30 Rhetorical Devices — And How to Use Them
Rhetorical devices are as useful in writing as they are in life. Also known as persuasive devices, stylistic devices, or simply rhetoric, rhetorical devices are techniques or language used to convey a point or convince an audience. And they're used by everyone — politicians, businesspeople, and even, you guessed it, your favorite novelists.
You may already know some of them: similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia. Others, maybe not (bdelygmia, we’re talking to you). But at the end of the day, you’ve probably run into all of these devices some time or another. Perhaps, you’ve even used them yourself. And if you haven’t, don’t let their elaborate Greek names fool you — they’re pretty easy to implement, too. But before you dive in, let’s identify the different categories of rhetorical devices out there.
Types of Rhetorical Devices
Although there exists plenty of overlap between rhetorical and literary devices, there’s one significant difference between the two. While the latter are employed to express ideas with artistic depth, rhetoric is designed to appeal to one’s sensibilities in four specific ways:
- Logos, an appeal to logic;
- Pathos, an appeal to emotion;
- Ethos, an appeal to ethics; or,
- Kairos, an appeal to time.
These categories haven’t changed since the Ancient Greeks first identified them thousands of years ago. This makes sense, however, because the ways we make decisions haven’t changed, either: with our brain, our heart, our morals, or the feeling that we’re running out of time.
So without further ado, here is a list of rhetorical devices designed to tug at those strings, and convince a listener to give you what you want — or a reader to continue reading your book.
List of Rhetorical Devices
Of the hundreds of rhetorical devices currently classified, we've compiled 30 of the most useful ones, as well as some examples of these devices in action. Get ready to master the art of rhetoric for yourself, and for your readers.
Accismus is the rhetorical refusal of something you actually want. Like in one of Aesop’s Fables:
Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked 'Oh, you aren't even ripe yet! I don't need any sour grapes.' People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.
Many rhetorical devices are simply linguistic tricks that make statements sound more persuasive, like adnomination: the use of words with the same root in the same sentence. This rhetoric is sure to somehow work on someone, somewhere, someday.
Adynata are purposefully hyperbolic metaphors to suggest that something is impossible — like the classic adage, when pigs fly. And hyperbole, of course, is a rhetorical device in and of itself: an excessively exaggerated statement for effect.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonants across successive, stressed syllables… get it? This most often means repeating consonants at the beginning of multiple words, as opposed to simple consonance, which is the repetition of consonants regardless of which syllable they’re placed on. (Learn more about the difference between alliteration and consonance — and other types of repetition in our guide!)
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven makes use of both: “And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.” “Silken” and “sad” are alliterative, but the consonance continues into “uncertain” and “rustling.” And as a bonus, it contains assonance — the repetition of vowel sounds — across “purple curtain.”
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
The opening sentence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is famous because it ends somewhere entirely different than where it started. This means it is an anacoluthon, used to challenge a listener or reader to think deeply and question their assumptions.
It is different from non-sequiturs, which are generally unintentional and incoherent — well, but can anything really be different?
Anadiplosis is the repetition of the word from the end of one sentence to the beginning of the next, and it has been used by everyone from Shakespeare to Yeats to Yoda:
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
On the other hand, anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of subsequent sentences. Like in Ginsberg’s Howl — no, not that famous opening line, but instead the ones that follow it:
“Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war…”
...and so on and so forth for the next hundred or so lines. Then, there’s epiphora or epistrophe: the repetition of words at the end of sentences. And, if you combine both, you’ve got a symploce.
Rhetoric is employed to persuade, convince, or convey — in other words, to get your way. So it’s only natural that flattery would have its own rhetorical device in the form of antanagoge: the inclusion of a compliment and a critique in the same sentence. In other words, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Anthimeria is the misuse of one word’s part of speech, such as using a noun for a verb. It’s been around for centuries, but is frequently used in the modern day, where “Facebooking” and “adulting” have seamlessly become part of the lexicon.
Antiphrasis is a sentence or phrase that means the opposite of what it appears to say. Like how the idiom, “Tell me about it” generally means, “Don’t tell me about it — I already know.” It’s also known by a much more common name: irony.
Antonomasia is, essentially, a rhetorical name. Like “Old Blue Eyes,” “The Boss,” or “The Fab Four” — affectionate epithets that take the place of proper names like Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, or the Beatles.
You may have noticed by now that a lot of rhetorical devices are rooted in irony. Apophasis — also known as paralipsis, occupatio, praeteritio, preterition, or parasiopesis — is one of these: bringing up a subject by denying that it should be brought up. This is a classic if oft-maligned political tactic, and one frequently utilized by the 45th President of the United States, particularly in his colorful tweets. For example:
“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?'”
Aporia is the rhetorical expression of doubt — almost always insincerely. This is a common tool used by businesses to connect with a consumer base, particularly when regarding new inventions that might be met with a doubtful audience. For instance, take Steve Jobs’ introduction of touchscreen technology:
“Now, how are we gonna communicate this? We don’t wanna carry around a mouse, right? What are we gonna do?”
Aposiopesis is essentially the rhetorical version of trailing off at the end of your sentence, leaving your listener (or reader) hanging. Like the ending of Mercutio’s famous “Queen Mab” speech in Romeo & Juliet:
“This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—”
Asterismos is simply a phrase beginning with an exclamation. Like every other sentence in Moby-Dick: “Book! You lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places.” But if no sentence follows, it’s exclamatio: an emphatic expression like “My word!” that warrants no follow-up.
