Rhetorical devices are techniques in writing and speech that try to persuade the audience. A rhetorical device uses language to shape ideas into arguments, convincing the reader through a plethora of literary strategies.
Why study rhetorical devices? Understanding how writers wield words to persuade you will help you read critically and carefully. And, if you’re a writer, a poet, a future lawyer, or even someone who writes a lot of emails, learning how to employ common rhetorical devices will help sharpen your writing style and skills. Familiarizing yourself with this article will help you learn how to identify rhetorical devices in literature.
But first, what are rhetorical devices? This article dives deep into the topic, with a full rhetorical devices list and ample examples from poetry, literature, and speech. This article is filled with inspiration, ideas, and strategies to fine tune your writing, so let’s dive in. What are rhetorical devices?
Common Rhetorical Devices List Contents:
What Are Rhetorical Devices?
Rhetorical devices are literary strategies for persuading the audience. Through techniques involving syntax, style, emphasis, word choice, and appeals to the audience itself, the authors that employ rhetorical devices hope to convince you of a certain idea or argument.
What are rhetorical devices? They are literary strategies for persuading the audience.
It’s important to note that “rhetorical devices” is an open-ended term, because writers are always trying to convince you of something. The devices in this article pertain to strategies in the style and syntax of language itself. But, other literary devices, such as metaphors and onomatopoeias, can also be considered rhetorical, if employed rhetorically—that is, if they try to change your way of thinking. Even the elements of fiction, like setting and plot, want to persuade you to think in a certain way.
Nonetheless, this article focuses on common rhetorical devices employed in the art of argument. Before we look at these literary strategies, let’s examine the different types of rhetorical devices.
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Types of Rhetorical Devices
There aren’t any clear taxonomies for rhetorical devices, in part because the term itself is so open-ended. Rhetorical scholars certainly don’t try to taxonomize these devices, as language itself is so open-ended and can be employed in infinite ways. Nonetheless, to keep these devices organized, we use the following labels to categorize the different types of rhetorical devices:
- Rhetorical appeals—Devices that appeal directly to the reader’s feelings, thoughts, morals, and sense of time. You may have already heard of them: ethos, logos, pathos, and kairos.
- Syntactical devices—Devices that use sentence structures to communicate or simplify complex ideas.
- Argumentative rhetorical devices—Devices whose structures are conducive to the advancement of a certain argument.
- Emphatic rhetorical devices—Devices that underscore or emphasize certain ideas.
- Stylistic rhetorical devices—Devices that use word play and diction to advance an argument.
Let’s examine these 5 categories now, with a look at rhetorical devices examples in literature, poetry, and speech.
Rhetorical Appeals: Kairos, Ethos, Logos, Pathos Rhetorical Devices
The following common rhetorical devices appeal directly to the reader’s sensibilities. Do note: an appeal to ethos, for example, can also be an appeal to pathos. Many master rhetoricians will advance arguments that appeal to multiple sensibilities at the same time.
1. Kairos—Appeal to Time
Now is the time to use kairos!—a device that appeals directly to the audience’s sense of time.
Specifically, kairos is an appeal to immediacy, to a sense of “in this moment.” When employed ethically, kairos convinces the audience that we must act immediately for the better good. For example, Martin Luther King once said:
King’s call for radical optimism in the face of racism and oppression was a call to action: now is the time that we change our situation of segregation.
Of course, kairos can also be used unethically, in that it can encourage the audience to think about something uncritically. If I implored an audience that “now is the time to chop all the trees down,” and some audience members didn’t think about the effects of this statement, they might actually start deforesting the land around them.
Kairos creates a sense of urgency. Now is the time to act, to think, to hope, etc. The kairos rhetorical device also helps the speaker explain why they are speaking to the audience: Because it is the time for action, I am speaking to you now.
2. Ethos—Appeal to Ethics and Credibility
Ethos is a device which appeals to two different senses:
- The credibility of the speaker. Why should I trust this person’s arguments?
- The ethics of the argument. How can I trust the ethical good in this argument?
To see the ethos rhetorical device in action, let’s look at an excerpt of the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell, a novel filled with rhetorical devices examples. For reference, this novel is an allegorical representation of the rise of the U.S.S.R., and the below excerpt implores the animals on the farm to overthrow the farmers and establish an equitable, self-governing system. Appeals to ethos are bolded.
“Comrades, you have heard already about the strange dream that I had last night. But I will come to the dream later. I have something else to say first. I do not think, comrades, that I shall be with you for many months longer, and before I die, I feel it my duty to pass on to you such wisdom as I have acquired. I have had a long life, I have had much time for thought as I lay alone in my stall, and I think I may say that I understand the nature of life on this earth as well as any animal now living. It is about this that I wish to speak to you.
“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth.
“But is this simply part of the order of nature? Is it because this land of ours is so poor that it cannot afford a decent life to those who dwell upon it? No, comrades, a thousand times no! The soil of England is fertile, its climate is good, it is capable of affording food in abundance to an enormously greater number of animals than now inhabit it. This single farm of ours would support a dozen horses, twenty cows, hundreds of sheep—and all of them living in a comfort and a dignity that are now almost beyond our imagining. Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our problems. It is summed up in a single word—Man. Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever.”
The first paragraph demonstrates an appeal to character. The speaker, Old Major, tells the audience he is trustworthy because he has lived a long life, and he wishes to pass on his wisdom. (There is also an appeal to kairos here, because Old Major tells the animals he has not long to live, and needs to tell them this information now.)
The second and third paragraphs appeal to the ethics of the audience. Paragraph two demonstrates the awful conditions of the farm. The animals are, quite literally, worked to death, and they receive no share in the profits of the farm. But the animals do not deserve this: they can imagine a farm that supports a large population, each animal living “in a comfort and a dignity that are now almost beyond our imagining.” Why not strive for this level of prosperity?
