A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices

Robert A. Harris
Version Date: January 19, 2013


This book contains definitions and examples of more than sixty traditional rhetorical devices, (including rhetorical tropes and rhetorical figures) all of which can still be useful today to improve the effectiveness, clarity, and enjoyment of your writing. Note: This book was written in 1980, with some changes since. The devices presented are not in alphabetical order. To go directly to the discussion of a particular device, click on the name below. If you know these already, go directly to the Self Test. To learn about my book, Writing with Clarity and Style, see the Advertisement.
 
 


Alliteration Antithesis Climax Epizeuxis Metanoia Polysyndeton
Allusion Apophasis Conduplicatio Eponym Metaphor Procatalepsis
Amplification Aporia Diacope Exemplum Metonymy Rhetorical Question
Anacoluthon Aposiopesis Dirimens Copulatio Sentential Adverb Onomatopoeia Scesis Onomaton
Anadiplosis Apostrophe Distinctio Hyperbaton Oxymoron Sententia
Analogy Appositive Enthymeme Hyperbole Parallelism Simile
Anaphora Assonance Enumeratio Hypophora Parataxis Symploce
Antanagoge Asyndeton Epanalepsis Hypotaxis Parenthesis Synecdoche
Antimetabole Catachresis Epistrophe Litotes Personification Understatement
Antiphrasis Chiasmus Epithet Metabasis Pleonasm Zeugma
 
 

A Preface of Quotations

Whoever desires for his writings or himself, what none can reasonably condemn,the favor of mankind, must add grace to strength, and make his thoughts agreeable as well as useful. Many complain of neglect who never tried to attract regard. It cannot be expected that the patrons of science or virtue should be solicitous to discover excellencies which they who possess them shade and disguise. Few have abilities so much needed by the rest of the world as to be caressed on their own terms; and he that will not condescend to recommend himself by external embellishments must submit to the fate of just sentiments meanly expressed, and be ridiculed and forgotten before he is understood. --Samuel Johnson

Men must be taught as if you taught them not; And things unknown propos'd as things forgot. --Alexander Pope

Style in painting is the same as in writing, a power over materials, whether words or colors, by which conceptions or sentiments are conveyed. --Sir Joshua Reynolds

Whereas, if after some preparatory grounds of speech by their certain forms got into memory, they were led to the praxis thereof in some chosen short book lessoned thoroughly to them, they might then forthwith proceed to learn the substance of good things, and arts in due order, which would bring the whole language quickly into their power. --John Milton

Introduction

Good writing depends upon more than making a collection of statements worthy of belief, because writing is intended to be read by others, with minds different from your own. Your reader does not make the same mental connections you make; he does not see the world exactly as you see it; he is already flooded daily with thousands of statements demanding assent, yet which he knows or believes to be false, confused, or deceptive. If your writing is to get through to him--or even to be read and considered at all--it must be interesting, clear, persuasive, and memorable, so that he will pay attention to, understand, believe, and remember the ideas it communicates. To fulfill these requirements successfully, your work must have an appropriate and clear thesis, sufficient arguments and reasons supporting the thesis, a logical and progressive arrangement, and, importantly, an effective style.

While style is probably best learned through wide reading, comprehensive analysis and thorough practice, much can be discovered about effective writing through the study of some of the common and traditional devices of style and arrangement. By learning, practicing, altering, and perfecting them, and by testing their effects and nuances for yourself, these devices will help you to express yourself better and also teach you to see the interrelatedness of form and meaning, and the psychology of syntax, metaphor, and diction both in your own writing and in the works of others.

The rhetorical devices presented here generally fall into three categories: those involving emphasis, association, clarification, and focus; those involving physical organization, transition, and disposition or arrangement; and those involving decoration and variety. Sometimes a given device or trope will fall mainly into a single category, as for example an expletive is used mostly for emphasis; but more often the effects of a particular device are multiple, and a single one may operate in all three categories. Parallelism, for instance, helps to order, clarify, emphasize, and beautify a thought. Occasionally a device has certain effects not readily identifiable or explainable, so I have not always been able to say why or when certain ones are good or should be used. My recommendation is to practice them all and develop that sense in yourself which will tell you when and how to use them.

