhetorical devices can enhance it! To learn more about different writing styles, check out this list!
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