Common Rhetorical Devices

Common Rhetorical Devices


ALLITERATION: The repetition of consonant sounds used to highten a statement’s tone or meaning or to represent the action that is taking place. In Sir Phillip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, the poet states: "Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite" (Line 13). The repetition of the "t" emphasizes the action of the poet; enabling one to hear and visualize his anguish as he bites the pen.

  • Let us go forth to lead the land we love. —J.F. Kennedy
  • Do not let such evils overwhelm you as thousands have suffered, and thousands have surmounted; but turn your thoughts with vigor to some other plan of life, and keep always in your mind, that, with due submission to Providence, a man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself. —Samuel Johnson
  • I conceive therefore, as to the business of being profound, that it is with writers, as with wells; a person with good eyes may see to the bottom of the deepest, provided any water be there; and that often, when there is nothing in the world at the bottom, besides dryness and dirt, though it be but a yard and a half underground, it shall pass, however, for wondrous deep, upon no wiser a reason than because it is wondrous dark. —Jonathan Swift

ALLUSION: A reference in a literary work to a person, place, or thing in history or another work of literature. In the passage below from the Inferno, Dante alludes to the Greek mythological figures, Phaethon and Icarus, to express his fear as he descends from the air into the eighth circle of hell. For lists of common literary allusions,  historical allusions, mythological allusions, and biblical allusions

I doubt if Phaethon feared more – that time
he dropped the sun-reins of his father’s chariot
and burned the streak of sky we see today –
or if poor Icarus did – feeling his sides
unfeathering as the wax began to melt,
his father shouting: "Wrong, your course is wrong" (Canto XVII: 106-111).

Allusions are also used for analogy.

  • Our examination of the relation of the historian to the facts of history finds us, therefore, in an apparently precarious situation, navigating delicately between the Scylla of an untenable theory of history as an objective compilation of facts . . . and the Charybdis of an equally untenable theory of history as the subjective product of the mind of the historian . . . . —Edward Hallett Carr

ANACOLUTHON: A construct that finishes a sentence with a different grammatical arrangement than its beginning arrangement.

  • The deep rumble from the explosion shook the very bones of—no one had ever felt anything like it.
  • Be careful with these devices because improperly used they can—well, I have cautioned you enough.

ANADIPLOSIS: A construction that repeats the final words of a phrase at the beginning of the following phrase.

  • Pleasure might cause her to read, reading might make her know,/ Knowledge might win pity, and pity grace obtain. —Philip Sidney

ANAPEST: Two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one, as in com-pre-HEND or in-ter-VENE. An anapestic meter rises to the accented beat as in Byron’s lines from "The Destruction of Sennacherib": "And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, / When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee."

ANAPHORA: A construction that repeats the exact wording at the beginning of each clause or phrase, as in Churchill’s Never Surrender speech: "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!"

ANASTROPHE: Inversion: "Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear"

ANTIMETABOLE: repeating and transposing words or ideas. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

ANTISTROPHE: A construction that repeats a word or phrase at the end of each successive clause. "In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo—without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia—without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria—without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia- without warning. Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland- without warning. In 1940, Hitler invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg- without warning. In 1940, Italy attacked France and later Greece—without warning. And this year, in 1941, the Axis powers attacked Yugoslavia and Greece and they dominated the Balkans—without warning. In 1941, also, Hitler invaded Russia—without warning. And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand—and the United States—without warning." —FDR

APOSIOPESIS: A form of ellipse when a speaker, overcome with emotion, breaks off mid-sentence.

APOSTROPHE: interrupts the discourse to address a person or personified thing, present or absent. Its most common purpose is to vent emotion that can no longer be held back.

  • O value of wisdom that fadeth not away with time, virtue ever flourishing, that cleanseth its possessor from all venom! O heavenly gift of the divine bounty, descending from the Father of lights, that thou mayest exalt the rational soul to the very heavens! Thou art the celestial nourishment of the intellect . . . . —Richard de Bury
  • O books who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you and enfranchise all who serve you faithfully! —Richard de Bury

ASIDE: An actor’s speech, directed to the audience, that is not supposed to be heard by other actors on stage. An aside is usually used to let the audience know what a character is about to do or what he or she is thinking. In Othello, Iago gives several asides, informing the audience of his plans and how he will try to achieve his goals. Asides are important because they increase an audience’s involvement by giving them vital information pertaining what is happening, both inside of a character’s mind and in the plot of the play.