Words like “comfort” and “dignity” reinforce the ethics of Old Major’s argument. These ideas are benchmarks for the pig’s ideas, since the audience will now be considering how to construct a world that preserves each individual’s comfort and dignity. It also lends credibility to Old Major himself, who seeks, above all, to better the lives of the animals long after he has died himself.
3. Logos—Appeal to Logic
Logos employs reason or logic to convince the audience of a certain argument. Logos will often be the backbone of an argument, particularly among rhetoricians who have actually thought through the logic of the ideas they’re advancing. (If an argument relies too heavily on pathos or kairos, that argument will often be poorly thought through, or else be trying to achieve nefarious ends.)
There are two primary forms of logos: inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.
- Inductive Reasoning: Drawing predictions from specific claims. For example, a specific claim might be “I have to wear a scarf every winter.” To make this a predictions, you might say “This winter, I will also wear a scarf.”
- Deductive Reasoning: Drawing specific conclusions from general claims. For example, a general claim might be “All birds have feathers.” To take this to a specific conclusion, you might note that “an emu has feathers. Therefore, an emu is a bird.” (This is also an example of syllogism, which we define later in the article.)
Another way to think about this: inductive reasoning makes predictions based on existing data, whereas deductive reasoning makes conclusions based on existing data. Both forms of argument are valid in different ways, and both are equally prone to being false or manipulated.
The use of facts and figures is also the use of logos, although logos itself is logical argument. In other words, simply writing “studies show” is not an appeal to logos, as the writer must explain how their argument is supported by the data.
Here’s an example of the logos rhetorical device, from the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. For reference, Atticus is a lawyer trying to prove the innocence of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of assaulting Mayella Ewell.
[Atticus] You’re a strong girl, what were you doing all the time, just standing there?”
[Mayella] “I told’ja I hollered’n‘kicked’n’fought—”
Atticus reached up and took off his glasses, turned his good right eye to the witness, and rained questions on her. Judge Taylor said, “One question at a time, Atticus. Give the witness a chance to answer.”
“All right, why didn’t you run?”
“Tried to? What kept you from it?”
“I—he slung me down. That’s what he did, he slung me down’n got on top of me.”
“You were screaming all this time?”
“I certainly was.”
“Then why didn’t the other children hear you? Where were they? At the dump? Where were they?”
“Why didn’t your screams make them come running? The dump’s closer than the woods, isn’t it?”
“Or didn’t you scream until you saw your father in the window? You didn’t think to scream until then, did you?”
“Did you scream first at your father instead of at Tom Robinson? Was that it?”
“Who beat you up? Tom Robinson or your father?”
“What did your father see in the window, the crime of rape or the best defense to it? Why don’t you tell the truth, child, didn’t Bob Ewell beat you up?”
Atticus uses deductive reasoning here to demonstrate that Mayella’s bruises came from her father, not from Tom Robinson. Logically speaking, if Tom was the one assaulting her, she would have screamed, and wouldn’t someone have heard? Tried to get Tom off of her?
By canceling out all other possible scenarios, Atticus deduces that, because no one came to Mayella’s rescue, her story about being assaulted by Tom is fake, because the source of her bruises is actually her father.
Note: When appeals to logic are false or poorly argued, they are often logical fallacies.
4. Pathos—Appeal to Feeling
Pathos is an appeal to the feelings of the audience. The author employs pathos when the writing tries to evoke a particular emotion, especially for the purposes of advancing an argument.
Pathos is a common facet of all literature, since literature tries to connect the reader to our greater shared humanity. This can only happen on the levels of the symbolic: images, feelings, and the like.
In argument, politics, and the court of law, the pathos rhetorical device certainly helps win the audience over to a certain idea or position. That said, pathos is a very easy device to abuse. When the writing focuses on evoking strong emotions from the reader, particularly without the backing of research and credibility, then the author likely wants to persuade you without evidence. Pathos-heavy writing is the stuff of conspiracy theories, extremism, and propaganda. (See also: logical fallacies.)
We won’t dive into all nuances of pathos—that’s a different article for a different day. But let’s see pathos in action through the poem “It’s What Happens, Sometimes, in October” by Angel Gonzalez:
When nothing occurs,
and summer is gone,
and leaves start to fall off the trees,
and the cold rusts the edges of rivers,
and slows down the flow of waters;
when the sky seems a violent sea,
and birds swap landscapes,
and words sound more and more distant,
like whispers strewn by the wind;
as you know,
it’s what happens:
those leaves, birds, clouds,
strewn words and rivers,
fill us with sudden restlessness
Don’t seek the cause in your hearts.
It is merely what I said:
Through both natural imagery and appeals to the reader’s emotions, this poem evokes the sense of “restlessness and despair” that one sometimes feels in the peak of autumn. Of course, don’t just let the poem tell you how to feel: immerse yourself in its images, its windswept chill and “strewn words and rivers.” This poem doesn’t ask us to feel any particular way about autumn, only to observe the feelings that arise in us, which are simply “what happens” in October.
9 Syntactic Rhetorical Devices List
The following common rhetorical devices are employed to draw attention to a certain idea by playing with sentence structure. The English language can be toyed with in many different ways, and master rhetoricians know how to use syntax to their advantage through the following devices.
5. Anacoluthon—Interruptions in Grammatical Flow
An anacoluthon occurs when the writer employs different grammatical structures in the same sentence. This device is a grammatical discontinuity—the syntax of the sentence changes, often alongside an abrupt change in topic.
