Background, Examples, and Effects of Fifteen Rhetorical Techniques
Attracting and holding
attention with words
A brief look into definitions and
Part I: Background
A Sampling of Definitions
Rhetoric is the art of winning
the soul by discourse.
Rhetoric is the art, study, and
practice of human
The duty and office of
rhetoric is to apply reason to
imagination for the better
moving of the will.
Rhetoric is that discipline
which studies all the ways in
which men may influence
each other’s thinking and
behavior through the
strategic use of symbols.
Rhetoric is merely speech
with designs on the reader.
From a writer’s choice and arrangement of
words, a reader absorbs an impression of the
writer’s character, the writer’s feelings, the
writer’s acceptance of traditional values.
From these impressions—if favorable-- a reader
may then respond with trust for the writer, even
while not agreeing with her/him.
Ethos is carefully built over time, but a first
impression is critical to that building.
Logos (literally, “the word”) focuses on the
presentation of the main ideas. The individual
considers the result of reading the text and asks,
“Have I been persuaded by the reasonable
thoughts? Has the writer clearly explained the
ideas? Do I understand both sides?”
Has the writer used emotional language in
outlining the main ideas in the text? Hmmm.
Aristotle is not saying that emotion should be
avoided in the text. Aristotle is saying that
emotion should be avoided in presenting the main
ideas of the text.
Pathos, or emotion, more closely connects
readers with any text. Emotion in writing
lifts the words or images into the realm of
Instead of just following the logical order of
a group of statements, the reader relives the
moment, or understands the writer’s thought
as an association with some shared feeling.
Pathos is a required element in effective
writing. Like salt, however, pathos is best
delivered in measured amounts.
Several words in English derive from the three
Greek words just mentioned.
From “ethos”, we have “ethics”, ethical”,
From “logos” derives “logic”, “logical”,
From “pathos” the words “pathetic” and
“pathology” acquire common ancestry.
Including pronunciation and
Part II: Fifteen
A rhetorical device that omits conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or,
yet, so.) between a series of words, phrases, or clauses.
The effect of asyndeton is to speed up the text.
A secondary effect is to reduce any logical connection between
“He was a bag of bones, a floppy doll, a broken stick, a
“Cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest. It is a hard
life.Their houses are built of logs, dark and smoky
within.There will be a crude icon of the virgin behind
a guttering candle, the leg of a pig hung up to cure, a
string of drying mushrooms. A bed, a stool, a table.
Harsh, brief, poor lives.”—AngelaCarter
The use of several conjunctions (for, and nor, but, or, yet, so)
after a series of words, phrases or clauses. The use is almost
excessive, because the effect is to slow way down or create
tedium in the flow of a passage of text.
“And Joshua, and all of Israel with him, took Achan the son of
Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and
his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his donkeys, and his
sheep, and his tent, and all that he had.” — King James Bible
“I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him,
but he’s dead alright,’ and it was dark and there was water
standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all
up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and
I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside
Mango Key and she was alright only she was full of water.”
— Ernest Hemingway
A repetition of words or phrases at the
beginning of successive clauses. The effect is
one of continual emphasis on the text.
“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 strength and with
growing confidence 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
on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.We shall never surrender.”
“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 inter of despair, we had everything before us, we had
nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we ere all direct the other
way.…” –Charles Dickens
Epistrophe literally means “turning about”. The
rhetorical device is a repetition of the same word
or phrase at the end of successive lines or clauses.
The effect of epistrophe—sometimes called
epiphora—is stronger than anaphora because of
the reminder to the reader of what the writer is
“Don’t you ever talk about my friends!You don’t know any of my friends.
You don’t look at any of my friends. And you certainly wouldn’t
condescend to speak to any of my friends.” --The Breakfast Club
“Sweet Portia, if you did know to whom I gave the ring,
If you did know for whom I gave the ring
And would conceive for what I gave the ring
And how unwillingly I left the ring,
When nought would be accepted but the ring,
You would abate the strength of your displeasure.” --William Shakespeare
In the rhetorical sense, a tautology is a repetition of
meaning using similar words close together in a
sentence or a phrase.
The effect of a tautology is to emphasize a specific
idea, or technical term. Used carelessly, the effect
is a sense of wordiness—not something you want.
“Free gift” “I made it with my own hands.”
“…who died of a fatal dose of heroin.”
“Give proof and evidence that your ideas are accurate and correct.”
“The Cowboys are favored to win since they are the better team.”
“It is what it is.”
From the Greek meaning “sharp-dull” (“pointedly
foolish”), oxymoron juxtaposes two elements and
creates in effect a compound word-phrase with
humorous, contradictory, and paradoxical
implications designed to get the reader’s attention.
“Oh brawling love! oh loving hate! …
Oh heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well seeming forms!
