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Rhetorical Figures

An Uncut List of Rhetorical Figures, Their Meanings, and Examples

Put simply, rhetorics is the art of effective and persuasive speech. What are rhetorical figures and devices? Read ahead to find out.
Ishani Chatterjee Shukla
Last Updated: Mar 12, 2018
He steps on stage and draws the sword of rhetoric, and when he is through, someone is lying wounded and thousands of others are either angry or consoled. ~ Pete Hamill
Indeed, ingeniously articulated words that appeal to the emotions, when conveyed artfully, can be a more powerful persuasive tool than blatant coercion or humble pleadings. This art of effective and persuasive speaking is known as Rhetorics, and it rests upon a number of literary devices which are collectively known as rhetorical figures. So what are rhetorical figures all about? Well, to put it simply, they are literary devices which are used by the speaker with rhetoric dexterity, to drive in a point or evoke a markedly emotional response in the audience by way of sentimental empathy, heartfelt support, anger, passion, etc. In other words, rhetorical devices are used to rouse the not-so-subtle emotions in the audience, so that, at times, sentiments take an upper hand over logic and rationality. Let's take a look at what all literary devices comprise the reservoir of rhetorical expression.
Rhetorical Devices List
Here is a list of literary devices that double up as effective rhetorical tools as well. Take a look.
  • Alliteration: Successive words in a sentence or phrase beginning with the same alphabet to emphasize a point. e.g. - Delicate, dressy daisies.
  • Anacoluthon: Not following the same grammatical sequence throughout an entire sentence. e.g. Osama bin Laden's demise... does that spell the end of global terrorism or is it just a new beginning?
  • Anadiplosis: In a sentence constructed of a number of clauses, the word that ends one clause begins the next clause. e.g. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you. (spoken by Yoda in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace)
  • Anaphora: In a speech or address, a word or phrase may be repeated at the beginning of successive clauses or lines to drive in an idea or make a strong appeal. e.g. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. (quote from Casablanca)
  • Anastrophe: Distortion of a normal syntactical arrangement of words to create a rhetoric appeal or to put emphasis upon an idea or point in the entire sentence, as in a lot of classical poems. e.g. Clear, placid Leman! thy contrasted lake, With the wild world I dwelt in. (from Childe Baron by Lord Byron)
  • Antistrophe: In a sentence formed of a number of clauses or phrases, the conclusion of each successive clause or phrase with the same word or phrase that concluded the previous clause. e.g. - In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo -- without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopis -- without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria -- without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia -- without warning. Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland -- without warning. And now Japan has attached Malaya and Thailand -- and the United States -- without warning. (quoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt)
  • Antithesis: Contrasting words or ideas used in a sentence to make the point clear by way of an oxymoron or a juxtaposition, instead of conveying the idea directly. e.g. - accidentally on purpose, agree to disagree, act natural, etc.
  • Aporia: An expression of uncertainty regarding one's course of thought or action, mostly for rhetoric effect rather than expressing actual indecision. e.g. - to be or not to be, what shall we do, how shall I face him, etc.
  • Aposiopesis: An abrupt halt in the flow of speech owing to the speaker becoming overwhelmed with a heightened emotional state by modesty, anger, passion, shock, etc. e.g. - Did she really do that? Oh! She's such a... you know what, don't you?
  • Apostrophe: Addressing a person that is not present at the moment or a personified object. e.g. - Science! True daughter of Old Time thou art! (from To Science by Edgar Allen Poe)
  • Archaism: Use of phrases and word forms that are old-fashioned and obsolete in terms of contemporary usage. e.g. - thou, thee, shew, sate, prithee, gaoler, alack (read any Shakespearean play in the unadapted, original language and you'll get an idea!)
  • Assonance: Use of similar vowel sounds in words close to each other in a phrase or a sentence. e.g. - I must confess that in my quest I felt depressed and restless. (from With Love by Irish rock band Thin Lizzy)
  • Asyndeton: Omission of conjunctions between words, phrases or clauses in sentence, using comma, instead, to distinguish the related clauses from each other. e.g. - We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the 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. (by Winston Churchill)
  • Brachylogy: A condensed and concise piece of rhetoric expression. Two other rhetorical devices, Asyndeton and Zeugma, are two types of Brachylogy. e.g. - I came, I saw, I conquered. (English translation of Julius Caesar's famous quote in Latin, Veni, Vidi, Vici)
  • Cacophony: Use of words and expressions conveying an idea or visualization of discordant sounds. e.g. - banging doors, clank of steel rods as they crashed upon each other while tumbling downwards, etc.
  • Catachresis: Use of a distinctive metaphor involving words whose use is unusual in the given context. e.g. - He looked at the price and his pockets ran dry.
  • Chiasmus: A pattern of usage in which a sentence is divided into two parts, with the verbal arrangement such that the second part doesn't run parallel to the first but is inverted so that the sentence appears balanced at the extremities. e.g. - In the end, the true test is not the speeches a president delivers; it's whether the president delivers on the speeches. (by Hillary Clinton), Fair is foul, and foul is fair. (from Macbeth by William Shakespeare)
  • Climax: Mounting degrees of verbal weightage, ascending in rhetoric power as the sentence progresses. e.g. - When we send our young men and women into harm's way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they're going, to care for their families while they're gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world. (by Barack Obama)
  • Euphemism: Substituting a harsh or unsavory word / phrase with a more gentle and less offending term. e.g. - passed away (instead of died), prime figure (instead of fat), wardrobe malfunction, between jobs, adult entertainment, correctional facility, physically challenged, etc.