Both poets and rhetoricians use this device to highlight important ideas. Poets, and prose poets in particular, will use the device to replicate the disjointed nature of thoughts, as our brains naturally think and feel incoherently.
When I woke up, I was
in the wrong place, holding
a blooming dandelion in my hand.
I knew there was something wrong
when I completely forgot the script
so clearly encoded under my forehead.
The rush of spirit retreated through a pinhole
and dropped me back in this square room
with thunder and the sound of heavy metal.
On the other side of the window
the microwave beeped. A door slammed.
The tv was on automatic shut off.
The computer, some kind of advance
on cuneiform writing
was flashing the figure of a fish.
A drawing by Dr. Freud in 1878
of the neurons in a spinal ganglion.
Through the pinhole of that glassy eye—
Dr. Agassiz made his student learn
the truth about fish—
and I put my ear to a conch shell.
The sound of a distant oceanic voice—
“What is there is there. And that is that.”
Some poignant anacolutha occur at the ends of the final two stanzas. These interruptions in thought bring the reader to what is most important in the poem. Barbara’s poetry frequently finds insight through careful attention to the natural and the now; by bringing the reader back to the present through the image of the conch shell, the poem tries to remind us of the nature of things, of the complicated simplicity of the present.
6. Antithesis—Parallel Juxtaposition of Opposite Ideas
Antithesis refers to the placement of differing ideas side by side using parallel structure, with the intent of comparing and contrasting those ideas. It relies on two key concepts in writing: parallelism and juxtaposition.
A lot of common phrases in the English language rely on antithesis. You may have recently heard one of the following phrases:
- Go big or go home
- Get busy living or get busy dying
- No pain, no gain
- No guts, no glory
- If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail
- Out of sight, out of mind
- Hope for the best; prepare for the worst
- Easy come, easy go
Well written antitheses lodge themselves in the brain, laying out complex ideas in simple sentences. A lot of idioms and proverbs rely on this device. So do rhetoricians: see the below excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”:
This excerpt shows a clean cause and effect, utilizing the power of antithesis to honor the Union soldiers that died for the nation’s survival.
7. Asyndeton—Absence of Conjunctions
A writer employs asyndeton when they don’t use conjunctions to separate clauses. This has the effect of making the sentence move quicker, while also making the sentence feel sharp and directed.
With conjunctions (polysyndeton): Swift and concise and pointed, the sentence makes you think and moves your heart and compels you to action.
Without conjunctions (asyndeton): Swift, concise, pointed, the sentence makes you think, moves your heart, compels you to action.
Notice how the flow and feel of the sentence changes with the inclusion of “and” in place of commas? The example of polysyndeton actually feels a little overwhelming. Later in this article, we’ll look at proper uses of polysyndeton.
Here’s an example of asyndeton from Othello (I.i) by William Shakespeare:
Rouse him. Make after him, Poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets. Incense her kinsmen,
Asyndeton can also refer to a lack of conjunctions between sentences, as in the above excerpt.
8. Hypallage—Syntactic and Semantic Split in a Modifier
Hypallage occurs when the author uses a modifier (usually a single adjective) to describe something semantically, rather than syntactically.
Okay, that’s a tough sentence to parse. Let me give you an example right away, from “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen:
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
So, the word “clumsy” is modifying the word “helmets.” This is occurring on a syntactic level. However, “clumsy” isn’t describing the helmets, it’s actually describing the boys fumbling to put them on during World War I.
In other words, there’s a split between the modifier’s syntactic and semantic meanings. (You can also argue that “helmets” is being used as a synecdoche to describe the boys themselves.)
Some phrases in the English lexicon naturally use hypallage. If you have a “restless night,” it’s not the night that was restless, it was you restless during the night.
Hypallage helps make an idea more concise, and it also builds an interesting visual link between two ideas. What does a clumsy helmet look like? We can almost see the boys struggling to put their helmets on, without the author having to say “the boys donned their helmets clumsily.”
9. Hyperbaton—Inverted Word Order
One of the common rhetorical devices, hyperbaton is!
A hyperbaton occurs when the writer writes a sentence in an unusual order, in order to emphasize the most salient aspect of the sentence. It is also called anastrophe. Rhetoricians may use this device for emphasis, and poets will certainly use it to preserve the rhythm and flow of a poem’s line. In formal poetry, such as the works of Shakespeare, hyperbaton makes it easier for the poem to retain its meter, like iambic pentameter.
Here are a few rhetorical devices examples using hyperbaton:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
For this last example, pay attention to how hyperbaton preserves the flow of the poem, and how it creates a sense of mystery. Cummings was a master of using language not to impart direct communication, but to create senses, mysteries, and feelings in the text.
10. Hypotaxis—Hierarchical Sentence Structure
Before we explain hypotaxis, a brief grammar refresher might prove helpful.
The components of a sentence are clauses and phrases. A clause is a part of a sentence that has a noun and a verb; sometimes, a clause is a complete sentence. A phrase is a group of words without a complete noun-verb pairing, such as the verb phrase “will be writing.” (There’s no noun.)
A subordinate clause is a clause that has a noun and a verb, but cannot stand on its own as a sentence. This is because the clause is modifying another part of the sentence. The bolded portion of the following sentence is subordinate: “I cannot use rhetorical devices, although I try very hard to.”
Now, to hypotaxis. A hypotactic sentence is one that has dependent, or subordinate, clauses. This creates a hierarchical relationship in the sentence: the most important part of the sentence is the clause that can exist independently, while the subordinate clauses, which are less important, still modify and sharpen the message of the sentence.
Here’s an example—from Simone Weil’s Waiting for God. The sentences containing hypotaxis are bolded.
