Rhetorical devices are as useful in writing or public
speaking as they are in life. Also known as persuasive devices, stylistic
devices, or just rhetoric, rhetorical
devices are techniques or language used to convey a point or convince an
audience. Moreover, they’re used by
everyone — politicians, businesspeople, and even, you guessed it, your favourite novelists.
You may already know some of them: similes, metaphors,
onomatopoeia. Others, maybe not (bdelygmia, we’re talking to you). However, at the end of the day, you’ve probably
run into all of these devices some time or another. Perhaps, you’ve even used
them yourself. Moreover, if you haven’t,
don’t let their fancy Greek names fool
you — they’re pretty easy to implement, too. However,
before you dive in, let’s identify the different categories of rhetorical
devices out there.
Types of Rhetorical
Although there exists plenty of overlap between rhetorical
and literary devices, there’s one significant difference between the two. While
the latter is employed to express ideas
with artistic depth, rhetoric is designed to appeal to one’s sensibilities in
four specific ways:
Logos, an appeal to logic;
Pathos, an appeal
Ethos, an appeal
to ethics; or,
Kairos, an appeal
These categories haven’t changed since the Ancient Greeks
first identified them thousands of years ago. This
makes sense, however, because the ways we make decisions haven’t changed,
either: with our brain, our heart, our morals, or the feeling that we’re
running out of time.
So without further ado, here is a list of rhetorical devices
designed to tug at those strings, and convince a listener to give you what you
want — or a reader to continue reading your book.
List of Rhetorical
Of the hundreds of rhetorical devices currently classified, we’ve compiled 30 of the most useful ones, as well as some examples of these devices in action. Get ready to master the art of rhetoric for yourself, and your audience or readers.
feigning disinterest of something while actually desiring it or the rhetorical
refusal of something you want. Like in
one of Aesop’s Fables:
Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leapt with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’ People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves. “
Many rhetorical devices are linguistic tricks that make
statements sound more persuasive, like adnomination:
the repetition of words with the same root in the same sentence. The difference
lies in one sound or letter. A nice euphony can be achieved by using this
This rhetoric is sure to somehow work on someone, somewhere, someday.
He is nobody from nowhere and knows nothing
purposefully hyperbolic metaphors to suggest that something is impossible —
like the classic adage when pigs fly.
Moreover, hyperbole, of course, is a rhetorical device in and of itself: an excessively exaggerated statement for effect. Or in simple terms, Adynaton is the simple art of exaggeration to gain more influence.
the repetition of consonants across successive,
stressed syllables… get it? This most often means repeating consonants at
the beginning of multiple words, as opposed to simple consonance, which is the repetition of consonants regardless of which
syllable they’re placed on.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven makes use of both: “And the
silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.” “Silken” and “sad” are
alliterative, but the consonance continues into “uncertain” and “rustling.” And as a bonus, it contains assonance — the
repetition of vowel sounds — across “purple curtain.”
Hover through the fog
and filthy air.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling
dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
The opening sentence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is famous
because it ends somewhere entirely different than where it started. This means it is an anacoluthon, used to
challenge a listener or reader to think deeply and question their assumptions.
Anacoluthon is a grammatical interruption or lack of implied
sequence within a sentence. That is, beginning a sentence in a way that implies
a certain logical resolution, but concluding it differently than the grammar
leads one expect. It is an interruption or a verbal lack of symmetry.
Anadiplosis is the repetition of the word from the end of
one sentence to the beginning of the next, and it has been used by everyone from Shakespeare to Yeats to Yoda:
(Source: Lucasfilm Ltd.)
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
On the other hand, anaphora is the repetition of words or
phrases at the beginning of following
sentences. Like in Ginsberg’s Howl — no, not that famous opening line, but
instead the ones that follow it:
“Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up
smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the
tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw
Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war…”
… and so on for the
next hundred or so lines. Then, there’s epiphora or epistrophe: the repetition
of words at the end of sentences. Moreover,
if you combine both, you’ve got a symploce.
Or from Obama;
“People of the world – look at Berlin!
Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans…
Look at Berlin, where the determination…
Look at Berlin, where the bullets holes…
People of the world – look at Berlin…!
Rhetoric is employed to persuade, convince, or convey — in other words, to get your way. So, it’s only natural that flattery would have its rhetorical device in the form of antanagoge: the inclusion of a compliment and a critique in the same sentence. In simple terms, Antanagoge, to follow a negative point with a positive point.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
I failed my test, but I will pass the next one.
Hurricane Sandy caused a lot of damage, but at least it wasn’t like Katrina.
Anthimeria is the misuse of one word’s part of speech, such
as using a noun for a verb. It’s been around for centuries but is frequently used
in the modern day, where “Facebooking” and “adulting” have seamlessly become
part of the lexicon.