  • Hendiadys: Two words brought together by a conjunction to form a term or phrase that emphasizes a single idea. e.g. - nice and easy, sick and tired, rough and tough, hot and happening, etc.
  • Hypallage: An adjective or a descriptive term that brings about a grammatical agreement between two nouns, one being that which it actually describes while the other being out of its descriptive orbit. In other words, a hypallage describes the wrong noun/ pronoun in the sentence. e.g. - 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. (from A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare)
  • Hyperbole: A rhetorical emphasis which is exaggerated in expression. e.g. - She takes ages to get dressed for a party!, I've told you a million times to be more careful around the ceramics!, etc.
  • Hysteron Proteron: Inversion of the conventional sequence of words, ideas and actions for aesthetic effect. e.g. - put on your shoes and socks (although the normal sequence of actions is putting on one's socks first, and then the shoes)
  • Irony: Saying something but meaning something else, often, but not always, the opposite of what was said. e.g. - saying well done or thank you so much to someone who, say, broke your car's headlights when your intent is far from gratitude or appreciation. Also, the tone and expression in which you say it clearly betray your heartfelt emotions at that time.
  • Litotes: Emphasizing an idea by understating it and holding the contradicting idea in negative at the same time. e.g. - he's not the brightest spark in the group (in other words, he's quite dimwitted), they're not the best bakers around here (meaning, they're just about average or maybe even less than average bakers)
  • Metaphor: Highlighting qualities of one thing or idea by comparing it with another unrelated object or idea. e.g. - he proved to be a wolf in a lamb's clothing, the pen is mightier than the sword
  • Metonymy: Substitution of a word with another when the latter illuminates some quality of the former. It is an extreme metaphor. e.g. - lend an ear, give tongue to, etc.
  • Onomatopoeia: Sound words or words that convey the idea of a specific sound. e.g. - hiss, cackle, tinker, honk, fizz, etc.
  • Oxymoron: Use of contradictory words or terms to emphasize the subject or central theme of the sentence. e.g. beautifully dangerous, a fine mess, cruel kindness, etc.
  • Paradox: Self contradicting statement that lays emphasis on the central idea. e.g. - If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness. (by Alexander Smith)
  • Paraprosdokian: A surprise ending to a sentence. Kind of like a twist in the tale. e.g. You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing-after they have tried everything else. (by Winston Churchill)
  • Paronomasia: Playing with words using similar sounding words to get a point across. e.g. - Your children need your presence more than your presents. (by Jesse Jackson)
  • Personification: Imparting a personality to an inanimate object and addressing it as if it were an actual, living person. e.g. - opportunity came knocking on the door, may Lady Luck always smile on you thus, etc.
  • Pleonasm: Repetition of similar words or overuse of similar expressions to fortify an idea. e.g. - please repeat that again, totally complete, finally finished, scary nightmare, etc.
  • Polysyndeton: Use of a conjunction after every clause where a number of related clauses are mentioned in a sentence. e.g. - Let the white folks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly--mostly--let them have their whiteness. (from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou)
  • Praeteretio: Making a mention of something but promptly following by choosing to forgo discussing it. e.g. - He is definitely guilty this time, not to mention his previous criminal record.
  • Prolepsis: Foreshadowing or giving a hint of what to expect in the near future, given the present situations and courses of thoughts or actions. Also, this technique is used to forestall an objection to a particular point of view or an argument, addressing the audience's concerns over the same. e.g. - Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29)
  • Simile: A clear comparison of two terms or ideas using comparative expressions like as, like, etc. e.g. as brave as a lion, as proud as a peacock, etc.
  • Syllepsis: Using a verb with two or more other words, the latter conveying ideas and images very diverse from each other. e.g. - I finally told Ross, late in the summer, that I was losing weight, my grip, and possibly my mind. (from The Years with Ross by James Thurber)
  • Synchysis: A word sequence which exhibits a kind of interlocking or inverted order of words such as a-b, b-a or a-b, a-b. e.g. - I read and write, fast and legibly or little girl, lady young, etc.
  • Synecdoche: Either a specific class of things is used to denote the general category or a general category is used to point towards a specific class of things. e.g. - the world's a cruel place, crossing steel (referring to a sword fight), etc.
  • Synesis: Grammatical arrangement of words following a logical sequence of thoughts or actions. e.g. - If the athletes are popular, they will play this season.
  • Tautology: Repetition of an idea in a sentence using different words or phrases that covey the same thing. e.g. distributing free gifts, a new innovation, sad misfortune, etc.
  • Zeugma: A kind of syllepsis, where the one word that is used to emphasize two words or phrases is grammatically fit for use with just one of the latter. e.g. - You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit. (from Star Trek: The Next Generation). Here, execute will have different meanings with respect to law (carry out) and citizens (put to death).
I hope the above list enumerating rhetoric devices helps you in understanding the various aspects of the art of rhetorics, and how an idea can be conveyed using persuasive, thought provoking and an emotionally moving piece of literature.
Before I sign off, I'd like to quote Plato's definition of rhetorics: Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.
Truly so!