In the bolded sentences, take note of which is the main clause, and which clauses are subordinate. Notice how this makes the main clause the most important aspect of the sentence, creating a hierarchy of information, and a sense of relationships between different interconnected ideas.
Notice, also, how this passage has a mix of complex and simple sentences. Too much hypotaxis will prove much harder to read and comprehend.
The opposite of hypotaxis is parataxis.
11. Parataxis—Equally Weighted Sentence Components
In opposition to hypotaxis, parataxis is the use of equally weighted sentences or clauses in succession to one another. Parataxis requires short, simple sentences and clauses. You can identify this device by an absence of subordinating conjunctions—words that make a clause subordinate, like “although” or “because” or “if.”
Parataxis plays an important role in the following excerpt from Sula, by Toni Morrison:
The sequence of nouns (written using asyndeton) all blur together in one long list of things that don’t belong to Shadrack (the subject of this excerpt). Parataxis makes this sentence quick and even overwhelming, as the reader is immersed in Shadrack’s poverty upon leaving the military hospital he was confined to for so long.
Parataxis plays an equally interesting role in the below prose poem by Barbara Henning. Prose poets often employ parataxis as it resembles the disjointed nature of thought.
Many of the items in this prose poem are equally weighted, allowing the poem to represent the honest, fast-moving nature of human thought and experience. It is up to the reader to understand and interpret the many different items and ideas juxtaposed in this piece.
12. Polysyndeton—Succession of Coordinating Conjunctions
Polysyndeton is the opposite of asyndeton. A sentence with polysyndeton uses coordinating conjunctions (usually “and,” sometimes “or” or “nor”) to join a series of clauses, which serves to quicken the pace of the sentence itself.
Polysyndeton is prominent in these first two stanzas from the poem “It’s What Happens, Sometimes, in October” by Angel Gonzalez:
When nothing occurs,
and summer is gone,
and leaves start to fall off the trees,
and the cold rusts the edges of rivers,
and slows down the flow of waters;
when the sky seems a violent sea,
and birds swap landscapes,
and words sound more and more distant,
like whispers strewn by the wind;
The repeating “ands” quicken the pace of the poem, reflecting the way the seasons change swiftly in October. They also help create rhythm and tension in the language of the poem itself.
13. Synesis—“Sense” Over Syntax
A synesis occurs when a sentence lacks grammatical agreement, for the purpose of highlighting an agreement in “sense.”
This is easier demonstrated than defined. See the below excerpt from Shakespeare’s King Lear:
That all the world shall–I will do such things,
What they are, yet I know not…”
“Revenges,” here, is grammatically incorrect. The word should be singular, because it should agree, grammatically and syntactically, with “I.” One does not typically carry out “revenges,” and it’s actually rare to see that word in the plural.
But, in this instance, it is correct logically. Lear is promising revenge on two people, and he might even be promising a different kind of revenge on each person. So, while the sentence is wrong in grammar, it is correct in sense.
This break in grammar also highlights the word breaking grammatical rules. Our attention is drawn to “revenges”, and so, the idea of revenge is highlighted and heightened in the text.
Synesis is considered a form of anacoluthon. Like anacoluthon, synesis reflects the ways that we naturally communicate to one another. King Lear’s syneses and anacolutha sound true to his character, as these devices feel disjointed, much like a man blind with anger might speak.
10 Argumentative Rhetorical Devices List
The following common rhetorical devices are employed to convince the audience of something. Some of these devices are earnest, sincere, and logical; others are more manipulative.
14. Accismus—Feigned Indifference
What? No! I don’t want that thing (which I actually secretly really desperately want).
Accismus is a form of irony in which the speaker pretends not to desire something that they actually desire. They might do this so as not to scare off the person offering it, or to conceal that their entire motivation rests on this one thing.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (I.ii), Caesar pretends not to want the crown of Rome:
I can as well be hang’d, as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown; yet ’twas not a crown neither, ’twas one of these coronets; and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again: then he put it by again: but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by; and still, as he refus’d it, the rabblement hooted, and clapp’d their chopt hands, and threw up their sweaty night-caps, and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refus’d the crown, that it had, almost, choked Caesar, for he swooned, and fell down at it. And for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.
Caesar at first refuses the crown before accepting, so that the people of Rome don’t catch on to the fact that this crown is the only thing he wants. Were they to know this, the people might realize that Caesar is power hungry and tyrannical.
15. Anecdote—Story-Based Evidence
An anecdote is a short, pithy story, utilized to demonstrate a key point in an argument. Anecdotes are often funny, but can be serious, too.
The teller of the anecdote must not get too lost in the story that they lose track of their own argument; but they must also demonstrate their point clearly and emphatically.
We use anecdotes all the time, making this one of the more common rhetorical devices in this list. Here’s an example, from Timothy Donnelly’s poem “All Through the War” (in New England Review):
I said to my daughter on the phone: Be an honest person,
just be an honest person. Be honest, be honest, be honest.
Some days I can’t believe what it means to be alive some days.
Some days I think about tearing myself apart but not exactly
with pleasure. Some days I know the strongest feeling is grief
but I believe it must be love: it has to be, has to be, has to.
Some days I feel each cell in my body has its fingers crossed.
The first two lines in this excerpt are an example of the anecdote rhetorical device, with the following lines furthering the argument of the poem. The speaker demonstrates exactly what he means by being honest, sharing thoughts that are both radically intimate and deeply heartfelt.
When an anecdote is moral in nature, it is sometimes referred to as an “exemplum.”
16. Antanagoge—Deflection by Counter Allegation
An antanagoge refers to a deflection in which, instead of answering a question or defending a point, the speaker makes a counter allegation.
For example, if I charged you with “eating all the Oreos,” you might reply that I “ate all the pecan pie last week.” (It’s true; I did.)
