List of Rhetorical Devices (literary devices are a sub-category of rhetorical devices; a few literary devices are included below):
allusion: an indirect reference to a person, event, statement or theme found in literature, the other arts, history, myths, religion or popular culture
- Watergate: The 1972 scandal at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Since the event, the suffix “–gate” has been added to many dozens of names to refer to scandals. These scandals are generally in politics, but can be in other fields as well, and can be of any proportion, from the relatively trivial “Bendgate” of 2014 when the iPhone 6 Plus was shown to bend under pressure, to “Irangate”, referring to the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s during the Reagan Administration.
anadiplosis: (“doubling back”) the rhetorical repetition of one or several words; specifically, repetition of a word that ends one clause at the beginning of the next.
EX: “Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business.” -Francis Bacon
anaphora – a rhetorical figure involving the exact repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive lines or sentences (a type of parallelism)
- “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, 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.” Winston Churchill.
- Nihil agis, nihil moliris, nihil cogitas, quod non ego non modo audiam, sed etiam videam planeque sentiam. Cicero, In Catilinam
anecdote — a short account of an interesting or amusing incident, often intended to illustrate or support some point. Anecdotes can include an extensive range of tales and stories. In fact, it is a short description or an account of any event that makes the readers laugh or brood over the topic presented for the purpose. (to caution, to persuade, to inspire, or to reminisce)
- Many of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales could probably be considered anecdotal, but one digression in particular fits the bill. Before the church court summoner begins his tale, he launches into a humorous anecdote responding to rude remarks made about his profession by a friar travelling in the group. He relates a story he heard of a friar who dreamed he had gone to Hell and found no other friars present. When he asked why he was the only one around, an angel showed the friar that all his brethren were there – only hidden from view deep in the Devil’s rear. Though amusing, the anecdote still demonstrates the sinfulness of friars that the summoner hopes to illustrate further in the broader context of his tale that follows.
antithesis – a rhetorical figure in which two ideas are directly opposed.
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”
—Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens
asyndeton – the deliberate omission of conjunctions to create a concise, terse and often memorable statement
I came, I saw, I conquered. —Julius Caesar
colloquialism – a word or phrase that is used mostly in informal speech; a local or regional dialect expression
- “I didn’t want to go back no more. I had stopped cussing, because the widow didn’t like it; but now I took to it again because pap hadn’t no objections… But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I could’t stand it. I was all over with welts. He got to going away so much, too, and locking me in. Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome.”
–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The use of double negatives is evident in the above passage that is a typical characteristic of Black American Vernacular.
connotation – the association(s) evoked by a word beyond its denotation, or literal meaning
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
(“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost)
This short poem by Robert Frost imagines the two possible apocalyptic scenarios, and which one he would prefer. There are clear connotations of passion and aggression Frost’s usage of fire imagery, while ice has the connotation of hard hatred. The world, in his imagination, will either burn up or freeze, and he doesn’t just mean in geological terms. Instead he places human emotion into the two concepts of fire and ice.
cumulative sentence – a sentence that begins with one independent clause, and then is followed by more than one modifying, subordinate construction (several details are given for the same subject).
- “I write this at a wide desk in a pine shed as I always do these recent years, in this life I pray will last, while the summer sun closes the sky to Orion and to all the other winter stars over my roof.”
—Annie Dillard, An American Childhood, 1987
- “Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up.”
—Kent Haruf, Plainsong
The blue text in the sentences above are the independent clauses. The green text is the subordinate constructions.
dialect – a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language
Walter: Reckon I have. Almost died first year I come to school and et them pecans — folks say he pizened ‘em and put ‘em over on the school side of the fence.
–To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Translation: I suppose I have. The first year I came to school and ate those pecans, I almost died. Some people accuse him [Mr. Radley] of poisoning them and keeping them over on the school side of the fence.
diction – choice or use of words in speech or writing
- Writers’ skillfully choose words to develop a certain tone and atmosphere in their works. Read the following excerpt from a short story “The School” by Donald Barthelme:
“And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.”
The use of the words “died”, “dead”, “brown sticks” and “depressing” gives a gloomy tone to the passage.
epistrophe – repetition at the end of a sentence
- “Where now? Who now? When now?”—The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
“Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended….”
—Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
euphemism – the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant
- “The Squealer”, a character in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, uses euphemisms to help “the pigs” achieve their political ends. To announce the reduction of food to the animals of the farm, Orwell quotes him saying:
“For the time being,” he explains, “it had been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations.”
Substituting the word “reduction” with “readjustment” was an attempt to suppress the complaints of other animals about hunger. It works because reduction means “cutting” food supply while readjustment implies changing the current amount of food.
imagery – use of language to draw on or appeal to the kind of experiences gained through the five senses
- When the others went swimming my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death. -“Once More to the Lake“, E.B. WhiteThe images depicting the dampness of clothes, in the above lines, convey a sense of chilly sensation that we get from wet clothes.
juxtaposition – the act of placing two words, phrases or images side by side purposely for a greater connotation
- Chapter 1, “The Prison Door” in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which the beautiful, untamed, wild rosebush is positioned next to the old, decrepit prison door. The juxtaposing of these two images conveys the distinct differences and symbolizes the beauty and vibrant youth of Hester opposed to the withering orthodox Puritan faith.
litotes – understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary
“Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others.”
This line has been taken from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave” by Frederick Douglass himself. He was an African-American social reformer and a writer. He has effectively used litotes to stress that his point that even slaves used to seek dominance over other slaves by stressing the point that their respective masters were much better than those of the other slaves.
metonymy – one thing is represented by another that is commonly and often physically associated with it.
- The pen is mightier than the sword.
parallelism – a rhetorical figure used in written and oral compositions to accentuate ideas or images by using grammatically similar constructions
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” –The Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
parody — an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.
In contemporary society, a parody is a satirical redux of art. It imitates another work of art to make light or make fun of it in some way. Many people see it as a form of ridicule, while others revere it as the highest form of flattery. Such as skits on Saturday Night Live, the movie Airplane! and Austin Powers.
periodic sentence – a very long sentence that is not grammatically complete until the end of the sentence
- But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
–Martin Luther King Jr.
polysyndeton – repetition of conjunctions (and, or, for, yet, nor, so, ; ) in close succession for rhetorical effect
“In years gone by, there were in every community men and women who spoke the language of duty and morality and loyalty and obligation.” –William F. Buckley
satire – a literary genre that uses irony, wit and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles, giving impetus to change or reform through ridicule
- “. . . that for above seventy Moons past there have been two struggling Parties in this Empire, under the Names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan from the high and low Heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.”-Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan SwiftAt the time Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, two rival political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, dominated the English political scene. Similarly, “The Kingdom of Lilliput” is dominated by two parties distinguished by the size of the heels of their boots. By the trivial disputes between the two Lilliputian parties”, Swift satirizes the minor disputes of the two English parties of his period.
stereotype – to fix a conventional notion or concept; an oversimplified conception, opinion or image of a person or group usually critical in judgment
- Paul Theroux’s essay “Being a Man”
- Judith Ortiz Cofer’s essay “The Myth of the Latin Woman”
synecdoche – a part of something is used to represent the whole or, occasionally, the whole is used to represent a part.
- I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
—T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
syntax – the grammatical arrangement of words in a sentence
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
-“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway was famous for his short, declarative sentences. He rarely even used adjectives and almost never used adverbs. In this famous story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” an unnamed man and girl sit talking. The entire story seems very straightforward, and yet there is a very serious subtext. Hemingway’s choice to use the most basic construction of sentences belies the seriousness of the subject about which the man and girl are speaking.
tone (n/adj) – the feeling or attitude which an author has for his subject, characters, and/or reader
- “All morons hate it when you call them a moron.”
- “If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she’s late? Nobody.”
- “Goddamn money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”
- “Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re Catholic.”
–The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Holden’s tone is bitterly sarcastic as he criticizes the nature of things in real life.