Recognizing and Using Rhetorical Devices
Hannah Cunningham, Consultant
As students, we all have to do a fair amount of writing, in a variety of disciplines. And we’ve all sought for new and interesting ways to phrase our thoughts. The way we word our arguments has a massive impact on how our readers perceive not just our arguments, but also us as writers. Careful use of word choice or syntax can also help in making our words or arguments memorable, as well as persuasive. Clearly, how we state our thoughts is as important as the thoughts themselves. But how do we go about doing it well?
Part of the answer lies in rhetoric. “Rhetoric” refers to the art of making a persuasive argument, using specific (and sometimes very specialized) types of sentences, referred to as “rhetorical devices.” I know—this all sounds so vague and abstract. However, a look at popular culture reveals that many of these rhetorical devices are not only familiar, but are well-known pieces of our cultural heritage. Many of our favorite movies and television shows use rhetorical devices so often that we may not even notice. The list of rhetorical devices is immense, so I’ll offer a few of the more interesting ones, as well as examples that may be very familiar to you.
Anastrophe: This term seems formidable, but many people are familiar with the device itself. Anastrophe refers to inverting the standard order in which words are typically found in sentences. Anyone who has seen the Star Wars movies (or even people like me, who haven’t seen them but are familiar with them) has heard quite a bit of anastrophe from the little green guy—er, Yoda. The phrase “The chosen one the boy may be” is a prime example of anastrophe. Anastrophe is best used sparingly, but can make a topic sentence or a closing statement stand out.
Chiasmus: The root of this word means “cross,” and that’s what the device does. For this device to work successfully, you need a sentence with two clauses. The “crossing” occurs in the second clause, when you reverse the order of the elements in the first sentence. Confusing, I know, but it actually becomes pretty simple if you have an example. Bart Simpson of The Simpsons used chiasmus amusingly when he said “Priceless like a mother’s love, or the good kind of priceless?” He’s being a brat, but his use of chiasmus is spot-on. The word “priceless” begins the first clause, and occurs at the end of the second, while the opposing ideas “a mother’s love” and “the good kind” also switch places. Chiasmus can be very useful when making a persuasive argument, particularly a call to action; if you want to know just how effective, recall JFK saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Commoratio: I can’t tell you that I know how to pronounce this word, but its definition is pretty simple: repetition of an idea with different wording. It becomes absurd fairly quickly, so use it carefully, but it can be an effective device, particularly in an opening statement. The animated show Family Guy used commoratio when the peg-legged and –armed fisherman, Seamus, tells Peter, “If it’s fish you want, Pelican’s Reef is where you’ll find them. I’ve seen fish there. More fish than you could possibly imagine. Fish as far as the eye can see. Lots and lots of fish, I guess would be the main bullet point of this presentation.” Clearly, Family Guy is using commoratio to the point of absurdity, but you can use it carefully to gain your audience’s attention—or to make them laugh.
Epanelepsis: This device describes the act of beginning and ending a sentence or phrase with the same word. Viewers of the old Kevin Smith film Chasing Amy heard epanelepsis when Ben Affleck’s character, Holden McNeil, said, “Alyssa from last night Alyssa?” His use of epanelepsis even impressed his friend Hooper, who commented, “How do you begin and end a sentence with the same word like that? You got skills.” This device can be useful when emphasizing the repeated word, although it’s important to use this device sparingly so that your paper doesn’t become too repetitious.
Litotes: This is your basic understatement, usually with the word “not.” Dozens of easy examples exist, such as “He’s not unlike his father,” or “The weather lately has been not tropical.” But for many of us, the most memorable example may be the Sorting Hat in the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. When the Sorting Hat is trying to decide in which house to place Harry, it says, “Hmm, difficult. VERY difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either.” That last sentence proves that the Sorting Hat, in addition to thinking up each year’s opening song, also had time to study rhetorical devices such as litotes. Litotes can be useful when supporting an argument, but be wary of overusing it; it begins to sound sarcastic fairly quickly.
Metanoia: This is another one I can’t pronounce, but I hear it often in television shows. Metanoia refers to qualifying a statement mid-sentence to emphasize the sentence’s point. Barney Stinson, the loveable rogue on the show How I Met Your Mother, uses metanoia fairly frequently, particularly when making his over-the-top arguments. In this case, Barney uses metanoia to insist on receiving a fist bump: “Until my fist gets the respect it deserves – nay, demands – it will not yield. It. Will. NOT! Yield.” This rather powerful device is probably best used in a conclusion, to leave your audience with a strong statement at the end of your paper.
Polysyndeton: This weird-looking word actually just refers to having a conjunction before each item in a list. Usually, conjunctions (particularly “and”) only occur before the last item in a list. Viewers of The Simpsons have seen polysyndeton from the character of Professor Frink, the excitable mad scientist of Springfield. In one episode, Frink says, “Oh, sorry I’m late. There was trouble at the lab with the running and the exploding and the crying when the monkeys stole the glasses off my head.” The sentence is both comical, and a perfect example of polysyndeton. In your papers, you may not want to reference monkeys stealing your glasses, but you may very well use polysyndeton to emphasize every item in a list.
These are just a few of the hundreds of rhetorical devices available for your use. Take a glance through a website that lists rhetorical devices and then watch your favorite show or movie. See how many examples you can pick up.