Antanagoge can also be employed syntactically. If you raise a claim and then answer that claim with an opposing sentiment, you have used antanagoge. For example, the phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” The first clause is negative, the responding clause is positive.
17. Aporia—Feigned Uncertainty
An aporia occurs when the writer expresses uncertainty or doubt, with the intention of raising a certain argument and exploring it. This uncertainty is usually feigned, as the writer pretends to be uncertain so that they can enumerate their argument and ideas.
A famous example of this is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech:
By frequently calling into question her own womanhood, Sojourner Truth highlights the blinding effects of racism—how Black women don’t get to have the same rights, privileges, and freedoms of white women, perhaps because no one even views them as women. This speech was quite provocative, and quite effective, for its time—delivered at the 1851 Woman’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in the midst of rising racial tension and conversations about abolishing slavery.
Aporia is also a concept in philosophy, referring to irresolvable knots or logical impasses in a text.
18. Bdelygmia—Litany of Insults
Despite its weird and satisfying spelling, bdelygmia describes something neither weird nor satisfying: insults.
Specifically, bdelygmia is a litany of insults directed towards an opponent or someone with opposing ideas. It is sometimes called abominatio, is always a form of ad hominem, and it uses strong language to appeal to pathos.
At its cutest, bdelygmia is levied against the perceived antagonist of a story, such as this excerpt from How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss:
The list of insults (using asyndeton, no less!) compels the reader to believe that the Grinch, for lack of a better word, sucks. This has a strong influence on the reader, as it tinges the way they view the Grinch’s place in the story, and it also moves the reader when the Grinch comes around to Christmas.
At its ugliest, bdelygmia is the stuff of internet discourse and political rhetoric. If someone is casting a litany of insults towards their opposition, recognize that this is an abuse of rhetoric, and that no substantial argument is being levied. Bdelygmia is what incites hate groups, political polarization, cyberbullying, and all sorts of intentionally hurtful discourse. Don’t fall for it!
19. Enthymeme—Deductive Reasoning With an Unstated Premise
In our section on the Logos rhetorical device, we explain that deductive reasoning follows a series of premises to reach a conclusion. For example:
- Rhetorical devices use language to persuade the audience.
- Amplification is a rhetorical device.
- Amplification uses language to persuade the audience.
In other words, A = B, and B = C, so A must equal C. (This is a syllogism, which we define later in this article.)
An enthymeme uses deductive reasoning without stating one of the premises. This is because the unstated premise is obvious to the reader. If we remove that first premise, then we get:
- Amplification is a rhetorical device.
- Amplification uses language to persuade the audience.
You don’t need to be told that rhetorical devices use language to persuade the audience; so, this enthymeme implies that premise. The reader trusts that you already know this basic concept. Using enthymeme conveys trust in the audience, which can help build ethos. It also lets the writer build more concise arguments.
20. Hypophora—Raising and Answering a Question
What can learning about common rhetorical devices do for your writing? Everything.
Also known as antipophora or anthypophora, hypophora is when the writer asks a question and immediately answers it. This rhetorical strategy allows the writer to raise a new topic, and it also invites the audience to participate in the work, since asking questions (even rhetorical questions) makes the audience feel engaged.
A hypophora occurs at the end of the poem “When she told me” by Jean Valentine:
When she told me over the phone you died
I lay down and cried, “Don’t you stop loving me.”
In the West Side Market, I heard your voice
from the ceiling say out loud to me, I love you.
In the park, to a chestnut tree,
to the light through hundreds of leaves, I said, I love you.
It was you. And it was my life, run, to what,
—you closer than touch.
21. Procatalepsis—Raising and Responding to Rebuttal
I know what you’re going to say. Rhetorical devices? Who needs those?
Procatalepsis is the act of raising a possible rebuttal to your argument, in order to address it right away. It strengthens the argument by addressing criticism and predicting what the opponent might say. As long as that rebuttal is properly addressed, this device can greatly enhance the ethos of an argument. Like hypophora, procatalepsis can also create surprising transitions in literary texts.
Frederick Douglass used procatalepsis in his 1846 “Appeal to the British People.” See below:
Douglass raises and rebuts the argument that he should confine his efforts to the United States. By connecting his plight to humanity’s plight, Douglass not only crafts an effective argument, but also boosts his appeal to ethos and pathos.
22. Reductio ad Absurdum—Taking an Argument to its Absurd Extreme
Reductio ad absurdum is a Latin phrase meaning “Reducing to the point of absurdity.” It is a means of arguing that a certain position is actually absurd. This is one of the operating mechanisms of satire, because it takes an argument to its logical extreme, demonstrating the futility and absurdity of that argument.
At its simplest, reductio ad absurdum simply explains why an argument is incorrect. For example:
The sun cannot orbit the Earth. Otherwise, the Earth would be 1,000,000 times the size of the sun!
At its more complex, reductio ad absurdum pokes fun at the absurdity of the ways we think and act. Satirist Jonathan Swift makes fun of the ways women prepare themselves in his poem “The Ladies’ Dressing Room”:
Five hours, (and who can do it less in?)
By haughty Celia spent in dressing;
The goddess from her chamber issues,
Arrayed in lace, brocades and tissues…
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams,
Her washes, slops, and every clout
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.
The details and imagery here, as well as the mention that Celia spends five hours getting ready, makes Celia’s actions seem simply absurd.
Reductio ad absurdum can become a logical fallacy if it misinterprets the premise of an argument, or else doesn’t show a clear cause and effect between a premise and its logical extreme. Use this device wisely, logically, and convincingly.
23. Syllogism—If A=B, and B=C, Then A=C
If rhetorical devices help strengthen your writing, and syllogism is one of the common rhetorical devices, then a syllogism must strengthen your writing!
