Thursday, February 28, 2013

21 Rhetorical Devices, and their tricky names

What exactly is rhetoric?

To me, it's what a speaker or writer uses to get the message across, usually, with added effect. It's persuasive communication, and if it's not a down-right lie, it can be a powerful and legitimate tool, one we use every day, without even noticing the techniques we're employing. Our good buddy Aristotle even went so far as to relate intellect, emotion, and sense of credibility and fairness to demonstrate rhetoric.

Philosophy aside, there are many rhetorical devices available to the astute writer. Many are familiar: oxymorons, euphemisms, hyperbole, alliteration, metaphors. For those who do not have an MFA and who like to increase or test their literary vocabulary, here is a handful more taken from The Complete Stylist and Handbook by Sheridan Baker. Make up or look for your own examples, even if - like me - you struggle to pronounce the names.

Alluding to the Familiar:
Anamnesis: "A remembering." Emphasizing the point by reminding the reader of a former event. (Today is the day she kissed me goodbye, twenty-four years ago.)
Parachresis: Alluding to, or mixing another's words into your context for emphasis or effect. (Only the low-lifes laughed at my jokes. I guess Oscar Wilde was right about the value of sarcasm.)
Paradiorthosis: Twisting a famous quote. (Friends, colleagues, paperboy, lend me some money.)
Building to Climax:
Asyndeton: "Without joining." Rushing a series of clauses to indicate emotional haste. (They charged, they fought, they died in the hundreds.)
Incrementum: Arranging items from lowest to highest. (They devoured the plants, they razed the fields, they swept through the towns, and threatened the nation.)

Synonymy: Repeating, by synonyms, for emphasis. (A low-down, no-good, miserable son-of-a-bitch.)
Anacoenosis: Consulting your audience, often through rhetorical questions to gain intimacy and urgency. (I ask you, is being a good parent enough?)
Aposiopesis: "A silence." Stopping midsentence. (But the children....)
Erotesis: Commonly known as a rhetorical question. (Does bread pay the bills?)

Apophasis: Pretending not to mention something by mentioning it. (I won't mention the time I fell asleep in the park and awoke behind bars.)
Litotes: "Simplifying." Asserting something by denying the opposite. (Not the smallest dog I had ever seen.)

Zeugma: "Yoking." Pairing one accurate word with an ironic misfit. ('Waging war and peace.')
 Overstating and Understating:
Auxesis: Using an exaggerated term. (He's a saint.)
Meiosis: Making big things small. (Besides the mansion in the country, he owned a second modest abode by the beach.)

Posing Contrasts:
Chiasmus: "A crossing." Reversing order. (A good man is hard to find; a hard man is good to find.)
Enantiosis, also called contentio: Emphasizing contraries, often with chiasmus. ('Could not go on, would not go back.')

Refining and Elaborating:
Exergasia: "A polishing." Presenting the same thing several ways. (A dream, a vision, an illusion of magical things.)

Epistrophe: Ending sentences the same, as a way to emphasize. (He lives at sea. He loves the sea. He'll die at sea.)

Paregmenon: Using derivatives of a word. (A fantastic fantasy.)
Metonymy: Using an associated thing for the thing itself. (The White House said today....)
Synecdoche: Substituting a) the part for the whole (He is a brain), or the whole for the part (China wins the Olympics), b) the species for the genus, or the genus for the species ('the felines [for lions]'), d) the material for the object (He plays brass.)
So, does you tongue feel like it's been squished through a meat grinder? (Is that a metaphorical erotesis?)

Or that you need to see a doctor in case you contracted any of these symptoms?

As tricky as the terms are, you have to agree (anacoenosis), rhetorical devices are fun, fun, fun (that's an epizeuxis, by the way).

Enough already! (apodioxis).

I need a nap.


  1. I just entered the very smart zone, and I'm horribly misplaced. That Fowler's English usage book has been sitting on my shelf taunting me. I can see now that I need to actually crack the binding.

    1. Ha ha. I had a nerdy moment and thought I'd throw this one out there. It reminds me writing really is a craft and a skill. Heart and soul, on the other hand (what you and Demetria excel at) are not so easy to learn.

