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Rhetoric Made Easy

The most effective rhetorical devices and how they work.

Rhetoric may seem abstract and old-fashioned until you realize that all your favorite rhymes and tunes and lines depend on it.

Have you ever asked yourself why Obama is so rousing at a rally? It’s because he’s mugged up on his rhetoric, that's why—especially on epistrophe, which is the basis of his ‘Yes we can’ shtick.

A few years back, I wrote a long and rather disorganized Glossary of Rhetorical Devices. Today I wanted to rationalize that list, first, to give me a better understanding of the psychology of language, and, second, so that I might have all the power of language at my fingertips—which, looking at where it got Obama, is quite a lot of power.

And so I managed to classify what I consider (and what others consider) to be the most effective rhetorical devices into just eight groups: sound repetition, word repetition, idea or structure repetition, unusual structure, language games, opposition and contradiction, circumlocution, and imagery.

I'm going to take you through these eight groups and explain how each one works.

1. Sound repetition

The repetition of a sound or sounds can produce a pleasing sense of harmony. It can also subtly link or emphasize important words or ideas. There are two major forms of sound repetition: consonance and alliteration.

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound, as in, for example,

Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile/ Whether Jew or gentile I rank top percentile (Fugees)

Alliteration is a type of consonance involving the same consonant sound at the beginning of each word or stressed syllable. Sibilance is a form of consonance involving the repetition of sibilant sounds such as /s/ and /sh/. Sibilance is calming and sensual, whereas alliteration on a hard sound produces an entirely different effect.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain... (Edgar Allen Poe)

Resonance, in contrast, refers to richness or variety of sounds in a line or passage.

Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d: The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! (Alexander Pope)

2. Word repetition

Word repetition can create alliteration, rhythm or continuity, emphasis, connection, and progression.

Words can be repeated in several ways. 

Most obviously, a word can be repeated in immediate succession (epizeuxis), as in, for example,

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon…

Or it can be repeated after one or two intervening words (diacope) or at the beginning and end of a clause or line (epanalepsis). 

Bond, James Bond.

The king is dead, long live the king!

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou my Romeo?

Or it can be carried across from one clause or line to the next, with the word that ends one clause or line beginning the next (anadiplosis). This brings out key ideas, as well as their connection, imbuing the proposition with something like the strength and inevitability of hard logic.

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3)

A word can also be repeated, but with a change of meaning, either a subtle, ambiguous change (ploce) or a more obvious grammatical change (polyptoton). Ploce emphasizes a contrast by playing on ambiguity, while polyptoton suggests both a connection and a difference. In the following sentence, ‘Love is not love’ is an example of ploce, while ‘alter’ and ‘alteration’ and ‘remover’ and ‘remove’ are examples of polyptoton.

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare) 

As well as single words, groups of words can be repeated, either at the beginning of successive clauses or lines (anaphora), or at the end of successive clauses or lines (epiphora).

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind… (Francis Thompson)

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. (Lyndon B. Johnson)

If you really want to be flare, you can combine anaphora and epiphora (symploce).

When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. (Bill Clinton)

In this particular example, the repetition conveys determination, resolve, and togetherness.

3. Idea or structure repetition

The repetition of an idea or structure can, if used correctly, add richness and resonance to expression. It can also add emphasis; create order, rhythm, and progression; and conjure up a total concept.

Let's start with tautology, which is the repetition of the same idea in a line.

With malice toward none, with charity for all.

Pleonasm is a type of tautology involving the use of more words than is necessary for clear expression.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. 

The latter example is a combination of pleonasm and parallelism. Parallelism involves using a similar syntactical structure in a pair or series of related words, clauses, or lines. Three parallel words, clauses, or lines is a tricolon, which is a particularly effective type of isocolon.

Blood, sweat, and tears.

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. 

An effective method of emphasizing structural parallels is through a structural reversal (chiasmus).

By the day the frolic, and the dance by night.

