The phrase rhetorical devices might ring a bell to some. Maybe you vaguely remember hearing about them in an English class that you took years ago. But you probably haven’t thought about them since. That’s totally understandable, but whether we know it or not, rhetorical devices play a surprisingly large role in our daily speech. Sometimes we use them without even realizing it. Whether they’re used to illustrate sound, order or meaning (we’ll explain all these in a bit), rhetorical devices are widely used across the board, especially in advertising and marketing. Without further ado, we’d like to share our list of the 20 most common rhetorical devices that you can use to impress your friends and family or win a free round of drinks at the next trivia night at your local bar.
What Are Rhetorical Devices?
Before we dive into the different types of rhetorical devices, we should probably review what exactly they are. “Rhetorical devices” refer to figures of speech that are used to achieve a certain effect. Essentially, they’re a way to deviate from everyday language by taking advantage of the power of words.
Words have connotative value: on one hand, they have their denotation, which is their true and correct meaning. On the other hand, words have a set of meanings that are generally attributed to them. For example, the word “heart” literally refers to the organ at the center of your circulatory system. But it can also have a wide variety of connotations or alternative meanings: a person “with a good heart” is someone who’s kind and helpful to others. The “heart” of a system is its center, and someone who is “lionhearted” is extremely brave. Rhetorical devices don’t use just one meaning or connotation; they also take advantage of different word orders and structures.
Rhetorical devices are most commonly used in literature, but they can also appear in the most unexpected places. They’re an intrinsic part of language, and they’ve probably been around since the beginning of language itself. Even in Ancient Rome, rhetoric students studied the art of classifying words. Early examples of rhetorical devices can even be found in the Bible.
Rhetorical devices can be roughly classified into three different groups:
- Sound-related rhetorical devices: these figures of speech take advantage of a word or phrase’s rhythmic or phonetic sound. The most famous examples are alliteration, assonance and puns.
- Order-related rhetorical devices: these devices modify the normal order of words within a phrase or sentence. The most well-known examples are anaphoras, anastrophes, asyndeton, chiasmus, omissions, hyperbaton and polysyndeton.
- Meaning-related rhetorical devices: these types of devices use the word’s semantic aspect, or their meaning. Some examples are hyperbole, litotes, metaphors, metonymy, oxymorons, similes, synecdoche and synesthesia.
What Is Figurative Language?
To understand the many rhetorical devices that exist in the English language, it’s important that we first discuss figurative language. Figurative language is the form of communication that rhetorical devices fall under. More specifically, it is when words and phrases stray from their strict, dictionary definition to create new meanings. Most commonly, figurative language is used in poetry and other creative prose. However, it also is used in everyday language in the form of expressions or to refer to something without directly saying it.
Take the expression “the news hit me like a ton of bricks”. Figuratively speaking, it’s used to quantify the impact of a piece of news on someone. However, when taken literally, this expression doesn’t make much sense. To note the obvious, the news itself doesn’t carry physical weight and it’s also not actually hitting anyone, as it’s a concept. Additionally, there is of course no ton of bricks hitting the person in question,which is where the importance of the preposition “like” comes in. The use of “like” in this sentence ultimately changes the meaning and makes this sentence identifiable as a “simile”. A simile is one of the many forms that figurative language takes. These forms are better known as rhetorical devices, so let’s get into it.
Sound-Related Rhetorical Devices
Alliteration refers to repeating a sound or a series of similar consonant sounds at the beginning of two or more words.
Examples of alliteration:
- How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
- Trick or treat!
- “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes . . .” — William Shakespeare
Assonance resembles rhyming. It positions two similar sounding words together that have the same vowels (but not the same consonants).
Examples of assonance:
- “And so all the night-tide, I lie down by the side of my darling-my darling-my life and my bride” — Edgar Allen Poe
- “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.” — My Fair Lady
Onomatopoeia is one of the most famous rhetorical devices. It refers to reproducing the sound of an object (like a machine) or an animal.
Examples of onomatopoeia:
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (a book written by Ian Fleming, the title of which refers to the sound a car makes)
- “Meow meow.” — a cat
Puns are a common play on words that use words with similar sounds but radically different meanings.
Examples of puns:
- “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” — Mark Twain
- “We had breakfast in the town of Soda, pop. 1001.” — Vladimir Nabokov
Order-Related Rhetorical Devices
An anaphora is the repetition of one or more words within one or more consecutive verses or sentences.
Examples of anaphora:
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” — Mark Twain
- “So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania…” — Martin Luther King
- “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy
Derived from Greek, the term anastrophe means “inversion” and is achieved by inverting the usual order of two words.
