What is a rhetorical device?
A rhetorical device is a technique that has its origin in rhetoric, the classical art of discourse that was pioneered by the Ancient Greeks. Rhetoric is defined as the art of persuasive speaking or writing using figurative language and other innovative literary techniques. Thus, the principal purpose of such rhetorical devices is to employ diction and articulate effectively to convey the message and present a convincing argument to your audience. This element of persuasion is the essence of rhetoric, and rhetorical devices help one to enhance the cogency quotient of an argument.
Why should we use rhetorical devices and why are they important?
Rhetorical devices are used to trigger emotional responses in an audience and persuade the readers or the listeners. The scope of rhetorical devices is broad. Even though the primary purpose is persuading your audience, these devices are also used as aesthetic devices in writing. Rhetorical devices operate at many levels, viz. words, paragraphs, sentences, etc. Each of these devices has its own unique effect.
Thus, the very purpose of rhetorical devices is to facilitate effective communication. Since time immemorial, human beings are trying to persuade each other and make their point. So, we have been developing effective communication skills for a long time. Rhetorical devices are the techniques that help us formulate a compelling argument and influence the opinion of our audience. In a complex socio-economic structure, good communication is key to achieving better results in every sphere of our lives. Rhetorical devices enable us to exchange information, argue, and convince each other constructively and functionally.
Real-life uses of rhetorical devices
Rhetorical devices in politics
Rhetorical devices have been used by people since the days of yore. Rhetoric is especially useful in politics. Ministers avail of these innovative devices to create an impression upon their audience and persuade them to toe the line. These high and mighty speeches are intended to sway the sentiments in their favor. Rhetoric is crucial in changing perceptions, winning votes, and achieving political goals.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
John F. Kennedy, in his iconic inauguration speech, used a rhetorical device to inspire his countrymen and instill a sense of responsibility to take his country forward. Chiasmus is a favorite rhetorical device of politicians. It means the reversal of grammatical structures or the order of words in parallel phrases or clauses. By using chiasmus, Kennedy created a contrast that compelled his audience to deliberate on how they can independently contribute to their country’s cause.
Rhetorical devices in plays
When we talk of plays and rhetorical devices, the name of William Shakespeare promptly comes to mind. The Bard’s plays are filled with rhetorical and literary devices. Not only these techniques are flawlessly used to convey the meaning, but the dramatic effect them also enhances the aesthetic quotient of the entire text.
In Macbeth, when King Duncan shows his trust toward the Thane of Cawdor, Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to make it more interesting for his readers. Dramatic irony happens when the audience is aware of what is going on in a situation, but a character/characters are unaware of it. Duncan trusts Macbeth, who would subsequently become the Thane of Cawdor. But the King had no idea about the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will eventually betray and kill him and take his throne. The audience, however, is aware of the prophecy.
Rhetorical devices in songs
Rhetorical devices elevate songs to another level. These devices help an audience understand the mood of a song. The song could be funny, sad, happy, romantic, somber, and rhetorical devices work in tandem with the music to magnify the emotional import of a song.
“Fly Me to the moon
Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On a-Jupiter and Mars”
Written by Bart Howard and made popular by Frank Sinatra, this romantic jazz number uses rhetorical devices to intensify the narrator’s feelings. In the first two lines, the writer uses hyperbole to exaggerate the warmth and passion as he wants to fly to the moon and play among the stars.
In the third and fourth lines, he uses another rhetorical device known as imagery. Imagery appeals to your five senses (taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound) and uses descriptive language to create a visual representation of the world that the writer wants to portray. It boosts your imagination that helps you to form images in your mind. Thus in the last two lines of the abovementioned excerpt, imagery helps us to imagine and feel how spring would like in Jupiter and Mars.
Rhetorical devices in TV shows
Rhetorical devices are common in TV shows, especially in satires or parodies like the longest-running American animated sitcom “The Simpsons.” The show uses numerous rhetorical devices for comedic effect or to enrich the satire. The principal character Homer Simpson is a skilled rhetorician, and his famous catchphrase “D’oh!” has been added to the Oxford English dictionary as well.
“Oh Bart, don’t worry, people die all the time. In fact, you could wake up dead tomorrow”.
Here, Homer uses oxymorons to skillfully explain a universal truth i.e. the inevitability of death. He simultaneously pokes fun at his son to de-emphasize the seriousness. The phrase “wake up dead” is an oxymoron as the words and ideas contradict each other.
