What Is A Rhetorical Device? (And How To Use Them) – Jericho Writers
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What Is A Rhetorical Device? (And How To Use Them)

What Is A Rhetorical Device? (And How To Use Them)

Rhetorical device. It’s not really a phrase that rolls off the tongue, is it?  

That said, it’s an important linguistic tool that’s used by pretty much everyone, from business people to politicians – and of course authors. You may not have heard of rhetorical devices by name but whether you’ve realised it or not, you’ve probably come across at least some of these devices before, and maybe even used them yourself!  

In this guide, I’m going to be delving into the ins and outs of a rhetorical device, including what a rhetorical device is (in common use and in literature), the different types of rhetorical devices, and the purpose of a rhetorical device in a novel.  

What Are Rhetorical Devices? 

A rhetorical device (otherwise known as a stylistic device, a persuasive device or more simply, rhetoric) is a technique or type of language that is used by a speaker or an author for the purpose of evoking a particular reaction from the listener or reader or persuading them to think in a certain way.  

As mentioned above, rhetoric can be used by pretty much anyone in day-to-day communication. For example, any time you try to inform, persuade or debate with someone, you’ll be engaging in rhetoric. Or if you’ve ever found yourself being moved emotionally by someone’s speech or changed your mind about a certain topic, you’ve experienced the power of rhetoric in practice. Rhetorical devices in speech can be used in many different ways: your tone of voice, emphasis on certain words, sentence structure and repetition, or even asking questions for emphasis rather than for the answer.  

In literature, you will have seen rhetoric devices used abundantly in the form of similes, alliteration and metaphors which are woven beautifully into prose. But rhetoric can be written into dialogue as well, although this is somewhat trickier as you will need to find a way of integrating it naturally so as not to disturb the authenticity of speech.  

Now, let’s move on to consider the different types of rhetorical devices.  

Types Of Rhetorical Devices 

Rhetorical devices are sometimes confused with literary devices. And no wonder because there is plenty of overlap between the two, and they both seek to serve the same ultimate purpose: to elevate one’s writing from good to magnificent. And what writer wouldn’t want that as their goal?  

There is, however, one significant difference between the two. While literary devices express ideas artistically, rhetoric devices are confined to the following four specific ways.  

  1. Logos. A rhetorical device that falls within this category will seek to convince and persuade via logic, and will usually make use of statistics, facts or statements in support of their position.  
  1. Ethos. Ethical rhetorical devices will try and convince the reader/listener that they are a credible source, and that their words should be trusted because they have the experience and judgment necessary to make that decision/statement.  
  1. Pathos. This type of rhetorical device is grounded in emotion. For example, this could involve the writer/speaker invoking sympathy or pity, angering their audience or inspiring them to change their perspective.  
  1. Kairos. The final type of rhetoric device is quite a difficult concept to grasp, but the English translation of ‘opportune moment’ might be able to shed some light. Essentially, Kairos asks you to consider the context and atmosphere of the argument you are making to ensure that you are delivering it at the right time. As Aristotle famously said, “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” 

List Of Common Rhetorical Devices 

Now that we’ve considered the four types of rhetorical device, let’s look at some common rhetorical devices so we can understand how they can be used in practice.  

Be prepared for some complicated and hard-to-pronounce words!  

Alliteration. Let’s start with one that you will be familiar with. This is a sonic device, involving the repetition of the initial sound of each word (e.g. Maya melted marzipan in the microwave).  

Anacoluthon. A mouthful of a word, which involves the unexpected shift or change in the syntax or structure of a sentence. This can be used to grab the reader’s attention and shift it in another direction.  

Apophasis. This device creates irony. The narrator will attempt to deny something while still saying that exact thing. For example, a phrase that begins with “it goes without saying’’ and is followed by the exact thing that the narrator says they are not going to say is an apophasis.  

Litotes. This is an ironic understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary. “He’s no fool” is a great example of a litotes in action.  

Meiosis. Now a word that is less commonplace. It is a type of euphemism that is used intentionally to undermine the size or importance of its subject and is the opposite of hyperbole or exaggeration. An example of this is if someone who was badly injured (with a broken leg or deep wound etc) proclaimed “it’s just a scratch”. 

Oxymoron. A word that might take you back to English class at school, this is a device that is used where two things are placed in direct comparison to one another, even though they are complete opposites. This is a powerful figure of speech that can emphasise a specific point in your writing. A classic example is “the silence was deafening”. Hands up if you’ve used that one!  

Syllepsis. The use of a word in the same grammatical relation to two adjacent words in the same context with one literal and the other metaphorical in sense. “He blew his nose and then he blew my mind.” 

Zeugma. This is the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words, usually in such a manner that it applies to each in a different sense or makes sense with only one. For example, “she opened the door to him and to her soul”. 

rhetorical-devices

Examples Of Rhetorical Devices 

Can you think of any examples where rhetorical devices have been used in literature?  

Here are a few that come to my mind.  

LogosOthello By William Shakespeare

On, beware, my lord, of jealousy! 

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock 

The meat it feeds on… 

Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger,  

But, oh, what damned minutes tell he o’er 

Who dotes, yet doubts – suspects, yet soundly loves… 

She did deceive her father, marrying you… 

She loved them most… 

I humbly beseech you of your pardon 

For too much loving you…’’ 

In this excerpt, Lago convinces Othello with logic and reasoning to make him doubtful of the secret relationship between Desdemona and Cassio. 

Pathos– I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings By Maya Angelou 

“If growing up is painful for the South Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.’’ 

Angelou’s memoir focuses on the emotional events of her life from early childhood through to adolescence. She uses pathos throughout to appeal to the reader’s emotions and to evoke sympathy for her experiences, especially of trauma, abuse and racism.  

EthosEast of Eden By John Steinbeck

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.’’ 

In this extract, the author is trying to create a sense of familiarity with the audience, who he hopes will agree with his opinions on freedom. By suggesting similarities of opinion, Steinbeck builds credibility as a narrator

Kairos– Animal Farm By George Orwell

“Comrades, you have heard already about the strange dream that I had last night. But I will come to the dream later. I have something else to say first. I do not think, comrades, that I shall be with you for many months longer, and before I die, I feel it my duty to pass on to you such wisdom as I have acquired. I have had a long life, I have had much time for thought as I lay alone in my stall, and I think I may say that I understand the nature of life on this earth as well as any animal now living. It is about this that I wish to speak to you.’’ 

This is Old Major’s speech where he addresses the animals, calling them his comrades, saying that he has a dream and that the moment has arrived that he should relate this dream to them. The timing of his speech is important as he stresses that he may not live long, so now is the right time to pass on his wisdom. This is the best use of Kairos in a practical way. 

How To Use Rhetorical Devices In Your Writing 

So now that we’ve seen how famous authors have used rhetorical devices in their writing, how can we mere mortals do the same?  

I’m going to share my top three tips for doing so.  

1. Adding Emphasis

Rhetorical devices can be used to create emphasis in your story. There are a number of different ways you can do this, from analogies, such as similes and metaphors, to repeating words or phrases within a sentence while adding more detail (amplification) and repeating an idea using different words (commoratio). An example of the latter is, “She was done. Finished. Dead.’’ 

2. Creating Rhythm  

We can strengthen a character’s voice by paying attention to the rhythm of our writing. Rhythmic prose can be more lyrical, smooth, or driving depending on how we decide to use rhetorical devices. We can repeat a word or phrase at the beginning of two or more phrases (anaphora), or at the end of the phrase (epistrophe). For example, “She would die. He would die. They’d all die.” 

3. Adding Humour

We can use rhetorical devices to add touches of humour to our prose, even if we’re not writing a romantic comedy. Use pleonasm (using more words than necessary), tmesis (splitting a word and adding a word in the middle), antonomasia (using a description as a proper name) or zeugma (using an out-of-sync phrase for the last item of a list). For example, “before meeting up with her boss, she grabbed her diary, her laptop and her big-girl panties”. 

Next Steps

So, there we have it, your crash course in rhetorical devices! 

I hope that this article answers any questions you may have on rhetorical devices and has inspired you to play with them to strengthen your writing. If it’s good enough for the greats, then it’s good enough for the rest of us!  

If you’re looking for more advice and guidance on your novel and how to break it into this highly opaque industry, then I’d encourage you to have a look at Jericho Writer’s leading online writers club


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