    2. Where are Mike and Joe when you need someone to wallow like piggies in the English usage mud with you?

    3. Hopefully, they're wallowing in something productive.

  2. Ugggh…This English thing is giving me a headache. (So many rules, so little interest.) I think that is an Enantiosis. (Now I am upset, you learned me something! That is one more thing I have to remember to forget.) Parachresis. ( If you keep this up, I am going to let you down.) Litotes.

    (Ostentatious, Parsimonious, Earthly Dreg.) Rob Akers. (This is hard, I’m going to go watch TV.) PCU 1994, finally something I understand.

    1. Hey, you're good at this game. You lost me at PCU 1994, though (I had to Google it).

  3. I will have to get this book, Erica. You know, it's embarrassing that I don't know these terms, although I employ all the devices. That's one thing I admonish myself about: lack of ability to speak intelligently by using the correct terms for things. Yes, I'm wallowing in the mud right beside Julie.

    These felt like medical terms...good to know we writers are right up there with the doctors (zuegma). I need to learn these forward and backward, up and down, side to side (enantiosis) to become a more writerly writer (paregmenon). So many things...(aposiopesis)

    And now, to splash some water on my face and brush my teeth (halitosis). Thanks Erica.

    Oh, and again, congrats on the placement. You placed NINTH out of 7000 entries. I say that's quite an accomplishment. I threw something in (an old short) at the last minute, but it didn't get an edit or lookover beforehand, so I figured I wouldn't place. It really irked me when WD extended their deadline, though. It would have given me a whole month to clean it up.

    I'll keep trying. :o) Looking forward to the summer issue of WD (I get the mag). Will be an honor to see your name.

    1. Oh no, what have I done? If you start talking like this I'm disowning you.

      I'm guessing Baker's book is a textbook. I pick them up at the second-hand store at one-hundredth the price of the latest edition. There's usually loads of them, and they make great door-stoppers and sleeping aids.

      Thanks again for the congrats. I'm still in shock the judges thought my story was better than 6991 others. I agree with the deadline thing. I sulked last year when they extended it. Today, I had a go at the Your Story: in 750 words, escape a desert island using a coconut, mask, and dictionary. What I came up with is so ridiculous. All good fun.

  4. OMG how dumb am I? I didn't know these terms existed even though I use all of these techniques all the time.

    Erica, I think you've completed enlightened a lot of us writers with this post. You have TOTALLY schooled me today, Miss Missy. Are you sure you didn't just make all this up one day while you were sitting on the toilet just to fool us into thinking this stuff actually exists? :) That is just so mean if you did.

    Anyhoo, well done. I feel so much more knowledgeable after reading this, and I love when that happens.

    1. Mr. Baker lists over sixty devices. I think most writers would be familiar with them, but like you, I read them - probably while sitting on the toilet - and thought, 'There's a name for that??'

      I know I won't be remembering the terms, but it's nice to know they exist for when some smarty-pants tries to lay it on.

  5. Erica,

    I love this kind of thing. The geek in me eats it up and swallows it down.

    I copied and pasted on a word document, exactly what Oscar Wilde would do if he were alive today.

    So these devices have been around for centuries? We are, indeed, standing on the shoulders of giants, Oscar Wilde among them.

    1. I'm relieved to hear you didn't choke on your tongue.

      Baker blames it on the Greeks - giants, indeed - and says the terms were commonplace during ancient times.

      Oscar Wilde sure knew how to make the most of these devices. He's the quintessential rhetorical genius, that's for sure.

  6. I came over to comment on the nice spam that came through from Anonymous (I get your blog delivered to email), but you've already removed it. I actually had my first one at the Blogger blog the other day, right before heading out.

    Make sure to change it on your blogroll (that is, if you still want to follow): (that will link straight to the blog instead of the welcome page).

    1. Done kiddo. (I'm not sure why I said that. I don't call anyone kiddo... but I'm not changing it....)

    2. Thanks, Babe. (same here...I never say Babe...where are my gold chain necklaces when I need them?)

  7. I love rhetorical devices, even if I can't pronounce their darn names. :D

    1. And judging by your site, you use them well. The devices, that is.

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  9. Nice to know the proper names for all those little ditties. Great post! :)

    1. Thanks, Melissa. Yes the old Greeks didn't miss a trick, did they?

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