A Handbook of Rhetorical
Robert A. Harris
Version Date: January 19, 2013
contains definitions and examples of more than sixty
rhetorical devices, (including rhetorical tropes and rhetorical
figures) all of which can still be useful today to improve the
effectiveness, clarity, and enjoyment of your writing. Note: This book
was written in 1980, with some changes since. The devices presented are
not in alphabetical order. To go directly to the discussion of a
device, click on the name below. If you know these already, go directly
to the Self Test. To learn
about my book, Writing
with Clarity and Style,
see the Advertisement.
A Preface of Quotations
Whoever desires for
his writings or himself, what none can reasonably
condemn,the favor of mankind, must add grace to strength, and make his
agreeable as well as useful. Many complain of neglect who never tried
attract regard. It cannot be expected that the patrons of science or
should be solicitous to discover excellencies which they who possess
shade and disguise. Few have abilities so much needed by the rest of
world as to be caressed on their own terms; and he that will not
to recommend himself by external embellishments must submit to the fate
of just sentiments meanly expressed, and be ridiculed and forgotten
he is understood. --Samuel Johnson
Men must be taught as if
you taught them not; And things
as things forgot. --Alexander Pope
Style in painting is the
same as in writing, a power over
whether words or colors, by which conceptions or sentiments are
--Sir Joshua Reynolds
Whereas, if after some
preparatory grounds of speech by their
forms got into memory, they were led to the praxis thereof in some
short book lessoned thoroughly to them, they might then forthwith
to learn the substance of good things, and arts in due order, which
bring the whole language quickly into their power. --John Milton
Good writing depends
upon more than making a collection of statements
of belief, because writing is intended to be read by others, with minds
different from your own. Your reader does not make the same mental
you make; he does not see the world exactly as you see it; he is
flooded daily with thousands of statements demanding assent, yet which
he knows or believes to be false, confused, or deceptive. If your
is to get through to him--or even to be read and considered at all--it
must be interesting, clear, persuasive, and memorable, so that he will
attention to, understand,
believe, and remember
the ideas it
communicates. To fulfill these requirements successfully, your work
have an appropriate and clear thesis, sufficient arguments and reasons
supporting the thesis, a logical and progressive arrangement, and,
an effective style.
While style is probably
best learned through wide reading,
analysis and thorough practice, much can be discovered about effective
writing through the study of some of the common and traditional devices
of style and arrangement. By learning, practicing, altering, and
them, and by testing their effects and nuances for yourself, these
will help you to express yourself better and also teach you to see the
interrelatedness of form and meaning, and the psychology of syntax,
and diction both in your own writing and in the works of others.
The rhetorical devices
presented here generally fall into
those involving emphasis, association, clarification, and focus; those
involving physical organization, transition, and disposition or
and those involving decoration and variety. Sometimes a given device or
trope will fall mainly into a single category, as for example an
is used mostly for emphasis; but more often the effects of a particular
device are multiple, and a single one may operate in all three
Parallelism, for instance, helps to order, clarify, emphasize, and
a thought. Occasionally a device has certain effects not readily
or explainable, so I have not always been able to say why or when
ones are good or should be used. My recommendation is to practice them
all and develop that sense in yourself which will tell you when and how
to use them.
Lots of practice and
experimentation are necessary before you
really comfortable with these devices, but too much practice in a
paper will most assuredly be disastrous. A journal or notebook is the
place to experiment; when a device becomes second nature to you, and
it no longer appears false or affected--when indeed it becomes
built in to your writing rather than added on--then it may make its
appearance in a paper. Remember that rhetorical devices are aids to
and not ends of writing; you have no obligation to toss one into every
paragraph. Further, if used carelessly or excessively or too
almost any one of these devices will probably seem affected, dull,
or mechanical. But with a little care and skill, developed by practice,
anyone can master them, and their use will add not just beauty and
and effectiveness to your writing, but a kind of freedom of thought and
expression you never imagined possible.
Practice these; try them
out. Do not worry if they sometimes
at first. Play with them--learn to manipulate and control your words
ideas--and eventually you will master the art of aggressive
keeping the reader focused with anaphora, emphasizing a point with an
explaining to him with a metaphor or simile, organizing your work in
mind with metabasis, answering his queries with hypophora or
balancing possibilities with antithesis. You will also have gone a long
way toward fulfilling the four requirements mentioned at the beginning:
the devices of decoration and variety will help make your reader pay
the devices of organization and clarification will help him understand
your points, the devices of association and some like procatalepsis
help him believe you, and the devices of emphasis, association, beauty,
and organization will help him remember.
Of course, I modestly
recommend my book, Writing with Clarity
and Style, that contains more than 60 of the devices discussed below,
and many sidebars on style and writing effectiveness. Get it from the
publisher at 123Writing.com
or get a used copy from Amazon.com here: Writing
With Clarity and Style.
If you want a relatively
inexpensive book that through a
rather dramatic coincidence includes more than half of the devices
described here (and none of the many others not described here), and
covers many of the same points, Amazon.com has Rhetorical
Devices: A Handbook and Activities for Student Writers.
