Education and Information Site VirtualSalt A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices, Page 5 Robert A. Harris
January 5, 2010

To go directly to the discussion of a particular 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.

Alliteration Antithesis Climax Epizeuxis Metanoia Polysyndeton
Allusion Apophasis Conduplicatio Eponym Metaphor Procatalepsis
Amplification Aporia Diacope Exemplum Metonymy Rhetorical Question
Anacoluthon Aposiopesis Dirimens Copulatio Sentential Adverb Onomatopoeia Scesis Onomaton
Anadiplosis Apostrophe Distinctio Hyperbaton Oxymoron Sententia
Analogy Appositive Enthymeme Hyperbole Parallelism Simile
Anaphora Assonance Enumeratio Hypophora Parataxis Symploce
Antanagoge Asyndeton Epanalepsis Hypotaxis Parenthesis Synecdoche
Antimetabole Catachresis Epistrophe Litotes Personification Understatement
Antiphrasis Chiasmus Epithet Metabasis Pleonasm Zeugma

27. Metaphor compares two different things by speaking of one in terms of the other. Unlike a simile or analogy, metaphor asserts that one thing is another thing, not just that one is like another. Very frequently a metaphor is invoked by the to be verb:

Affliction then is ours; / We are the trees whom shaking fastens more. --George Herbert

Just as frequently, though, the comparison is clear enough that the a-is-b form is not necessary: Compare the different degrees of direct identification between tenor and vehicle. There is fully expressed: Here, the comparison, "the eye is a lamp," is declared directly, and the point of similarity is spelled out.

There is semi-implied:

Here, the comparison, "Herod is a fox," is not directly stated, but is understood as if it had been.

There is implied:

Here, the comparison, "God is a bird [or hen]" is only implied. Stating the metaphorical equation directly would have been rhetorically ineffective or worse because of the awkward thought it creates. The classical rhetorician Demetrius tells us that when there is a great difference between the subject and the comparison, the subject should always be compared to something greater than itself, or diminishment and rhetorical failure result. You might write, "The candle was a little sun in the dark room," but you wouldn't write, "The sun was a big candle that day in the desert." In Psalm 63, however, there is nothing greater than God to compare him to, and the psalmist wants to create a sense of tenderness and protection, drawing upon a familiar image. So, the comparison is saved by using an implied metaphor.

And there is very implied:

Here the comparison is something like "a prosperous time [or freedom from persecution] is a green [flourishing, healthy] tree." And the other half of the metaphor is that "a time of persecution or lack of prosperity is a dry [unhealthy, dead(?)] tree." So the rhetorical question is, "If men do these [bad] things during times of prosperity, what will they do when persecution or their own suffering arrives?"

Like simile and analogy, metaphor is a profoundly important and useful device. Aristotle says in his Rhetoric, "It is metaphor above all else that gives clearness, charm, and distinction to the style." And Joseph Addison says of it:

So a metaphor not only explains by making the abstract or unknown concrete and familiar, but it also enlivens by touching the reader's imagination. Further, it affirms one more interconnection in the unity of all things by showing a relationship between things seemingly alien to each other.

And the fact that two very unlike things can be equated or referred to in terms of one another comments upon them both. No metaphor is "just a metaphor." All have significant implications, and they must be chosen carefully, especially in regard to the connotations the vehicle (image) will transfer to the tenor. Consider, for example, the differences in meaning conveyed by these statements:

And do you see any reason that one of these metaphors was chosen over the others? So bold and striking is metaphor that it is sometimes taken literally rather than as a comparison. (Jesus' disciples sometimes failed here--see John 4:32ff and John 6:46-60; a few religious groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses interpret such passages as Psalm 75:8 and 118:15 literally and thus see God as anthropomorphic; and even today a lot of controversy surrounds the interpretation of Matthew 26:26.) Always be careful in your own writing, therefore, to avoid possible confusion between metaphor and reality. In practice this is usually not very difficult.

28. Catachresis is an extravagant, implied metaphor using words in an alien or unusual way. While difficult to invent, it can be wonderfully effective:

One way to write catachresis is to substitute an associated idea for the intended one (as Hamlet did, using "daggers" instead of "angry words"): Sometimes you can substitute a noun for a verb or a verb for a noun, a noun for an adjective, and so on. The key is to be effective rather than abysmal. I am not sure which classification these examples fit into: 29. Synecdoche is a type of metaphor in which the part stands for the whole, the whole for a part, the genus for the species, the species for the genus, the material for the thing made, or in short, any portion, section, or main quality for the whole or the thing itself (or vice versa). Here we recognize that Jones also owns the bodies of the cattle, and that the hired hands have bodies attached. This is a simple part-for-whole synecdoche. Here are a few more: And notice the other kinds of substitutions that can be made: Take care to make your synecdoche clear by choosing an important and obvious part to represent the whole. Compare: One of the easiest kinds of synecdoche to write is the substitution of genus for species. Here you choose the class to which the idea or thing to be expressed belongs, and use that rather than the idea or thing itself: A possible problem can arise with the genus-for-species substitution because the movement is from more specific to more general; this can result in vagueness and loss of information. Note that in the example above some additional contextual information will be needed to clarify that "weapon" means "harpoon" in this case, rather than, say, "dagger" or something else. The same is true for the animal-for-dog substitution.