Examples of anastrophe:
- “The greatest teacher, failure is.” — Yoda
- “Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear…” — Toni Morrison
- “To thine own self be true.” — William Shakespeare
Many rhetorical devices have fancy names that can be difficult to remember. There’s a reason why technical jargon is usually used only by literature students and aficionados. Some terms are used so often that they’ve become commonplace in everyday speech, however. Antithesis is one of these words. Simply put, antithesis refers to juxtaposing two words with opposite meanings. In layman’s terms, it refers to some sort of contrast (like contrasting ideas.)
Examples of antithesis:
- “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, as long as it is black.” — Henry Ford
- “To err is human; to forgive divine.” -Alexander Pope
Asyndeton is a list of words that are connected by using punctuation instead of conjunctions like “and” or “or.”
Examples of asyndeton:
- “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” — Abraham Lincoln
- “I came, I saw, I conquered.” — Julius Caesar
Chiasmus is the crossed arrangement of two words or groups of words according to the AB-BA format.
Examples of chiasmus:
- “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.” — Alfred North Whitehead
- “And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them.” — Walt Whitman
- When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Omission is the elimination of one or more words that remain understood despite being removed.
Examples of omission:
- “Hope is a thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” — Emily Dickinson
- “And he to England shall along with you.” — William Shakespeare
Not to be confused with anastrophe, hyperbaton consists of distancing a word from the word that it should be placed closer to.
Examples of hyperbaton:
- “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man.” -Edgar Allen Poe
- “One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day.” — Aristotle
Polysyndeton is the exact opposite of asyndeton. It’s a series of words linked by conjunction words.
Examples of polysyndeton:
- “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” — The Wizard of Oz
- “I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know who killed him but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and 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 all right only she was full of water.” — Ernest Hemingway
Meaning-Related Rhetorical Devices
Hyperbole is achieved by exaggerating a reality through expressions that amplify it to an extreme.
Examples of hyperbole:
- “A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.” — To Kill a Mockingbird
- “It’s a slow burg. I spent a couple of weeks there one day.” — Carl Sandburg
- “At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” — Gabriel García Márquez
Litotes is the affirmation of something by negating the opposite. It’s used, for example, to mitigate the harshness of an expression or a situation.
Examples of litotes:
- It’s not rocket science.
- He isn’t the brightest bulb in the bunch.
Metaphors are one of the most famous rhetorical devices. Metaphors use words or phrases to indicate something that isn’t often denoted by that word or phrase. Metaphors can sometimes be confused with similes, metonymy or synecdoche, but each of these devices have their own unique characteristics.
Examples of metaphors:
- Daniel is a sheep. (Meaning, Daniel follows other people easily.)
- “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” — William Shakespeare
Metonymy is the exchange of two words that have close reasoning or are closely related in terms of their subject.
Examples of metonymy:
- “I’m reading Sartre.” (I’m not reading the word Sartre; I’m reading a piece written by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre)
- “England beat Italy 2-0.” (the soccer team representing England beat the team representing Italy)
- “Let’s go get a pint.” (a pint in this case refers to some sort of alcoholic drink)
An oxymoron juxtaposes two words with opposite meanings.
Examples of oxymorons:
- Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
- Big Little Lies (the title of a book by Liane Moriarty)
- “I am a deeply superficial person.” — Andy Warhol
Similes are very similar to metaphors. In this case, the comparison is made through adverbs or adverbial phrases, most notably “like” or “as.”
Examples of similes:
- You’re working like a dog.
- He’s dead as a doornail.
- The news hit me like a ton of bricks.
Synecdoche is always mentioned in conjunction with metonymy. These two rhetorical devices are very similar. However, while metonymy substitutes one word or phrase with another that has a close logical or material proximity, synecdoche substitutes a word or phrase with another term representing a part of it (or vice versa: it uses a broader term to refer to something that it’s a part of). Metonymy expresses a qualitative relationship between the two terms, while synecdoche represents a quantitative relationship.
Examples of synecdoche:
- The feline attacked the antelope. (in this case, the broader term feline, the family that the animal belongs to, is used to denote a tiger)
- “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” — William Shakespeare
- Brain drain (when people educated in their native country seek opportunities in other countries. In this case, it’s not the brains physically leaving the country but the academic talent)
Synesthesia is a type of metaphor that’s created by connecting two unrelated senses.
Examples of synesthesia:
- “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.” — William Shakespeare
- “Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music.” — Oscar Wilde
- “Back to the region where the sun is silent.” — Dante
A version of this article originally appeared on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.