Feather of lead! Bright smoke! Cold fire! Sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love I, that feel no love in this! –William Shakespeare
“A yawn may be defined as a silent yell.” –G.K.Chesterton
“real phony” “civil war” “student teacher” “original copy” “random order”
”found missing” “clearly misunderstood” “deafening silence” “ill health”
A brief reference to a person, place, event, work
of art or literature—in other words an historical
and relatively well known element. In writing
about such an element, no further explanation is
provided. The alluded to element enriches by
comparison whatever the writer is explaining.
“I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent
here by my father, Jor-el, to save the planet Earth.” --Senator Barack
“I violated the Noah rule: predicting rain doesn’t count; building arks
does.” --Warren Buffett
Cacophony (from the Greek=“bad sounding”) is the
deliberate use of word-sounds that cumulatively
produce a disturbing, jarring effect on a reader. The
effect of cacophony is to attract the reader’s attention
but in a disharmonious manner, creating a feeling, in
some cases, of irritation with the text.
“ ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.” --Lewis Carroll
“She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”
“With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call.” –WilliamTaylor Coleridge
Euphony (Greek= “sweet-voiced”) is a deliberate,
pleasant, melodic combination of word-sounds. The
effect of euphony is directly opposite that of
cacophony: nothing harsh or discordant. Attention
is drawn to lines in a text that soothe or serenade
the inner or outer ear.
They sat them down upon the yellow sand
Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then someone said, “We will return no more”;
And all at once they sang, “Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.” –AlfredTennyson
Chiasmus (named after the Greek letter “chi” or “x”)
involves two parallel clauses. In chiasmus, or
crisscross, the same terms in the first clause end up
reversed in the second clause. The exact same words,
or even similar ideas, which are parallel may be
“One should eat to live, not live to eat.” --proverb
“Home is where the great are small, and the small are great.” --proverb
“Charm is a woman’s strength, strength is a man’s charm.” --Ellis
“The instinct of a man is to pursue everything that flies from him, and to fly
from all that pursue him.” --Voltaire
Rhetorically, metonymy (Greek= “change of name”)
refers to the technique of describing someone or
something indirectly, by referring to the surrounding
items. (Describing what someone is wearing instead of
the physical features.) As a figure of speech, a closely
associated item is referred to instead of the actual
subject (“Golden Arches” instead of McDonald’s). The
effect is a greater cohesion in the text.
“In a corner, a cluster of lab coats made lunch plans.” --Karen Green
“…the White House asked networks for airtime….” --Michael Waldman
“He used the events to show the SiliconValley crowd that he was just like
--Business Week, 2003
Danish (Danish pastry); shocks (shock absorbers); the States (United States of
America); Heights (Cleveland Heights High School); going to bed (the entire
sequence of events is understood)
Synecdoche (Greek= “simultaneous understanding”), is
similar to metonymy. Where metonymy gave some
thing, some place, or some individual(s) another name
by using a related object, synecdoche instead refers to
some thing or some one by naming a related object
instead. The effect is to emphasize some important part .
Part referring to whole: wheels (car); disc (Compact Information Storage)
Whole referring to a part: America (two continents) to mean only the USA
General class name to refer to a specific member of that class: truck; the good
Specific name to refer to a general set of associated things: bug; Band-Aid
(specific brand name for any bandage); John Hancock (for signature)
Material the thing is made of referring to that thing: glasses; strings; brass;
ivories; pigskin; silver
A container used to refer to its contents: keg (beer); barrel (oil); cup (coffee, tea,
A litote is a deliberate understatement. The effect of
such a technique is to emphasize what the reader
already knows to be true by denying it.
Litotes can convey irony. But chiefly, a litote conveys
a strong emotion with moderation.
“Heat waves are not rare in the summer.”
“We saw him throw the buckets of paint at the canvas in disgust, and the
result did not perfectly represent his subject.”
“Hitting that telephone pole certainly didn’t do your car any good.”
Parallelism is the deliberate repetition of similar
grammatical structures in a sentence. The structures
should be all words, or phrases, or clauses, and each
structure should be of the same grammatical family.
The effect of parallelism is balance, rhythm, and
“He liked to eat watermelon and liked to avoid grapefruit.” (verbs; infinitives;
“The pilot walked down the aisle, through the door, and into the cockpit
singing ‘Up, up, and away’.” (prepositional phrases)
“These critics—who point out the qualities of style and ideas, who discover the
faults of false constructions, and who discuss the application of the rules—
usually help a lot in engendering an understanding of a writer’s essay. (relative
Zeugma (Greek: “yoking together”) is a technique for
linking two or more same parts of speech with a
different part of speech in the same sentence. The
effect is to show more clearly and economically any
relationships between elements in a sentence.
Zeugmatic constructions are many and subtly varied.
Linking word (a verb in this case) is stated once and then understood:
“Fred excelled at sports; Harvey at eating;Tom with girls.”
Single subject with multiple verbs:
“Fluffy rolled on her back, raised her paws, and meowed to be petted.”
Two or more direct objects:
“He grabbed his hat from the rack by the stairs, his gloves from the table near
the door, and his keys from the punchbowl.”
Same verb understood in two different senses:
“He grabbed his hat from the rack by the stairs and a kiss from the lips of his