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

Do not give what is holy unto dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they (the pigs) trample them under their feet, and (the dogs) turn and tear you to pieces.

4. Unusual structure 

An unusual structure draws attention and can also create a shift in emphasis.

Hyperbaton is the alteration of the normal order of the words in a sentence, or the separation of words that normally go together. There are several types. Anastrophe involves inversion of ordinary word order. Hypallage involves transference of attributes from their proper subjects to others. Hysteron proteron involves inversion of natural chronology.

Above the seas to stand… (anastrophe)

Angry crowns of kings… (hypallage)

Let us die, and charge into the thick of the fight. (hysteron proteron)

Zeugma is the joining of two or more parts of a sentence with a single verb (or sometimes a noun). Depending upon the position of the verb (at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end), a zeugma is either a prozeugma, mesozeugma, or hypozeugma. Here is an example of a mesozeugma.

What a shame is this, that neither hope of reward, nor feare of reproach could any thing move him, neither the persuasion of his friends, nor the love of his country. (Henry Peacham)

Syllepsis is a type of zeugma in which a single word agrees grammatically with two or more other words, but semantically with only one. 

She lowered her standards by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes, and his hopes. (Flanders and Swann) 

A hypozeuxis is the reverse of a zeugma, in which each subject is attached to its own verb. The following is also an example of anaphora (see above). 

We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender! (Sir Winston Churchill)

A periodic sentence is one that is not grammatically or semantically complete before the final clause or phrase.

Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you. 

5. Language games 

Language games such as puns and deliberate mistakes can draw attention to a phrase or idea, or simply raise a smile, by creating new and often ridiculous images and associations. They can also give rise to a vivid image, create ambiguity, and suggest sincerity and even passion.

A pun (or paronomasia) is the use of words with similar sounds, or the use of a word with different senses.

Do hotel managers get board with their jobs?

A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.

She is nice from far, but far from nice.

Catachresis is the intentional misuse of a term, applying it to a thing that it does not usually denote. Similarly, synaesthesia is the attribution to a thing of a sensory quality in a modality that is not proper to it.

To take arms against a sea of troubles…

‘Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse

She smelled the way the Taj Mahal smells by moonlight.

Antitimeria is the intentional misuse of a word as if it were a member of a different word class, typically a noun for a verb.

I’ll unhair thy head.

Enallage is the intentional and effective use of incorrect grammar.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine.

Love me tender, love me true. 

6. Opposition and contradiction

Opposition and contradiction draws attention to itself, forces thought, can be humorous, and can suggest progression and completion.

An oxymoron is a juxtaposition of words which at first sight seem to be contradictory or incongruous. A paradox is similar to an oxymoron, but less compact.

Make haste slowly.

What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.

Antiphrasis is the use of a word in a context where it means its opposite. 

A giant of five foot three inches. 

Antithesis is the use of a pair of opposites for contrasting effect. A series of antitheses is called a progression.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal…

7. Periphrasis or circumlocution

Circumlocution essentially works by painting a picture, or conjuring up a complex idea, with just a few well-chosen words.

Hendiadys is the combination of two words, and hendiatris of three.

Dieu et mon droit

Sound and fury

Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll

Lock, stock, and barrel 

The latter example is also a merism, which is enumerating the parts to signify the whole. Here’s another example.

For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.

8. Imagery

Obviously, imagery works by conjuring up a particular image.

Metonymy is the naming of a thing or concept by a thing that is closely associated with it.

Downing Street

Westminster

The White House

The pen is mightier than the sword. 

Antonomasia, a type of metonymy, is the use of a word or phrase or epithet in place of a proper name.

The Divine Teacher (Plato)

The Master of Those Who Know (Aristotle) 

Synedoche, which is similar to metonymy, is the naming of a thing or concept by one of its parts.

A pair of hands.

Longshanks. 

And so that's it: the principal elements of rhetoric arranged in just eight groups. Easy to learn, easy to understand, easy to remember, easy to teach.

Happy writing!

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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