Perhaps a better substitution is the species for the genus--a single, specific, representative item symbolic of the whole. This form of synecdoche will usually be clearer and more effective than the other:

30. Metonymy is another form of metaphor, very similar to synecdoche (and, in fact, some rhetoricians do not distinguish between the two), in which the thing chosen for the metaphorical image is closely associated with (but not an actual part of) the subject with which it is to be compared. In this example we know that the writer means the President issued the orders, because "White House" is quite closely associated with "President," even though it is not physically a part of him. Consider these substitutions, and notice that some are more obvious than others, but that in context all are clear: The use of a particular metonymy makes a comment about the idea for which it has been substituted, and thereby helps to define that idea. Note how much more vivid "in the sweat of thy face" is in the third example above than "by labor" would have been. And in the fourth example, "mercury rising" has a more graphic, physical, and pictorial effect than would "temperature increasing." Attune yourself to such subtleties of language, and study the effects of connotation, suggestion, substitution, and metaphor.

31. Personification metaphorically represents an animal or inanimate object as having human attributes--attributes of form, character, feelings, behavior, and so on. Ideas and abstractions can also be personified.

While personification functions primarily as a device of art, it can often serve to make an abstraction clearer and more real to the reader by defining or explaining the concept in terms of everyday human action (as for example man's rejection of readily available wisdom is presented as a woman crying out to be heard but being ignored). Ideas can be brought to life through personification and objects can be given greater interest. But try always to be fresh: "winking stars" is worn out; "winking dewdrops" may be all right.

Personification of just the natural world has its own name, fictio. And when this natural-world personification is limited to emotion, John Ruskin called it the pathetic fallacy. Ruskin considered this latter to be a vice because it was so often overdone (and let this be a caution to you). We do not receive much pleasure from an overwrought vision like this:

Nevertheless, humanizing a cold abstraction or even some natural phenomenon gives us a way to understand it, one more way to arrange the world in our own terms, so that we can further comprehend it. And even the so-called pathetic fallacy can sometimes be turned to advantage, when the writer sees his own feelings in the inanimate world around him: 32. Hyperbole, the counterpart of understatement, deliberately exaggerates conditions for emphasis or effect. In formal writing the hyperbole must be clearly intended as an exaggeration, and should be carefully restricted. That is, do not exaggerate everything, but treat hyperbole like an exclamation point, to be used only once a year. Then it will be quite effective as a table-thumping attention getter, introductory to your essay or some section thereof: Or it can make a single point very enthusiastically: Or you can exaggerate one thing to show how really different it is from something supposedly similar to which it is being compared: Hyperbole is the most overused and overdone rhetorical figure in the whole world (and that is no hyperbole); we are a society of excess and exaggeration. Nevertheless, hyperbole still has a rightful and useful place in art and letters; just handle it like dynamite, and do not blow up everything you can find.

33. Allusion is a short, informal reference to a famous person or event:

Notice in these examples that the allusions are to very well known characters or events, not to obscure ones. (The best sources for allusions are literature, history, Greek myth, and the Bible.) Note also that the reference serves to explain or clarify or enhance whatever subject is under discussion, without sidetracking the reader.

Allusion can be wonderfully attractive in your writing because it can introduce variety and energy into an otherwise limited discussion (an exciting historical adventure rises suddenly in the middle of a discussion of chemicals or some abstract argument), and it can please the reader by reminding him of a pertinent story or figure with which he is familiar, thus helping (like analogy) to explain something difficult. The instantaneous pause and reflection on the analogy refreshes and strengthens the reader's mind.

34. Eponym substitutes for a particular attribute the name of a famous person recognized for that attribute. By their nature eponyms often border on the cliche, but many times they can be useful without seeming too obviously trite. Finding new or infrequently used ones is best, though hard, because the name-and-attribute relationship needs to be well established. Consider the effectiveness of these:

Some people or characters are famous for more than one attribute, so that when using them, you must somehow specify the meaning you intend: In cases where the eponym might be less than clear or famous, you should add the quality to it: Eponym is one of those once-in-awhile devices which can give a nice touch in the right place.

35. Oxymoron is a paradox reduced to two words, usually in an adjective-noun ("eloquent silence") or adverb-adjective ("inertly strong") relationship, and is used for effect, complexity, emphasis, or wit:

Oxymoron can be useful when things have gone contrary to expectation, belief, desire, or assertion, or when your position is opposite to another's which you are discussing. The figure then produces an ironic contrast which shows, in your view, how something has been misunderstood or mislabeled: Other oxymorons, as more or less true paradoxes, show the complexity of a situation where two apparently opposite things are true simultaneously, either literally ("desirable calamity") or imaginatively ("love precipitates delay"). Some examples other writers have used are these: scandalously nice, sublimely bad, darkness visible, cheerful pessimist, sad joy, wise fool, tender cruelty, despairing hope, freezing fire. An oxymoron should preferably be yours uniquely; do not use another's, unless it is a relatively obvious formulation (like "expensive economy") which anyone might think of. Also, the device is most effective when the terms are not common opposites. So, instead of "a low high point," you might try "depressed apex" or something.

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