ASSONANCE: The repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence, as in I dance with ants in my pants. Whitman’s "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" contains assonantal "I’s" in the following lines: "How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, / Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself."

ASYNDETON: A structure that omits conjunctions between coordinate words, phrases, or clauses.

  • "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." —JFK
  • But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. —Lincoln

AUBADE: A love lyric in which the speaker complains about the arrival of the dawn, when he must part from his lover. John Donne’s "The Sun Rising" exemplifies this poetic genre.


BRACHYLOGY: Condensed expression usually involving the omission of the second occurrence of a grammatical element.


CATACHRESIS: A metaphor that substitutes an associated idea for the intended one, or rather uses words in an unusual way:

  • I will speak daggers to her. —Hamlet
  • "It’s a dentured lake," he said, pointing at the dam.

CHIASMUS: From the Greek, meaning to shape like the letter X, a chiasmus is an inverted parallelism following the pattern a-b-c–c-b-a. Chiastic structure can apply to narrative motifs, long passages, or entire works and is frequently used to emphasize the innermost concept by showing that all ideas lead to or depart from the central idea, which is symbolically seated in the middle. A,B,C…C,B,A patterns are commonly found in ancient literature, such as: Odyssey, Iliad, Beowulf, and portions of the Bible.

  • Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. —JFK

The term chiasmus is loosely applied to any "criss-cross" structure, but its classical applications do not repeat words and phrases. Chiasmus operates on a structural or content level and inverts patterns of ideas and the grammatical arrangement of ideas.

  • He labors without complaining and without bragging rests.
  • Just as the term "menial" does not apply to any honest labor, so no dishonest work can be called "prestigious."
  • If you come to them they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant. —Richard de Bury

CONNOTATION: An association, independent of a word’s defintion, that the word conveys. Gold is a malleable, ductile, yellow element, but its connotations are luxury, avarice, and superiority.

CONSONANCE: Like assonance, but using consonants rather than vowels: "silky slithering snake"


DENOTATION: The meaning of a word without the feelings or suggestions associated with the word.

  • heart: an organ that circulates blood throughout the body. Here the word "heart" denotes the actual organ, while in another context, the word "heart" may connote feelings of love or heartache.
  • sweater: a knitted garment for the upper body. The word "sweater" may denote pullover sweaters or cardigans, while “sweater” may also connote feelings of warmness or security.

DIACOPE: A method of emphasis that builds on the repetition of a word or phrase after an intervening word or phrase: We will do it, I tell you; we will do it.


ENUMERATIO: Enumerating or listing elements—parts, causes, effects, or consequences—to make a point more forcibly.

  • I love her eyes, her hair, her nose, her cheeks, her lips [etc.].
  • When the new highway opened, more than just the motels and restaurants prospered. The stores noted a substantial increase in sales, more people began moving to town, a new dairy farm was started, the old Main Street Theater doubled its showings and put up a new building…

EPIGRAM: a a short inscription to promote improvement or to ridicule a thought or event, usually with witticism or sarcasm.

EPANALEPSIS: Repeating the beginning word of a clause or sentence at the end

EPIZEUXIS: repetition of one word (for emphasis):

  • The best way to describe this portion of South America is lush, lush, lush.
  • What do you see? Wires, wires, everywhere wires.
  • Polonius: "What are you reading?" Hamlet: "Words, words, words.":
  • dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.


HYPERBATON: Changing word order for emphasis: "Him I love."

HYPERBOLE: In literature, hyperbole exaggerates a statement  for emphasis and effect. Othello uses hyperbole to describe his anger at the possibility of Iago lying about his wife’s infidelity in Act III, Scene III of Shakespeare’s play Othello:

If thou dost slander her and torture me,
Never pray more; abandon all remorse;
On horror’s head accumulate;
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all earth amazed;
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than that.

In this passage, Othello is telling Iago that if he is lying then Othello will have no pity and Iago will have no hope for salvation. Adding horrors to horrors, Othello is describing his potential rage.