Rhetorical devices in movies
Similarly, rhetorical devices are used in movies to augment their aesthetic quality while keeping the dialogues economical at the same. Several films have quirky or odd characters who employ such persuasive devices regularly. Such devices, along with figures of speech, enhance the standard of film screenplays and make the characters more interesting. The Star Wars franchise has several remarkable characters who use rhetorical devices in their dialogues. Yoda, the little, green humanoid alien, is noted for his use of a particular rhetorical device called anastrophe.
“The Chosen One, the boy maybe”
An anastrophe occurs when the normal order of words is changed for dramatic or other effects. The changes in syntax result in an unusual grammatical order where the subject, object, verb, etc. are not normally aligned. It creates a strange effect and compels an audience to pay more heed to the statements. The above statement from Yoda from the film “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Episode I)” stands out for its unusual arrangement and underlines the wisdom of Master Yoda.
Rhetorical devices in advertising
Advertising is familiar territory for rhetorical devices. These are extremely common and uses the three techniques of persuasion viz. ethos, pathos, and logos to influence the audience. Ethos appeals to values or ethics, pathos evokes emotions, and logos is concerned with facts and evidence. Ethos generally entails advertisers using celebrities to endorse their products, thus building credibility. Pathos sees advertisements convincing the audience using concepts that are appealing to human emotions. E.g., a romantic love story, a cute animal, etc. Logos employs stats and facts and appeals to a person’s logic and power of reasoning.
“Red Bull gives you wings.”
The energy drink Red Bull uses the classic rhetorical device of metaphor to elicit emotions in the audience. A metaphor uses figurative language to describe something directly by alluding to another concept or thing. It is a perfect device to grab someone’s attention and add color to your speech or write-up. Here, drinking Red Bull doesn’t literally give you wings, of course. But it cleverly and very succinctly implies that it offers more energy than any other drink or beverage like a cup of coffee. Red Bull’s slogan is popular among the masses, and the marketing strategy of providing an immense energy boost became a hit.
Rhetorical devices in poetry
Rhetorical devices in poetry have been used to embellish the text and enhance its aesthetic quality. These techniques enliven a poem, set its mood and rhythm, and enraptures the reader. Poets regularly employ numerous rhetorical devices in their pieces.
“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;”
This excerpt from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias” shows the use of the rhetorical device of synecdoche. Shelley uses “the hand” and “the heart” to refer to the sculptor. Synecdoche uses a part of something to represent the whole of something or vice versa. By using “the hand” and “the heart”, Shelley ensures that the word sculptor is not repeated in the poem. Synecdoche helps Shelley to make her piece more interesting and maintain the rhythm.
Are rhetorical devices the same as figurative language?
We use figurative language whenever we speak or write something that goes beyond its literal meaning. You might think that direct statements will be more effective, but most of the time, creative or metaphorical language succeeds in captivating the audience more. Figurative language adds more color to your text, evokes vivid imageries, and stimulates your thought process. It lends an aesthetic quality to your text, which appeals to your senses.
Rhetorical devices are techniques authors and speakers use to convey their point of view and make their arguments more cogent. Eliciting an emotional response in the audience requires the use of many rhetorical tools and strategies. Rhetorical devices entail rhetorical questions, figurative language, and literal truth to achieve their purpose. Thus, any manipulation of language that creates an impression and has an effect on its audience can be said to have employed rhetorical devices. Since the scope is big, some rhetorical devices overlap with figures of speech, thus employing the use of figurative language to persuade the audience.
Rhetorical devices that use figurative language are potent persuasive devices that include metaphor, hyperbole, personification, etc. But rhetorical devices also entail techniques that are not to be interpreted figuratively.
Repetition is one example that does not avail of figurative language. It can include non-literal language, but it is not a metaphorical language itself. Repetition adds emphasis by restating or reiterating the same word or phrase. Similarly, rhetorical devices like anaphora use repetition of a specific word or phrase at the start of a sentence or a clause. On the same logic, sound devices like alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), rhyme (repetition of similar sounds), etc. are rhetorical devices that do not use figurative language.
These particular devices add an extra quality to the literal meaning of the text. But many are of the opinion that a sound device like alliteration uses figurative language even though there is no figure of speech involved anywhere.
Literary vs. rhetorical devices
The term rhetorical device is often confused with a literary device. The reason being many of the devices, belonging to the two techniques, overlap each other. Although they look similar in nature, the scope of rhetorical devices is much broader, and the difference between the two is very subtle. Literary devices are intrinsically artistic; their usage being primarily focused on enhancing the aesthetic quality of your writing through the innovative expression of ideas. The eponymous aspect of this form of poetic device is reflected in the fact that they can only be found in the literature.
Rhetorical devices are used both in speech and writing. Unlike literary devices, these are used to provoke or put forth a compelling argument, achieving its purpose by stimulating emotional responses in the readers or listeners.