A syllogism is the base structure of deductive reasoning—the means by which specific claims are drawn from general knowledge. It follows the template “If A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C.”
Shakespeare, of course, master poet and rhetorician that he was, used syllogism in The Life of Timon of Athens.
“Have you forgot me, sir?”
“Why dost ask that? I have forgot all men;
Then, if thou grant’st thou’rt a man, I have forgot thee.”
Of course, employing a syllogism does not mean that the argument holds true. One of the claims A or B could prove incorrect, or else not encompass the full truth. This results in a faulty syllogism, or the syllogism fallacy. For example:
- All cats have four legs.
- A zebra has four legs.
- Therefore, a zebra is a cat.
While both claims A and B are generally true, they don’t encompass the full truth, because cats are not the only category of animals with four legs.
When a syllogism is employed with one claim instead of two (A = B, therefore A = C), that’s known as enthymeme, which is defined elsewhere in this article.
10 Emphatic Rhetorical Devices List
The following common rhetorical devices are employed to emphasize a certain idea. Many of these devices take ideas to their logical extreme, or else use repetition to make an argument stick.
24. Adynaton—Extreme Hyperbole
A hyperbole is an exaggeration. Adynaton is an extreme exaggeration—a hyperbole so out there that it’s beyond impossible. An adynaton might be employed for comic effect, or it might be evidence of the speaker’s extreme feelings.
Here’s an example: the poem “The Cow Speaks to the Child” by Evan Gill Smith:
There’s no me without you,
says the cow in the sunlight
being looked at, being drawn
by the child with crayons.
Is the hill an almond? the child
wants to know. Is life irrefutable?
The start of ‘me’ is the start of
the ending of ‘you.’ See that hole
in your sock where
the cold can get through?
The child’s toe sticks
through the hole now.
Some philosophers grow ulcers
from eating loneliness.
There’s not much we know.
The cow’s tongue smacks its lips.
The child fills in its spots
with blue crayon and silence.
A dragonfly or not.
The line “some philosophers grow ulcers from eating loneliness” can be considered adynaton, as philosophers cannot actually eat loneliness. The idea of growing ulcers from eating loneliness is certainly out there. Of course, this line is metaphorical, and it’s doing excellent work by making the abstract physical. But it’s also a great example of how to use adynaton, because the line is so surprising to the reader, and stands out so clearly from the rest of the piece, that it sticks with the reader long after they’ve finished the poem.
25. Amplification—Drawing Attention to Ideas
The amplification rhetorical device uses superfluous words, embellishments, and unnecessary additions to draw attention towards a particular idea which might otherwise escape the reader’s attention. (That sentence is one example!)
Sometimes, a concise, abruptly worded sentence might not convey what it intends to. The language itself is functional, but the sentence is so short, or so dense, that the reader won’t get it. Amplification ensures that the reader grasps the entirety of what the author believes to be a highly important idea.
Here’s an example, from The Twits by Roald Dahl. The amplifications have been bolded, so you can see how they’re highlighting the core idea.
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.
Notice how the bolded additions aren’t adding anything “new” to the original ideas, but they help demonstrate, through imagery and example, a necessary concept for the reader to understand.
Be careful with this device. Err on the side of concision, unless you’re certain that the reader must slow down and sit with the idea(s) in the writing.
26. Antiphrasis—Using Words Opposite of Their Meanings
Antiphrasis is the use of words to mean the opposite of their dictionary definitions. For example, if you fell down on the asphalt, and I said “Nice going, ballerina!”, that would be antiphrasis—I do not think that was “nice going,” and I certainly don’t think you’re a ballerina.
Antiphrasis is the operating mechanism for things like irony, sarcasm, satire, and sometimes even euphemism and litotes. (We define euphemism in our article on dialogue; litotes appears elsewhere in this article.)
Among rhetorical devices, antiphrasis helps writers emphasize what they mean by making the reader think. When the reader realizes that the words being used are opposite to what the writer means, the time spent thinking about those words makes them stick in the reader’s head.
Of course, antiphrasis can also be used as a weapon. It’s not a very kind device to use, so use it wisely and sparingly.
27. Asterismos—Calling Attention With Introductory Words
Behold, rhetorical devices! Asterismos is when you call attention to an idea with an introductory word or phrase. Behold! Alas! Hark! Listen. Hey…. Notice, I say to you!
We use asterismos all the time in daily conversation, and you might notice it used when writers try to capture colloquial speech in their work. Here’s one example, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Asterismos won’t do much for the arguments in your writing. But, this device helps keep the audience’s attention, and it can clue them into something important that’s about to occur in the text.
28. Litotes—The Rhetorical Double Negative
These common rhetorical devices are not bad!
A litotes is a double negative for rhetorical emphasis. It is a form of pleonasm (defined elsewhere in this article) because it requires the addition of extra words to convey a certain point. By expressing something positive using a double negative, the writer makes the audience think a little harder, adding weight behind the feeling that the double negative expresses.
Here are some common expressions in the English vernacular that use Litotes:
- Not bad!
- I don’t hate it.
- I can’t disagree.
- Not uncommon.
- Not cheap.
- Hardly difficult.
- It has not gone unnoticed.
- It’s not the worst!
And, here are a couple rhetorical devices in poetry involving litotes:
He hath not fail’d to pester us with message
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bands of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.—Hamlet (I.ii) by William Shakespeare
“To not harm each other
is not enough. I want you
Litotes is considered a form of meiosis, defined below.
29. Meiosis—Witty Understatement
A meiosis gives the impression that something is less important than it actually is. This understatement creates dramatic effect, because the reader knows that the thing described actually has profound importance. Understatement is considered a form of hyperbole.