For really serious
students of rhetoric and style, I recommend
Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P.
J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, now in its fourth edition. It's the
standard and covers aspects of style as well as the tropes.
While you are reading over
these rhetoric pages or one of the resources above, why not enjoy
something made from a recipe on our sister site, VirtualTeaTime.
is a single word or short
phrase, usually interrupting normal syntax, used to lend emphasis to
words immediately proximate to the adverb. (We emphasize the words
each side of a pause or interruption in order to maintain continuity of
the thought.) Compare:
In the second sentence, the
words not and drained are naturally stressed by
the speaker or reader in order to keep the thought in mind while
entertaining the interruption.
- But the lake was not drained before April.
- But the lake was not, in fact, drained before April.
Sentential adverbs are
most frequently placed near the beginning of a
where important material has been placed:
But sometimes they are
placed at the very beginning of a sentence,
serving as signals that the whole sentence is especially important. In
such cases the sentence should be kept as short as possible:
- All truth is not, indeed, of equal importance; but if
are allowed, every violation will in time be thought little. --Samuel
author may show that he
does not intend to
an objection or argument he rejects:
- In short, the cobbler had neglected his soul.
- Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring
up to eternal life. --John 4:14 (NIV)
In a few instances,
especially with short sentences, the sentential
be placed last:
- To be sure, no one desires to live in a foul and
But neither do we want to desert our cities.
A common practice is
setting off the sentential adverb by commas, which
the emphasis on the surrounding words, though in many cases the commas
are necessary for clarity as well and cannot be omitted. Note how the
itself is also emphasized:
- It was a hot day indeed.
- Harold won, of course.
A sentential adverb
can emphasize a phrase:
- He without doubt can be trusted with a cookie.
- He, without doubt, can be trusted with a cookie.
accostives, some adverbs, and other interrupters
can be used for emphasizing portions of sentences, and therefore
as kinds of quasi-sentential adverbs in those circumstances. And note
that a variety of punctuation can be used to set off the interrupter:
- The Bradys, clearly a happy family, live in an old house
Some useful sentential
adverbs include the following: in
I think, without doubt, to be sure, naturally, it seems, after all, for
all that, in brief, on the whole, in short, to tell the truth, in any
clearly, I suppose, I hope, at least, assuredly, certainly, remarkably,
importantly, definitely. In formal writing, avoid these
you know, you see, huh, get this. And it goes without saying that you
avoid the unprintable expletives.
- We find a few people, however, unwilling to come.
- "Your last remark," he said, "is impertinent."
- There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature
- The problem--as you know--is that we are building tomorrow
on yesterday's budget.
- They will (I hope) demand to visit the archives and look
for the documents.
consists of omitting
conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses. In a list of items,
gives the effect of unpremeditated multiplicity, of an extemporaneous
than a labored account:
The lack of the "and"
conjunction gives the impression that the list is
perhaps not complete. Compare:
- On his return he received medals, honors, treasures,
Sometimes an asyndetic
list is useful for the strong and direct
effect it has, much more emphatic than if a final conjunction were
- She likes pickles, olives, raisins, dates, pretzels.
- She likes pickles, olives, raisins, dates, and pretzels.
In certain cases, the
omission of a conjunction between short phrases
the impression of synonymity to the phrases, or makes the latter phrase
appear to be an afterthought or even a substitute for the former.
- They spent the day wondering, searching, thinking,
- They spent the day wondering, searching, thinking, and
Notice also the degree
of spontaneity granted in some cases by
usage. "The moist, rich, fertile soil," appears more natural and
than "the moist, rich, and fertile soil."
- He was a winner, a hero.
- He was a winner and a hero.
offers the feeling of speed and concision
and phrases and clauses, but occasionally the effect cannot be so
categorized. Consider the "flavor" of these examples:
is the use of a
conjunction between each word, phrase, or clause, and is thus
the opposite of asyndeton. The rhetorical effect of polysyndeton,
often shares with that of asyndeton a feeling of multiplicity,
enumeration, and building up.
- If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed,
at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is
to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims
us we fear. --John Henry Newman
- In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I
to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth
the laws of peace. --Richard de Bury
- We certainly have within us the image of some person, to
whom our love
and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for whom we
yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are
and waste away. --John Henry Newman
Use polysyndeton to
show an attempt to encompass something complex:
- They read and studied and wrote and drilled. I laughed and
conjunctions of the polysyndetic structure call attention
to themselves and therefore add the effect of persistence or intensity
or emphasis to the other effect of multiplicity. The repeated use of
or "or" emphasizes alternatives; repeated use of "but" or "yet"
qualifications. Consider the effectiveness of these:
- The water, like a witch's oils, / Burnt green, and blue,
and white. --S. T.
- [He] pursues his way, / And swims, or sinks, or wades, or
In a skilled hand, a
shift from polysyndeton to asyndeton can be very
- And to set forth the right standard, and to train
according to it, and
to help forward all students towards it according to their various
this I conceive to be the business of a University. --John Henry Newman
- We have not power, nor influence, nor money, nor
authority; but a
to persevere, and the hope that we shall conquer soon.