If you’ve ever removed conjunctions like “or,” “and,” or “but” from your writing because the sentence flowed better without them, you’ve used asyndeton.
This is a favorite of Cormac McCarthy, like in this passage from Outer Dark: “A parson was laboring over the crest of the hill and coming toward them with one hand raised in blessing, greeting, fending flies.” And like most of the enigmatic author’s preferred rhetoric, it is almost intentionally confusing — whether the parson is blessing or greeting or swatting flies is never clarified. Alternatively, he also makes extensive use of polysyndeton: the intentional use of conjunctions to affect sentence flow, like replacing commas with the word “and.”
Befitting its ugly spelling, bdelygmia or abominatio is a rhetorical insult — the uglier and more elaborate, the better. Like most rhetorical devices, Shakespeare was a big fan. So was Dr. Seuss:
"You're a foul one, Mr. Grinch, You're a nasty wasty skunk, Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Grinch. The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote, ‘Stink, stank, stunk!’"
Cacophony is one of the most loosely defined devices out there — simply, it is the use of words that sound bad together. That probably sounds pretty ambiguous, until you remember that Lewis Carroll invented words for his poem “Jabberwocky” just to make it sound harsh and unmelodious:
“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
And it goes hand in hand with euphony — the use of words that sound good together, like this passage from an Emily Dickinson poem:
“Oars divide the Ocean, / Too silver for a seam.”
“Despised, if ugly; if she's fair, betrayed.” This excerpt from Mary Leapor’s Essay on Woman is great example of chiasmus: the reversal of grammatical structure across two phrases, without repeating any words. So, no, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” does not count. Rather, that is antimetabole: the repetition of words or phrases in reverse grammatical order to suggest logical truth… even if it’s infallic. Ask not what rhetorical devices can do for you. Ask what you can do for rhetorical devices.
Narrative arcs aren’t just for novels. Sentences can have a climax, too — the initial words and clauses build to a peak, saving the most important point for last. We’ve been using climaxes rhetorically since at least Corinthians:
“There are three things that will endure: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Dysphemism is a description that is explicitly offensive to its subject, or, perhaps, even its audience. It stands in contrast to a euphemism, which is implicitly offensive or suggestive. Most racial epithets started as the latter, but are recognized today as the former.
If you’ve ever understated something before, that’s meiosis — like the assertion that Britain is simply “across the pond” from the Americas. The opposite — rhetorical exaggeration — is called auxesis.
Wham! Pow! Crunch! These are all examples of onomatopoeia, a word for a sound that phonetically resembles the sound itself. Which means the finale of the 1966 Batman is the most onomatopoeic film scene of all time.
It’s a lot easier for humans to understand a concept when it’s directly related to them. And since rhetoric is used to convey your point more effectively, there’s naturally a rhetorical device for that: personification, which assigns human characteristics to an abstract concept.
Personification is present in almost all forms of literature, especially mythology, where concepts like war, love, and wisdom are given humanity in the form of gods such as Ares, Venus, Saraswati. But anthropomorphism, which assigns human characteristics to animals, is almost as common, in everything from Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh to The Hobbit and Watership Down.
Did you know that being redundant can actually be rhetorically useful? Certain words are so overused that they’ve lost meaning — darkness, nice, etc. However, “black darkness” or “pleasantly nice” reinvigorate that meaning, even if the phrases are technically redundant. Redundant phrases like these are called pleonasms, and they are persuasively rhetorical.
26) Rhetorical comparisons
Some of the most prevalent rhetorical devices are figures of speech that compare one thing to another. Two of these, you surely know: the simile and the metaphor. But there is a third, hypocatastasis, that is just as common… and useful.
The distinctions between the three are pretty simple. A simile compares two things explicitly: “You are like a monster.” A metaphor compares them by asserting that they’re the same: “You are a monster.” And with hypocatastasis, the comparison itself is implied: “Monster!”
If you can't get enough rhetorical comparisons, check out these 90+ examples of metaphors in literature and pop culture!
27) Rhetorical question
You’ve probably heard of a rhetorical question, too: a question asked to make a point rather than to be answered. Technically, this figure of speech is called interrogatio, but there are plenty of other rhetorical devices that take the form of questions.
If you pose a rhetorical question just to answer it yourself, that’s anthypophora (or hypophora… they mean the same thing). And if your rhetorical question infers or asks for a large audience’s opinion (“Friends, Romans, countrymen [...] Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?”) that’s anacoenosis — though it generally doesn’t warrant an answer, either.
You know how a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square? If you referred to all rectangles as “squares,” you’d have a synecdoche: a rhetorical device in which part of one thing is used to represent its whole. This differs slightly from metonymy, which refers to one thing by something related to it that is nevertheless not part of it. If you referred to an old king as “greybeard,” that would be the former. If you referred to him as “the crown,” it would be the latter.
Have you ever, in a fit of outrage, referred to something un-effing-believable? If you have, congratulations on discovering a surprisingly useful rhetorical device: tmesis, the separation of one word into two parts, with a third word placed in between for emphasis.
Zeugma, often used synonymously with syllepsis, is a grammatical trick that can be used rhetorically as well: placing two nouns with very different meanings in the same position in a sentence. Mark Twain was a master at this:
“They covered themselves with dust and glory."
This might feel a bit like a list of fancy names for things you already do. If so, that’s great! You’re already well on your way to mastering the art of rhetoric. And, now that you know the specifics, you can take the next step: implementing it in your writing and swaying readers onto your side.
Leave any thoughts or questions about rhetorical devices in the comments below!