In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio offers several examples of meiosis during his death scene:
(after being stabbed)
Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough.
Where is my page? Go villain, fetch a surgeon.
Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.
No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses. Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death. A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic!—Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.
As with other rhetorical devices where what’s said differs from what’s meant, meiosis makes the reader slow down and think about what’s being spoken. The ironic dissonance between what’s said and what’s meant emphasizes the true meanings of the words themselves.
30. Metanoia—Immediate Self-Correction
Rhetorical devices are great—no, amazing!
When a writer backtracks or modifies something they just wrote, they use the device metanoia. This is not erasing and rewriting something—it is acknowledging the thing just written, and correcting it with a new, more accurate meaning. This immediate self-correction emphasizes the correction itself, making it stick in the reader’s brain.
Additionally, metanoia mimics the way that we talk in real life. Employing rhetorical devices like this tactically can help build trust and ethos with the audience.
Metanoia can be used to strengthen an argument, soften it, or make it more precise.
Here’s an example of the device, from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitgerald:
The narrator’s self-correction indicates that he knows things now that he did not know before. Thus, this metanoia is also an example of foreshadowing, because it suggests we are about to learn much more about the owner of this mansion.
31. Paralipsis—Performative Refusal to Speak on a Topic
I will not bring up the importance of rhetorical devices in literature, so don’t ask me to talk about it!
Paralipsis is a form of raising a topic by pretending not to want to speak on that topic. In everyday speech, you might say something like “I can’t stand my mother-in-law’s perfume. Not to mention her drinking problem…”
That “not to mention” reveals the thing that you actually want to mention the most. Paralipsis is a form of irony and antiphrasis, because it’s emphasizing the thing that the writer pretends not to want emphasized.
This example comes from “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift:
Swift’s satirical essay argues that the Irish should start eating their 1 year old children to stave off famine and boost their economy. It is, of course, not a serious argument, because Swift is actually mocking the inability of the British to care for the Irishman’s plight. The above quote adds to the satire, because Swift is pretending like the other solutions aren’t worth anyone’s time, when in fact they are the solutions for helping Ireland.
32. Overstatement—Intentional Exaggeration
Rhetorical devices are the only way to make your writing sharp.
Not really. While rhetorical devices are powerful strategies for your writing, they’re not the only way to sharpen it. That was an overstatement—a device in which the writer intentionally exaggerates something to illustrate a point. While overstatements often add a sense of humor to the writing, poets in particular might use this device for strong, evocative emotions and imagery.
Here’s an example, from the poem “100 Bells” by Tarfia Faizullah (which also has great examples of parataxis):
locked the door. I did not die. I did
not die. I shaved my head. Until the horns
I knew were there were visible.
This is, of course, a metaphor. The speaker probably doesn’t believe they actually have horns nestled beneath their hair. But, this visceral overstatement still rings true to the reader—it feels painful, intimate, real, true.
An overstatement is often another literary device, too, such as a metaphor or simile or hyperbole.
33. Tmesis—A Word or Phrase Embedded in Another Word or Phrase
Will rhetorical devices revolutionize your writing? Abso-freaking-lutely!
A tmesis (yes, spelled that way) is a word or phrase embedded in another word or phrase, usually for emphatic effect. It typically reflects the ways we speak to one another.
Some examples of tmesis in everyday speech include:
- That’s a whole nother story
- Leave it any old where you like.
- This is fan-bloody-tastic. (Typical of British English.)
- Ned Flanders in The Simpsons: “Well-diddly-elcome!”
- Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother: “Legen-wait for it-dary”
And, in literature:
While tmesis seems easiest to construct in languages like English, you can find examples of this device in both contemporary and classic literature. In Latin, Ovid’s Metamorphoses utilizes the device. Contemporarily, many stream of conscious poets and modernists have used tmesis to reflect the fractured nature of language in the brain.
7 Stylistic Rhetorical Devices List
The following common rhetorical devices are employed to make the writing memorable. Stylistic writing can prove both persuasive and compelling, sticking in the audience’s mind long after the final sentence.
34. Adnomination—Words with Repeating Roots
A single root word can produce many words in the contemporary English lexicon. For example, the latin “facere,” which means “to make” or “to bring forth,” has spawned a bunch of English words. Some examples:
Adnomination is the use of two or more words that share similar roots in a sentence. By doing this, the writer makes something about the sentence memorable. This is a rhetorical device useful for both rhetoricians and for marketers.
Here’s an example from the poem “The Choice” by Franz Wright (which repeats the prefix “some”):
Somebody burning unnoticed walks past in the street
35. Aposiopesis—The Unfinished Sentence
An aposiopesis occurs when the speaker leaves their sentence unfinished. Doing so forces the audience to use their imaginations and “fill in the blank,” which makes the speaker’s message more impactful—provided it’s clear what the speaker implies.
Use aposiopesis clearly, or else—!
Shakespeare employed this device often in his plays. One example comes from King Lear (I.iv):
No, you unnatural hags,
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: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
Two examples of this rhetorical device appear in the bolded line. They both communicate something similar: the “such revenges” that King Lear will take on his daughters. What those revenges are, the reader doesn’t know—and that not knowing actually makes these words scarier, as the reader is left to fill in the blanks with their own imagination, and why wouldn’t we imagine the worst “terrors of the earth?”
36. Circumlocution—Unnecessary Wordiness
Circumlocution (also known as periphrasis) is the use of extraneous words to describe something that could be described concisely. That sentence is one example!
At its most useful, a circumlocution helps define words, so you’ll see this device employed in dictionary entries. It’s also common for language learners to use circumlocution when they don’t have a strong vocabulary—for example, saying “my mother’s sister” if you don’t know the word “aunt.”