How do rhetorical devices influence the reader?
Rhetorical devices are used to trigger emotional responses in an audience by employing effectual articulation. These stylistic devices not only enhance the aesthetic quality of your text but also help you to put forth a convincing argument and transmit the message intelligibly to your audience. They add the much-needed color to your otherwise bland text by creating graphic imageries and stimulating your five senses. Such innovative techniques open the floodgates of the readers’ imagination, enabling them to visualize the text and conjure up a world of their own. Rhetorical devices affect a reader’s sense of perception and memory and help him/her to remember the key ideas of your text.
Ten most effective rhetorical devices that you can use
Let us look at the ten most effective rhetorical devices in speech or literature.
Alliteration means the repetition of consonant sounds in successive and stressed syllables for a series of words. In other words, alliteration occurs when words that start with the same consonant sound are used repeatedly in a phrase or a sentence. Thus, the consonant sound is at the beginning of the words. These words, however, do not necessarily have to be right next to each other.
Alliterations are mostly used in poetry, and there’s a good reason behind it. They create a rhythm that enhances the quality of the text. Along with other elements like a meter, alliterations can create a mood for your composition. Depending on the number of words or sounds, alliterations can dictate the pace of your prose or poetry. Certain sounds are soothing to the ears, while some are harsh. Alliterations also pave the way for some tongue twisters and have been used often for introducing humor into a text.
1. The big, bad bear scared all the baby bunnies by the bushes.
2. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
~ An excerpt from the masterful poem ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe reveals the excellent use of alliterations.
This rhetorical device is based on the fact that numerous words in English have multiple meanings. So, antanaclasis happens when the same word or phrase is used more than once in a sentence, and each time it appears, the word or phrase carries different meanings. Thus, the same word, which is repeated in a sentence, has different meanings. Antanaclasis can pave the way for catchy slogans or catchphrases.
By using the same word or phrase, antanaclasis successfully draws the attention of the listener or the reader, compelling him to pay heed to your piece. The contrast enhances the drama and, at times, this effective rhetorical device provides comic relief in the form of a pun.
1. “The long cigarette that’s long on flavor”.
The first ‘long’ denotes the length, while the second ‘long’ means that it is quite flavourful too.
2. “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
This famous statement by Benjamin Franklin shows a clever use of antanaclasis. It is one of the most popular examples of the use of rhetorical devices in speeches. The first ‘hang’ means to stand together, while the second ‘hang’ denotes being hanged.
Cacophony refers to the combination of words that sound harsh and discordant. The jarring sounds are mostly used to describe unpleasant scenarios. Several writers have made use of this potent rhetorical device to portray distressing or appalling circumstances.
The use of connotative sounds by employing explosive consonants (like B, D, K, P, T, and G) create a deliberate, jarring effect that helps the reader to grasp the disagreeable circumstances and provide them with an erratic reading experience. Cacophony is widely used to portray chaotic or violent scenarios, dark and brooding thoughts, and at times, o describe a fantastic world.
1. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
This excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense eponymous poem ‘The Jabberwocky’ describes a dangerous monster and how a boy fights with it.
2. “I shall never get you to put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt, and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It’s worse than a barnyard.”
In her poem ‘The Colossus’, Sylvia Plath uses cacophony to depict her angst toward her father
This figure of speech is used to replace or substitute a word or phrase that is deemed to be off-putting, rude, or distasteful in common parlance. Euphemisms are indirect, less offensive, and more polite expressions in nature. Thus, this rhetorical device is a great means of softening the impact of something unpleasant or upsetting that needs to be communicated.
Thus, this rhetorical device is a great means of softening the impact of something unpleasant or upsetting that needs to be communicated. Euphemisms are effective in avoiding hurting other peoples’ sentiments and alleviating the harshness by toning down the solemnity of a situation.
1. He’s between jobs.
The phrase ‘between jobs’ is a euphemism for unemployment.
2. “If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”
In the poem ‘Afterwards’, Thomas Hardy uses euphemisms like ‘If I pass’ and ‘now he is gone’ instead of bluntly using the term ‘die’ or ‘death’.
This figure of speech uses exaggeration for emphasis and can be used to describe both serious and funny scenarios. Hyperbole is a perfect rhetorical device to grab someone’s attention by formulating absurd and outlandish overstatements and creating strong impressions.
The absurdity of the statements catches the attention of the audience and provides a compelling dramatic effect. Thus, with the help of exaggeration, hyperbole turns an ordinary scene into an extraordinary one to dramatize the text. It also adds a comedic effect in several scenarios.