Lots of practice and experimentation are necessary before you will feel really comfortable with these devices, but too much practice in a single paper will most assuredly be disastrous. A journal or notebook is the best place to experiment; when a device becomes second nature to you, and when it no longer appears false or affected--when indeed it becomes genuinely built in to your writing rather than added on--then it may make its formal appearance in a paper. Remember that rhetorical devices are aids to writing and not ends of writing; you have no obligation to toss one into every paragraph. Further, if used carelessly or excessively or too frequently, almost any one of these devices will probably seem affected, dull, awkward, or mechanical. But with a little care and skill, developed by practice, anyone can master them, and their use will add not just beauty and emphasis and effectiveness to your writing, but a kind of freedom of thought and expression you never imagined possible.

Practice these; try them out. Do not worry if they sometimes ring false at first. Play with them--learn to manipulate and control your words and ideas--and eventually you will master the art of aggressive instruction: keeping the reader focused with anaphora, emphasizing a point with an expletive, explaining to him with a metaphor or simile, organizing your work in his mind with metabasis, answering his queries with hypophora or procatalepsis, balancing possibilities with antithesis. You will also have gone a long way toward fulfilling the four requirements mentioned at the beginning: the devices of decoration and variety will help make your reader pay attention, the devices of organization and clarification will help him understand your points, the devices of association and some like procatalepsis will help him believe you, and the devices of emphasis, association, beauty, and organization will help him remember.


Resources

Of course, I modestly recommend my book, Writing with Clarity and Style, that contains more than 60 of the devices discussed below, and many sidebars on style and writing effectiveness. Get it from the publisher at 123Writing.com or get a copy from Amazon.com here: Writing With Clarity and Style.

If you want a relatively inexpensive book that through a rather dramatic coincidence includes more than half of the devices described here (and none of the many others not described here), and covers many of the same points, Amazon.com has Rhetorical Devices: A Handbook and Activities for Student Writers.

For really serious students of rhetoric and style, I recommend Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, now in its fourth edition. It's the standard and covers aspects of style as well as the tropes.

While you are reading over these rhetoric pages or one of the resources above, why not enjoy something made from a recipe on our sister site, VirtualTeaTime.


Rhetorical Devices

1. A Sentential Adverb is a single word or short phrase, usually interrupting normal syntax, used to lend emphasis to the words immediately proximate to the adverb. (We emphasize the words on each side of a pause or interruption in order to maintain continuity of the thought.) Compare: In the second sentence, the words not and drained are naturally stressed by the speaker or reader in order to keep the thought in mind while entertaining the interruption.

Sentential adverbs are most frequently placed near the beginning of a sentence, where important material has been placed:
But sometimes they are placed at the very beginning of a sentence, thereby serving as signals that the whole sentence is especially important. In such cases the sentence should be kept as short as possible: Or the author may show that he does not intend to underemphasize an objection or argument he rejects: In a few instances, especially with short sentences, the sentential adverb can be placed last: A common practice is setting off the sentential adverb by commas, which increases the emphasis on the surrounding words, though in many cases the commas are necessary for clarity as well and cannot be omitted. Note how the adverb itself is also emphasized: A sentential adverb can emphasize a phrase: Transitional phrases, accostives, some adverbs, and other interrupters can be used for emphasizing portions of sentences, and therefore function as kinds of quasi-sentential adverbs in those circumstances. And note that a variety of punctuation can be used to set off the interrupter: Some useful sentential adverbs include the following: in fact, of course, indeed, I think, without doubt, to be sure, naturally, it seems, after all, for all that, in brief, on the whole, in short, to tell the truth, in any event, clearly, I suppose, I hope, at least, assuredly, certainly, remarkably, importantly, definitely. In formal writing, avoid these and similar colloquial emphases: you know, you see, huh, get this. And it goes without saying that you should avoid the unprintable expletives.


2. Asyndeton consists of omitting conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses. In a list of items, asyndeton gives the effect of unpremeditated multiplicity, of an extemporaneous rather than a labored account:

The lack of the "and" conjunction gives the impression that the list is perhaps not complete. Compare: Sometimes an asyndetic list is useful for the strong and direct climactic effect it has, much more emphatic than if a final conjunction were used. Compare: In certain cases, the omission of a conjunction between short phrases gives the impression of synonymity to the phrases, or makes the latter phrase appear to be an afterthought or even a substitute for the former. Compare: Notice also the degree of spontaneity granted in some cases by asyndetic usage. "The moist, rich, fertile soil," appears more natural and spontaneous than "the moist, rich, and fertile soil."

Generally, asyndeton offers the feeling of speed and concision to lists and phrases and clauses, but occasionally the effect cannot be so easily categorized. Consider the "flavor" of these examples:

3. Polysyndeton is the use of a conjunction between each word, phrase, or clause, and is thus structurally the opposite of asyndeton. The rhetorical effect of polysyndeton, however, often shares with that of asyndeton a feeling of multiplicity, energetic enumeration, and building up. Use polysyndeton to show an attempt to encompass something complex: The multiple conjunctions of the polysyndetic structure call attention to themselves and therefore add the effect of persistence or intensity or emphasis to the other effect of multiplicity. The repeated use of "nor" or "or" emphasizes alternatives; repeated use of "but" or "yet" stresses qualifications. Consider the effectiveness of these: In a skilled hand, a shift from polysyndeton to asyndeton can be very impressive: Maximum effect tip: Polysyndeton is almost always the most effective when you link three or in some cases four elements. Modern readers do not expect even two conjunctions ("she wrote and phoned and faxed") linking three elements. (I've had my own prose "corrected" by business colleagues who had never encountered either asyndeton or polysyndeton before.) So, consider your audience before you create a lengthy list. If you're writing a humor piece, you can really have fun.


4. Understatement deliberately expresses an idea as less important than it actually is, either for ironic emphasis or for politeness and tact. When the writer's audience can be expected to know the true nature of a fact which might be rather difficult to describe adequately in a brief space, the writer may choose to understate the fact as a means of employing the reader's own powers of description. For example, instead of endeavoring to describe in a few words the horrors and destruction of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a writer might state: The effect is not the same as a description of destruction, since understatement like this necessarily smacks of flippancy to some degree; but occasionally that is a desirable effect. Consider these usages: In these cases the reader supplies his own knowledge of the facts and fills out a more vivid and personal description than the writer might have.

In a more important way, understatement should be used as a tool for modesty and tactfulness. Whenever you represent your own accomplishments, and often when you just describe your own position, an understatement of the facts will help you to avoid the charge of egotism on the one hand and of self-interested puffery on the other. We are always more pleased to discover a thing greater than promised rather than less than promised--or as Samuel Johnson put it, "It is more pleasing to see smoke brightening into flame, than flame sinking into smoke." And it goes without saying that a person modest of his own talents wins our admiration more easily than an egotist. Thus an expert geologist might say, "Yes, I know a little about rocks," rather than, "Yes, I'm an expert about rocks." (An even bigger expert might raise his eyebrows if he heard that.)

Understatement is especially useful in dealing with a hostile audience or in disagreeing with someone, because the statement, while carrying the same point, is much less offensive. Compare:

Remember, the goal of writing is to persuade, not to offend; once you insult or put off your opponent, objector, or disbeliever, you will never persuade him of anything, no matter how "obviously wrong" he is or how clearly right you are. The degree and power of pride in the human heart must never be underestimated. Many people are unwilling to hear objections of any kind, and view disagreement as a sign of contempt for their intellect. The use of understatement allows you to show a kind of respect for your reader's understanding. You have to object to his belief, but you are sympathetic with his position and see how he might have come to believe it; therefore, you humbly offer to steer him right, or at least to offer what you think is a more accurate view. Even those who agree with you already will be more persuaded because the modest thinker is always preferable to the flaming bigot. Compare these statements and consider what effect each would have on you if you read them in a persuasive article: 5. Litotes, a particular form of understatement, is generated by denying the opposite or contrary of the word which otherwise would be used. Depending on the tone and context of the usage, litotes either retains the effect of understatement, or becomes an intensifying expression. Compare the difference between these statements: Johnson uses litotes to make a modest assertion, saying "not improperly" rather than "correctly" or "best": Occasionally a litotic construction conveys an ironic sentiment by its understatement: Usually, though, litotes intensifies the sentiment intended by the writer, and creates the effect of strong feelings moderately conveyed. But note that, as George Orwell points out in "Politics and the English Language," the "not un-" construction (for example, "not unwilling") should not be used indiscriminately. Rather, find an opposite quality which as a word is something other than the quality itself with an "un" attached. For instance, instead of, "We were not unvictorious," you could write, "We were not defeated," or "We did not fail to win," or something similar.

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Now You Can Buy the Book
If you enjoy learning rhetorical devices, you should get the book. Writing with Clarity and Style: A Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary Writers takes you far beyond the material here, with full discussions of 60 devices, what they are, and how to use them effectively in modern writing. The book includes more than 390 examples, as well as practice exercises, review questions, sample applications (six appendices), and more. Learn how to use these devices in your own writing. For more information and several ways to order, see the Advertisement.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com