Circumlocution is also the operating mechanism for euphemisms. Instead of saying a person is “dumb,” you might say they “didn’t have the best schooling growing up.” In literature, this is the operating mechanism for calling Voldemort “He-who-must-not-be-named.”
Among rhetorical devices, circumlocution is commonly used when politicians try to talk in circles, or else express empty ideas using bloated language. This use of circumlocution is also known as “equivocation.”
For example, if you ask a politician why they decided to close an important public school, they might say they’re trying to “allocate resources in the interest of all students” or “optimize the city’s learning experience through tailored resource allocation.” Well, those ideas sound fine and dandy, but they’re not actually answering the question, they’re just appealing to the audience by being ambiguous and seemingly-moral.
37. Dysphemism—Language That’s Derogatory Instead of Neutral
A dysphemism is the opposite of a euphemism. When you use words derogatorily, particularly when a neutral word or phrase already exists, you are employing dysphemism—a device sometimes used alongside bdelygmia.
- Euphemism: It’s time for Number Two.
- Neutral term: I need to use the restroom.
- Dysphemism: I’ve gotta shit.
So, most insults, swear words, and vulgarities are dysphemisms.
There is something to be said about connotation, context, and the audience: in some instances, a dysphemism could be a euphemism, and vice versa. If someone died, for example, and the nurse said that he “kicked the bucket,” this would normally be a euphemism. But, if the family prefers direct communication, or if the nurse laughed while she said it, then the nurse might have used a dysphemism instead.
38. Ellipsis—Omission of Words
Ellipsis is the omission of words from a sentence, encouraging the reader to “fill in the blank.” Aposiopesis is a form of ellipsis, but an ellipsis can happen anywhere in the text, and is much more open in terms of subject matter.
Take a look at the following example sentences. The words in brackets can be removed without changing the meanings of the sentences. If those bracketed words were removed, these sentences would then contain ellipses:
- I rode the train, and he [rode] the bus.
- I rode the train, [but I did] not [ride] the bus.
- Who rode the train to school today? I did [ride the train, myself.]
- I’ll ride the train, and you will [ride the train] too.
Ellipsis is a useful tool in the art of concise writing. It can also add ambiguity, particularly in literary works, if the writer wants to imply but not outright state something occurring in the story. Here’s a famous example from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which suggests sexual relations between Mr. McKee and Nick Carraway:
Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.
“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.“Where?”
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”
… I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
“Beauty and the Beast… Loneliness… Old Grocery Horse… Brook’n Bridge…”
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.
The ellipses are marked by the three dots (…). It’s the ellipses after the main bit of dialogue that suggests the two men had some sort of relations: we know time has passed, but not what precisely occurred so that Nick was beside the bed and McKee was in his underwear.
39. Isocolon—Parallelism With an Equal Number of Words or Syllables
A writer uses isocolon when they write a parallel sentence in which each element has the same number of words or syllables. This device is naturally built into certain other rhetorical devices, such as antithesis (“go big or go home!”), and it’s also built into poetry forms like iambic pentameter.
Here are two rhetorical devices examples that use isocolon:
Same number of words:
Same number of syllables:
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood.—Iambic pentameter from Richard II by William Shakespeare.
Notice how each item replicates the same grammatical and syntactical structures. Isocolon presents ideas in a balanced manner, maintaining rhythm and flow in the sentence while advancing equally weighted ideas.
Isocolon can be further defined as bicolon (two parallel items), tricolon (three parallel items), tetracolon (four parallel items), and so on.
40. Pleonasm—Intentional Redundancy
If you use rhetorical devices, you are a smart, intelligent person!
A pleonasm is an intentional redundancy. It is typically used to emphasize a certain idea or draw attention to it, though it can also add a sense of urgency and intensity to language, so long as it’s employed properly.
Pleonasm is very similar to tautology, which is when you use different words that have the same meanings side by side. The only difference is that a pleonasm is any sort of rhetorical magniloquence.
Some phrases in the English language are inherently pleonastic/tautological. You might have said or heard recently:
- I saw it with my own two eyes. (You can just say “my.” The “two” is redundant, too.)
- Can I have a chai tea? (“Chai” literally means “tea.”)
- I’ll have the tuna fish for supper. (Just “tuna” communicates the same idea.)
- It may be possible.
- I got a free gift!
- Under false pretenses.
- PIN Number (PIN stands for Personal Identification Number.)
- ATM Machine (ATM stands for Automatic Teller Machine.)
Pleonasm is also a prominent feature in Mary Oliver’s poem “Every Dog’s Story”:
I have a bed, my very own.
It’s just my size.
And sometimes I like to sleep alone
with dreams inside my eyes.
But sometimes dreams are dark and wild and creepy
and I wake and am afraid, though I don’t know why.
But I’m no longer sleepy
and too slowly the hours go by.
So I climb on the bed where the light of the moon
is shining on your face
and I know it will be morning soon.
Everybody needs a safe place.
Pleonasm, here, emphasizes the dog’s intense emotions, and also somehow emulates the way a dog might think. The writing here certainly feels feasible for a dog’s own thoughts, if a dog thought in the English language.
The key here is whether or not the writer is abusing their poetic license: some pleonasm may be useful, though of course it’s best to err on the side of concision.
Master These Common Rhetorical Devices in Literature at Writers.com
Poets, rhetoricians, storytellers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and translators all use these common rhetorical devices in their work. These devices can be leveraged for style, for argument, or for effective, evocative writing.
Whatever your screed, master these common rhetorical devices at Writers.com. Take a look at our upcoming classes, where you’ll receive expert feedback on every piece of writing you submit.