HYPOTAXIS: using subordination to show the relationship between clauses or phrases (and hence the opposite of parataxis):

  • They asked the question because they were curious.
  • If a person observing an unusual or unfamiliar object concludes that it is probably a spaceship from another world, he can readily adduce that the object is reacting to his presence or actions when in reality there is absolutely no cause-effect relationship. —Philip Klass

HYPOZEUGMA: A construction opposite of zeugma that follows a pattern similar to 1 + 2 = 3. Words, phrases, or clauses precede the term that joins them.

  • I ate and I drank while I worked.
  • The moat at its base and the fens beyond comprised the whole of its prospect. —Peacock


IRONY: Irony refers to how a person, situation, statement, or circumstance isn’t what it seems. It is a contrast or discrepancy between what is said and what is meant or between what happens and what is expected to happen. In verbal irony, characters say the opposite of what they mean. Irony is the favorite device of the angry author, as irony is typically accompanied by the four s’s: sarcasm, satire, subversion and skepticism. It often depends on tone of voice. Depending on how it’s stressed “that’s terrific”—for example—can mean it really is terrific (“Well done”), or it’s awful (“God, what an idiot you are”).

When Evelyn Waugh calls his novel Decline and Fall, he does not mean that the 1930s London of the Bright Young Things (itself an ironic label) resembles imperial Rome. Just the opposite. What Waugh has in mind is something more along the lines of Nick Flynn’s über-ironic title, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

Unlike allegory, irony’s primary aim is not to make complex things simpler. Just the opposite. The etymological origin of the word—the Greek eironeia—translates as “deception,” “hypocrisy” or “lie.” In literature, irony makes simple things more slippery—but by doing so, truer to life. If the blunt definition of literary realism (vraisemblance) is “lies like truth,” irony would have us believe that “lies are truth.” Live with it.

In irony of circumstance, the opposite of what is expected occurs. In dramatic irony, a character speaks in ignorance of a situation or event known to the audience or to the other characters. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories employ all these forms of irony, as does Poe’s "Cask of Amontillado."

In Julius Caesar, Marc Antony’s reference to Brutus being an honorable man is an example of verbal irony. Marc Antony notes all of the good deeds Julius Caesar did for his people while, more than once, he asks the rhetorical question, “Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?” Antony uses this rhetorical question to try to convince his audience that Caesar is not ambitious, presenting Brutus as a dishonorable man because of his claim that Caesar was ambitious.

Dramatic irony occurs when facts are not known to the characters in a work of literature but are known by the audience. In the Bible, the Pharisees say of Jesus, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” This is dramatic irony for the reader knows, according to the author, that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

Cosmic irony suggests that an unknown force brings about dire events. Cosmic irony can be seen in Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago begs his wife to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief so he can use this as proof that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona. At the end of the play, when Othello tells Iago’s wife about the handkerchief, she confesses that Iago put her up to stealing it. Iago winds up being at Cassio’s mercy. The handkerchief Iago thought would allow him to become lieutenant and bring Cassio to ruins was the handkerchief that brought Iago to ruins and exalted Cassio. Irony spices up a literary work by adding unexpected twists and allowing the reader to become more involved with the characters and plot.

LITOTES: Strong feelings understated for intensification, as in: One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.

  • A figure lean or corpulent, tall or short, though deviating from beauty, may still have a certain union of the various parts, which may contribute to make them on the whole not unpleasing. —Sir Joshua Reynolds
  • Overall the flavors of the mushrooms, herbs, and spices combine to make the dish not at all disagreeable to the palate.


METONYMY: A figure of speech in which a noun is referenced by something associated with it, rather than by the noun itself. Examples:

  • The boxer threw in the towel.
  • We have always remained loyal to the crown.
  • He is a man of the cloth.

MOTIF: A recurring object, concept, or structure in a work of literature. A motif may also be two contrasting elements in a work, such as good and evil. Motifs help to illuminate a story’s theme.


ONOMATOPOEIA: The use of words to imitate the sounds they describe, such as buzz, crack, boom, and squish.


PARATAXIS: writing successive independent clauses, with coordinating conjunctions, or no conjunctions:

  • We walked to the top of the hill, and we sat down.
  • In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. —Genesis
  • The Starfish went into dry-dock, it got a barnacle treatment, it went back to work.

In the last example, note that a string of short sentences can be connected by commas when the elements are parallel. Longer and unparallel sentences need semicolons to connect them.