1. I am so hungry I could eat a horse.
Surely, you won’t eat an entire horse. It just emphasizes the fact that you are extremely hungry.
2. “I had to wait in the station for ten days – an eternity.”
In Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, the character feels that the ten days he spent in the station were a never-ending affair.
The irony is one of the familiar rhetorical techniques that is used in both tragedy and humor to create an effect where the apparent meaning is different from the underlying meaning. It employs contradictory statements that reveal a contrast between how things appear on the surface and how things are in reality. There are several types of irony like situational irony, verbal irony, the irony of fate, dramatic irony, etc.
The irony is effective in furthering the story by giving insights about the characters and revealing their motives. While verbal irony has an inherent contradictory element in it, dramatic irony is successful in effectively developing the suspense as the audience is aware of the fate of the character or a particular trait of the character on which the plot hinges upon, but the character or other characters are unaware. More often than not, the plot twist in situation irony succeeds in shocking the readers or the protagonist. Thus, it provides for an excellent dramatic ending where we embrace an unexpected outcome.
1. Entering someone’s messy apartment and uttering “Oh, it’s such a nice and clean place you have here”.
This aforementioned example is a case of verbal irony where we say one thing but mean something else, usually, which is opposite to the literal meaning.
2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry tells a story of a newly-wed couple Jim and Della who sell the things that mean the most to them in order to buy Christmas gifts for the other. Such is the irony that the gifts they purchase for each other are intended for the thing they sold in the first place. Thus, they are left with gifts they cannot use. “The Gift of the Magi” is a classic example of situational irony where we expect a certain end-result but a surprising turn of events changes the actual outcome.
Onomatopoeia is any word that sounds like the thing it is describing. Thus, these words do not meaning anything more than the sound they make. By creating a sound effect that imitates the thing, the description becomes more vivid and expressive.
Onomatopoeia appeals to the sense of hearing. The use of this brilliant rhetorical device emphasizes and dramatizes situations in your piece that would otherwise not carry the same emotional import. These sounds acting as words help the audience seamlessly transport to the realm that the author has described in his work.
1. Some commonly used examples of onomatopoeia are – buzz, meow, bang, boing, splash, giggle, etc.
2. “SMASH! The door was hit with such force that it swung clean off its hinges and with a deafening crash landed flat on the floor.”
In “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, J.K. Rowling uses onomatopoeia to make the scene more riveting.
Oxymoron is a rhetorical device that uses words, which seem to contradict each other. It’s different from juxtaposition that highlights the contrast between two things or concepts. An oxymoron is concerned with the contradictory nature of the words you’re using to describe something. It is used to create dramatic and humorous effects, or it could also imply a thought-provoking expression.
Contradictions always attract more attention. An oxymoron is used to create dramatic and humorous effects, and at times, imply a thought-provoking expression. It has an entertaining aspect that is inherent to it and successfully creates a strong impression upon the readers.
1. Some commonly used examples are –
a) Deafening silence
b) Act naturally
c) Pretty ugly
d) Unbiased opinion
e) Growing smaller
2. “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
~ An excerpt from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Personification lends human traits to abstract concepts and things. By providing human characteristics like emotions to non-human entities, this rhetorical device breathes life into such objects and abstract ideas, allowing the readers to make a more intimate connection with them. Personification has been widely used in literature and art since classical antiquity.
Personification is a brilliant device that allows us to make ordinary objects and abstract concepts far more interesting in our piece. Writers provide the lifeless objects with a soul, a spirit, and give them the flesh and sinew of a human. It makes the text more appealing. It adds personality to the write-up that enhances the expressive quotient of the text. The readers can view the world through the eyes of a poet/writer, and personification is the best rhetorical device that enables such an intimate connection.
1. The moon played hide and seek with the clouds.
2. “Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
Emily Dickinson, in her poem “Because I could not stop for Death”, personifies death as the Grim Reaper who’s driving a carriage.
Synecdoche is a rhetorical device where a part of something represents the whole of something or vice versa. The object or name must be attached to the larger whole in some way or the other to qualify as a synecdoche. Just a mere association or close relation with the larger whole will qualify it as metonymy and not synecdoche.
Synecdoche is a stylish rhetorical device that helps poets and writers replace commonly used terms and expressions in their pieces. It engages the audience as it compels them to think and determine what the author is alluding to in his text. Thus, the readers are forced to deliberate on the words, which, in turn, increases their thinking capacity and improves their imagination.
1. England won by five wickets.
Here, England refers to the English cricket team.
2. “The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun.”
Samuel Coleridge in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” uses synecdoche to refer to the ocean to the west with the expression “western wave”. Thus, the word ‘wave’ here denotes the ocean in its entirety.
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