Feel bad? Strike up some music and have a good sing (Verb used as noun)
Antiphrasis is a sentence or phrase that means the opposite
of what it appears to say. Like how the idiom, “Tell me about it” generally
means, “Don’t tell me about it — I already know.” It’s also known by a much more common name: irony.
Antonomasia is, essentially, a rhetorical name. Antonomasia
is a figure of speech that employs a suitable epithet or appellative to cite a
person or thing rather than the original name. Like “Old Blue Eyes,” “The Boss,” or “The Fab
Four” — affectionate epithets that take the place of proper names like Frank
Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, or the Beatles.
You may have noticed by now that a lot of rhetorical devices
are rooted in irony. Apophasis — also known as paralipsis, occupatio, praeteritio, preterition, or parasiopesis — is one of these: bringing up a
subject by denying that it should be brought up. This is a classic if oft-maligned political tactic and one frequently utilised
by the 45th President of the United States, particularly in his interesting tweets. For example:
“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I
would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’”
Aporia is the eloquent
expression of the doubt — almost always
insincerely. This is a common tool used
by businesses to connect with a consumer base, particularly when regarding new
inventions that might be met with a
“To be or not to be; that is
the question” or
For instance, take
Steve Jobs’ introduction of touchscreen technology:
“Now, how are we gonna communicate this? We don’t wanna carry around a mouse, right? What are we gonna do?”
Aposiopesis is essentially the rhetorical version of
trailing off at the end of your sentence, leaving your listener (or reader)
hanging. Like the ending of Mercutio’s famous “Queen Mab” speech in Romeo &
“This is the hag, when
maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—”
Or in simple: “If you do that again, I will…”
Asterismos is simply a
phrase beginning with an exclamation. A word that gives weight or draws
attention to the words that follow. Like every other sentence in Moby-Dick:
“Book! You lie there; the fact is, your
books must know your places.” But if no
sentence follows, it’s exclamatio: an explicit expression like “My word!” that
warrants no follow-up.
If you’ve ever removed conjunctions like “or,” “and,” or
“but” from your writing because the sentence flowed better without them, you’ve
This is a favourite of Cormac McCarthy, like in this
passage from Outer Dark: “A parson was labouring over the crest of the hill and coming
toward them with one hand raised in blessing, greeting
fending flies.” And like most of the
enigmatic author’s preferred rhetoric, it is almost intentionally confusing —
whether the parson is blessing or
greeting or swatting flies is never clarified. Alternatively, he also makes
extensive use of polysyndeton: the intentional use of conjunctions to affect
sentence flow, like replacing commas with the word “and.”
“The car crashed, exploded, burned, melted”
“In the cave there was a bear, a puppy, a tiger, a moose”
“I came, I saw, I conquered”
“The government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” A. Lincoln
Befitting its ugly spelling, bdelygmia or abominatio is a rhetorical insult — the uglier
and more elaborate, the better. Like most rhetorical devices, Shakespeare was a
big fan. So was Dr. Seuss:
“You’re a foul one, Mr.
Grinch; You’re a nasty wasty skunk, Your heart is full of unwashed
socks, your soul is full of gunk, Mr.
Grinch. The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote,
‘Stink, stank, stunk!’”
“I’ve got a staff meeting to go to and so do you, you elitist, Harvard, fascist, missed-the-dean’s-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass”
Cacophony is one of the most loosely defined devices out
there — simply, it is the use of words that sound bad together. That probably
sounds pretty ambiguous, until you remember that Lewis Carroll invented words for
his poem “Jabberwocky” just to make it
sound harsh and unmelodious:
“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
And it goes hand in
hand with euphony — the use of words that sound good together, like this
passage from an Emily Dickinson poem:
“Oars divide the Ocean, / Too silver for a seam.”
“There will be a time when you believe everything is
That will be the beginning” Louise L’Amor
A Sentence in which two words in the first half are criss-crossed
in the second half. “Despised, if ugly; if she’s fair, betrayed.” This excerpt
from Mary Leapor’s Essay on Woman is a great
example of chiasmus: the reversal of grammatical structure across two phrases,
without repeating any words. So, no, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” does not
count. Rather, that is antimetabole: the repetition of words or phrases in
reverse grammatical order to suggest logical truth… even if it’s infallic. Ask
not what rhetorical devices can do for you. Ask what you can do for rhetorical
“All for one, and one for all” The Three Musketeers
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do
for your country” JFK
The turning point in the story. The main character may learn
something new, a change takes place, now the conflict can be addresses. Narrative
arcs aren’t just for novels. Sentences can have a climax, too — the initial
words and clauses build to a peak, saving the most important point for last.
We’ve been using climaxes rhetorically since at least Corinthians:
“There are three things that
will endure: faith, hope, and love. But
the greatest of these is love.”
It is also a figure of speech in which series of words, phrases
or ideas is arranged in an ascending order of importance or emphasis.
“We’ll hear him, we’ll follow him, we’ll die with him”
Dysphemism is a description that is explicitly offensive to
its subject, or, perhaps, even its audience. It stands in contrast to a
euphemism, which is implicitly offensive or suggestive. Basically, a dysphemism
is a word or phrase people use to make something or someone sound negative, bad
and unlikeable. Most racial epithets started as the latter, but are recognised today as the former.
To make it more understandable; A euphemism is a figure of
speech that makes something bad sound good and a dysphemism is a figure of
speech that makes something sound bad or worse that it really is. This is the
Any verbal effort to make something or person less
significant than really is, is a form of meiosis. So, if you’ve ever
understated something before, that’s meiosis — like the assertion that Britain
is “across the pond” from the Americas. The opposite — rhetorical exaggeration
— is called auxesis.
“Not bad” for an excellent performance
“I guess they like each other” upon seeing a couple kissing
“One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day”
Wham! Pow! Crunch! These are all examples of onomatopoeia, a
word for a sound that phonetically resembles the sound itself. Which means the finale of the 1966 Batman is the most
onomatopoeic film scene of all time.
A pig grunts or goes “Oink! Oink””
A strong wind groans or cries “Whoo, whoo, whoo!”
It’s a lot easier for humans to understand a concept when
it’s directly related to them. And since
rhetoric is used to convey your point more effectively, there’s naturally a
rhetorical device for that: personification, which assigns human characteristics
to an abstract concept.
Personification is present in almost all forms of literature, especially mythology, where concepts like war, love, and wisdom are given humanity in the form of gods such as Ares, Venus, Saraswati. But anthropomorphism, which assigns human characteristics to animals, is almost as common, in everything from Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh to The Hobbit and Watership Down.
Did you know that being redundant can be rhetorically
useful? Certain words are so overused that they’ve lost meaning — darkness, nice, etc.
However, “black darkness” or “pleasantly nice” reinvigorate that meaning, even
if the phrases are technically redundant. Redundant phrases like these are
called pleonasms, and they are persuasively rhetorical.
Some of the most prevalent
rhetorical devices are figures of speech that compare one thing to another. Two
of these, you surely know: the simile and
the metaphor. But there is a third,
hypocatastasis, that is just as common… also, useful.
The distinctions between the three are pretty simple. A
simile compares two things explicitly: “You are like a monster.” A metaphor
compares them by asserting that they’re the same: “You are a monster.” And with hypocatastasis, the comparison itself
is implied: “Monster!”
You’ve probably heard of a rhetorical question, too: a question asked to make a point rather than to be answered. Technically, this figure of speech is called interrogatio, but there are plenty of other rhetorical devices that take the form of questions.
If you pose a rhetorical question to answer it yourself,
that’s anthypophora (or hypophora… they
mean the same thing). And if your
rhetorical question infers or asks for a broad
audience’s opinion (“Friends, Romans, countrymen […] Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?”), that’s anacoenosis — though it
generally doesn’t warrant an answer, either. Some sample questions;
“Why are we here”
“What are you, insane”
“How can we expect him to give more than we ourselves are willing to give”
Synecdoche, meaning simultaneous understanding. You know how
a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square? If you
referred to all rectangles as “squares,” you’d have a synecdoche: a rhetorical
device in which part of one thing is used to represent its whole. This
differs slightly from metonymy, which refers to one thing by something related
to it that is nevertheless not part of it. If you referred to an old king as
“greybeard,” that would be the former. If you referred to him as “the crown,”
it would be the latter. As an example:
The word “coke” means carbonated drink and people could
easily understand for Coca-Cola or Pepsi
The word “Kleenex” is the universal word for anything you blow your nose on.
Have you ever, in a fit of outrage, referred to something
un-effing-believable? If you have, congratulations on discovering a
surprisingly useful rhetorical device: tmesis, the separation of one word into
two parts, with a third word placed in between for emphasis.
Zeugma often used synonymously with syllepsis, is a grammatical trick that can be used rhetorically as well: placing two nouns with very different meanings in the same position in a sentence. Mark Twain was a master at this:
“They covered themselves with dust and glory.”
This might feel a bit
like a list of fancy names for things you already do. If so, that’s great!
You’re already well on your way to mastering the art of rhetoric. And, now that you know the specifics, you can
take the next step: implementing it in your writing and public speaking swaying
your audience onto your side.
Impromptu speaking gives your audience the impression that the speech is being created as you’re presenting it. It sounds conversational, fluid, and thoughtful. Yet, impressive as you really are creating your message in front of the audience. Let’s see how our members perform!