PARENTHESIS: A form of hyperbaton that consists of a word, phrase, or sentence inserted as an aside into another sentence:

  • But the new calculations–and here we see the value of relying upon up-to-date information–showed that man-powered flight was possible with this design.
  • Every time I try to think of a good rhetorical example, I rack my brains but–you guessed–nothing happens.
  • As the earthy portion has its origin from earth, the watery from a different element, my breath from one source and my hot and fiery parts from another of their own elsewhere (for nothing comes from nothing, or can return to nothing), so too there must be an origin for the mind. —Marcus Aurelius

The violence of jumping into (or out of) your sentence to tell the reader something has a pronounced effect. Parenthesis can be circumscribed by dashes—they tend to pack a punch—or by parentheses (to make your aside less stringent).

This device creates the effect of extemporaneity and immediacy: you are relating something when another important idea arises. The parenthetical form also gives timely context (inserted at the pertinent point) to provide the reader with a fuller understanding of the sentence.

PARODY: A humorous, mocking imitation of a literary work, sometimes sarcastic, but often respectful in its playful imitation. Bob McKenty’s parody of Frost’s Dust of Snow is an example

PERSONIFICATION: A figure of speech where animals, ideas or inorganic objects are given human characteristics.

James Stephens’s poem "The Wind", he writes, “The wind stood up and gave a shout. He whistled on his two fingers.” Of course, the wind did not "stand up," but the device creates a picture of the wind’s wild actions.

POLYPTOTON: A figure by which a word is repeated in different forms, cases, numbers, genders, etc., as in Tennyson’s line: "My own heart’s heart, and ownest own, farewell." Other examples:

  • "Choosy mothers choose Jif."
  • "To be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant."
    (A. Bronson Alcott, "Conversations." Table-Talk, 1877)

It is sometimes the goal of an argument to take a concept accepted by an audience in one role or category of a sentence action and transfer it to others, an agent becoming an action or an action becoming an attribute and so on. This work is epitomized by polyptoton, the grammatical morphing of the word, as Aristotle explains repeatedly in the Topics… He points out how people’s judgments follow a term as it changes from one part of speech to another. For example, an audience who believes that acting justly is better than acting courageously will also believe that justice is better than courage. . .. The Topics is not concerned with immutable rules of validity but with the patterns of reasoning that people tend to follow.

POLYSYNDETON: Polysyndeton, which is elements in a list connected with conjunctions in close succession, is used to provide a sense of exaggeration. An example is found in the first chapter of Dicken’s Great Expectations:

"A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin".

PORTMANTEAU: Combining words or sounds to make new words: "’Twas brillig and the slithy toves"

PROLEPSIS: For anticipation, a relative clause is positioned before its antecedent, as in the verse from the Bible: "Consider the lilies of the field how they grow."

PROZEUGMA: A construction arranged with the joining word preceding the words, phrases, or clauses it joins. One such arrangement hinges on the verb in the first clause, which is then understood in subsequent clauses.

  • Pride opresseth humility; hatred love; cruelty compassion. —Peacham

The noun also can join subordinate pronoun clauses.

  • O books who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you and enfranchise all who serve you faithfully! —Richard de Bury


SATIRE: A literary work that criticizes human misconduct and ridicules vices, stupidities, and follies. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a famous example. Chekhov’s Marriage Proposal and O’Connor’s "Everything That Rises Must Converge," have strong satirical elements.

SYLLEPSIS: A form of zeugma that uses a word with two others, each of which is understood differently.

  • She stole my heart and my wallet.
  • "We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately." —Ben Franklin

SYNECDOCHE: A figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole.

  • She gave her hand in marriage.
  • Give us this day our daily bread. —Bible

SYNTAX: The organization of words, phrases, and clauses in sentences of prose, verse, and dialogue. In the following example, normal syntax (subject, verb, object order) is inverted:

"Whose woods these are I think I know."


TAUTOLOGY: repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, or sentence, as in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address: "With mailce toward none, with charity for all."


UNDERSTATEMENT: A figure of speech in which a writer or speaker says less than what he or she means; the opposite of exaggeration. The last line of Frost’s "Birches" illustrates this literary device: "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."


ZEUGMA: A brachylogy involving combining and rearranging: "Senators, Congressmen, Mr. President, thank you for coming.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist