Rhetorical Devices

List of Rhetorical Devices (literary devices are a sub-category of rhetorical devices; a few literary devices are included below):

abstract diction: words that describe concepts rather than concrete images (ideas and qualities rather than observable or specific things, people, or places). These words do not appeal imaginatively to the reader’s senses. Abstract words create no “mental picture” or any other imagined sensations for readers. Abstract words include: Love, Hate, Feelings, Emotions, Temptation, Peace, Seclusion, Alienation, Politics, Rights, Freedom, Intelligence, Attitudes, Progress, Guilt, etc.

  • Even a large male gorilla, unaccustomed to tourists, is frightened by people.
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.

anachronism: use of historically inaccurate details in a text

  • depicting a 19th-century character using a computer.
    • Some authors employ anachronisms for humorous effect, and some genres, such as science fiction or fantasy, make extensive use of anachronism
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

anaphoraa 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

anastrophe: departure from normal word order for the sake of emphasis. Normal syntax is violated.

  • Troubles, everybody’s got.
  • Glistens the dew upon the morning grass.
anecdotea 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.
antithesisa 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

apostrophe:  a figure of speech in which some absent or nonexistent person or thing is addressed as if present and capable of understanding
  • “Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me; if ye really pity me, crush sensation and memory; let me become as nought; but if not, depart, depart, and leave me in darkness.” —from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein
asyndeton: the deliberate omission of conjunctions to create a concise, terse and often memorable statement

I came, I saw, I conquered. —Julius Caesar

cacophony: harsh joining of sounds

  • “We want no parlay with you and your grisly gang who work your wicked will.” W. Churchill

chiasmus: a verbal pattern (a type of antithesis) in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed.

  • “You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.”
  • “I flee who chases me, and chase who flees me.”
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.

concrete diction: words that describe specific, observable things, people, or places, rather than ideas or qualities.

  • A four-hundred-pound male gorilla, unaccustomed to tourists, will bolt into the forest, trailing a stream of diarrhea, at the mere sight of a person.

conduplicatio: the key word or words in one phrase, clause, or sentence is/are repeated at or very near the beginning of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases; repetition of a key word over successive phrases or clauses.

  • “This afternoon, in this room, I testified before the Office of Independent Council and the Grand Jury. I answered their questions truthfully, including questions about my private life — questions no American citizen would ever want to answer.” —William Jefferson Clinton
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.

deductive reasoning: reasoning from the general to the particular (or from cause to effect)

dialecta 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.

enumeration: the listing or counting off of names, ideas or things.

  • “We say that if America has entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America. How else is the world to take America seriously, when democracy at home is daily being outraged, free speech suppressed, peaceable assemblies broken up by overbearing and brutal gangsters in uniform; when free press is curtailed and every independent opinion gagged.” —Address to the Jury during the Anti-Conscription Trial in New York City, July 1917 (by Emma Goldman)

epigraph: quote set at the beginning of a literary work or at its divisions to set the tone or suggest a theme.

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

ethos:  the ethical appeal, means to convince an audience of the author’s credibility or character.

How to speakers/writers establish ethos (“good-willed credibility”)?

  • by demonstrating credibility — they can be trusted
    • by demonstrating knowledge – they fully understand what they are talking about (using logos). A clear and honest claim supported with valid evidence.
    • by demonstrating an understanding of the audience’s needs, values, and concerns (using pathos). By understanding the audience, the speaker is able to arouse the desired feelings — in other words, to capture their hearts.
  • So, “ethos” arises from the careful construction of a message based on both logical (logos) and emotional (pathos) appeals. Speakers/Writers communicate this message to their audiences: “Trust me! I know what I am talking about and I care about you.”
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.

inductive reasoning: reasoning from detailed facts to general principles

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.

logos:  appealing to reason by offering clear, rational ideas, having a clear main idea or thesis, with specific details, examples, facts, statistical data, or expert testimony as support.
  • It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government – the ballot. —Susan B. Anthony, On Women’s Right to Vote
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

paradox a statement that seems self-contradictory or nonsensical on the surface but that, upon closer examination, may be seen to contain an underlying truth

  • “I know one thing: that I know nothing.” -Socrates (via Plato)
  • “Truth is honey which is bitter.”
  • “I can resist anything but temptation.” – Oscar Wilde

parataxis: writing successive independent clauses, with coordinating conjunctions, or no conjunctions.

  • The Starfish went into dry-dock, it got a barnacle treatment, it went back to work. In this example, note that a string of very short sentences can be connected by commas when the elements are parallel. Longer sentences and unparallel sentence structures need at least semicolons to connect them. Greek meaning “to place side by side”. Why used? To explain a rapid sequence of thought, describe a setting or help reader to focus on a particular idea, thought, setting or emotion.
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.

pathetic fallacy (a specific form of personification): the attribution of human emotions or characteristics to inanimate objects or to nature

  • angry clouds; a cruel wind.
pathos:  appeals to the emotions of the audience (while the weakest of the three appeals, it is the most commonly used and quite propagandistic due to the power of evoking an audience’s emotions).
  • “It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”—Barack Obama, Keynote address at the 2004 DNC
  • “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”—Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream” speech
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 (not technically a device – the devices used within a piece of satire are irony, parody, etc.) 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”
syllogism: form of deductive reasoning consisting of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion.
  • All humans are mortal, the major premise, I am a human, the minor premise, therefore, I am mortal, the conclusion.

symploce: combining anaphora and epistrophe, so that one word or phrase is repeated at the beginning and another word or phrase is repeated at the end of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences

  • To think clearly and rationally should be a major goal for man; but to think clearly and rationally is always the greatest difficulty faced by man.
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.

tautology: repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, or sentence. 

  • “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Lincoln, Second Inaugural
tone: 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.

~View a long, detailed list of TONE words here

zeugma: includes several similar rhetorical devices, all involving a grammatically correct linkage (or yoking together) of two or more parts of speech by another part of speech. Thus examples of zeugmatic usage would include one subject with two (or more) verbs, a verb with two (or more) direct objects, two (or more) subjects with one verb, and so forth. The main benefit of the linking is that it shows relationships between ideas and actions more clearly.

  • “Pride opresseth humility; hatred love; cruelty compassion.”
  • “Alexander conquered the world; I, Minneapolis.”
  • “With one mighty swing he knocked the ball through the window and two spectators off their chairs.”


“The key to finding our way is to forever remain curious. Start the engine of curiosity and be infinitely fueled to live a fulfilling life.”