Maximum effect tip:
Polysyndeton is almost always the most effective when you link three or
in some cases four elements. Modern readers do not expect even two
conjunctions ("she wrote and phoned and faxed") linking three elements.
(I've had my own prose "corrected" by business colleagues who had never
encountered either asyndeton or polysyndeton before.) So, consider your
audience before you create a lengthy list. If you're writing a humor
piece, you can really have fun.
- Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it
it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof. And it
be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so
his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer,
so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with
taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him. --Isaiah 24:1-2 (KJV)
- When it was announced
that the vending machines were going to have apples instead of Cheetos,
and orange juice instead of Coke, the employees cried and bawled and
sobbed and complained and whined and protested.
expresses an idea as less important than it actually is, either for
emphasis or for politeness and tact. When the writer's audience can be
expected to know the true nature of a fact which might be rather
to describe adequately in a brief space, the writer may choose to
the fact as a means of employing the reader's own powers of
For example, instead of endeavoring to describe in a few words the
and destruction of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a writer might
The effect is not the
same as a description of destruction, since
like this necessarily smacks of flippancy to some degree; but
that is a desirable effect. Consider these usages:
- The 1906 San Francisco earthquake interrupted business
somewhat in the
In these cases the
reader supplies his own knowledge of the facts and
out a more vivid and personal description than the writer might have.
- Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang, and
. . . . To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six
and eighteen is to do pretty well . . . . --Jane Austen
- Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly
believe how much it
altered her person for the worse. --Jonathan Swift
- You know I would be a little disappointed if you were to
be hit by a
driver at two a.m., so I hope you will be home early.
In a more important way,
understatement should be used as a
modesty and tactfulness. Whenever you represent your own
and often when you just describe your own position, an understatement
the facts will help you to avoid the charge of egotism on the one hand
and of self-interested puffery on the other. We are always more pleased
to discover a thing greater than promised rather than less than
as Samuel Johnson put it, "It is more pleasing to see smoke brightening
into flame, than flame sinking into smoke." And it goes without saying
that a person modest of his own talents wins our admiration more easily
than an egotist. Thus an expert geologist might say, "Yes, I know a
about rocks," rather than, "Yes, I'm an expert about rocks." (An even
expert might raise his eyebrows if he heard that.)
especially useful in dealing with a hostile
or in disagreeing with someone, because the statement, while carrying
same point, is much less offensive. Compare:
Remember, the goal of
writing is to persuade, not to offend; once you
or put off your opponent, objector, or disbeliever, you will never
him of anything, no matter how "obviously wrong" he is or how clearly
you are. The degree and power of pride in the human heart must never be
underestimated. Many people are unwilling to hear objections of any
and view disagreement as a sign of contempt for their intellect. The
of understatement allows you to show a kind of respect for your
understanding. You have to object to his belief, but you are
with his position and see how he might have come to believe it;
you humbly offer to steer him right, or at least to offer what you
is a more accurate view. Even those who agree with you already will be
more persuaded because the modest thinker is always preferable to the
bigot. Compare these statements and consider what effect each would
on you if you read them in a persuasive article:
- The second law of thermodynamics pretty much works against
of such an event.
- The second law of thermodynamics proves conclusively that
utterly false and ridiculous.
a particular form of understatement,
is generated by denying the opposite or contrary of the word which
would be used. Depending on the tone and context of the usage, litotes
either retains the effect of understatement, or becomes an intensifying
expression. Compare the difference between these statements:
- Anyone who says this water is safe to drink is either
The stuff is poisoned with coliform bacteria. Don't those idiots know
- My opponents think this water is drinkable, but I'm not
sure I would
it. Perhaps they are not aware of the dangerous bacterial count . . .
so on, explaining the basis for your opinion].
Johnson uses litotes
to make a modest assertion, saying "not
rather than "correctly" or "best":
- Heat waves are common in the summer.
- Heat waves are not rare in the summer.
Occasionally a litotic
construction conveys an ironic sentiment by its
- This kind of writing may be termed not improperly the
. . .
litotes intensifies the sentiment intended by the
and creates the effect of strong feelings moderately conveyed.
- We saw him throw the buckets of paint at his canvas in
disgust, and the
result did not perfectly represent his subject, Mrs. Jittery.
But note that, as
George Orwell points out in "Politics and the English
Language," the "not un-" construction (for example, "not unwilling")
not be used indiscriminately. Rather, find an opposite quality which as
a word is something other than the quality itself with an "un"
For instance, instead of, "We were not unvictorious," you could write,
"We were not defeated," or "We did not fail to win," or something
- Hitting that telephone pole certainly didn't do your car
- If you can tell the fair one's mind, it will be no small
proof of your
art, for I dare say it is more than she herself can do. --Alexander Pope
- A figure lean or corpulent, tall or short, though
may still have a certain union of the various parts, which may
to make them on the whole not unpleasing. --Sir Joshua Reynolds
- He who examines his own self will not long remain ignorant
- Overall the flavors of the mushrooms, herbs, and spices
combine to make
the dish not at all disagreeable to the palate.
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