Evaluating Rhetorical Devices in Writing

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  • 0:01 Rhetorical Devices
  • 1:00 Rhetoric of Sounds
  • 1:57 Rhetoric of Words
  • 3:08 Rhetoric of Sentences
  • 4:27 Rhetoric of Figures of Speech
  • 6:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study a variety of rhetorical devices that commonly appear in written texts. We will look at rhetoric on the level of sounds, words, sentences, and figures of speech.

Rhetorical Devices

For many modern Americans, the word 'rhetoric' has assumed a negative character and often refers to verbal tricks, well-hidden lies, and subtle turns of phrase meant to deceive and mold readers into a particular point of view. In the literary world, however, 'rhetoric' means something quite different and much more positive. Rhetoric is simply communication that creatively asserts a point of view, imaginatively expresses important ideas, helps readers remember key points, and attempts to shift readers' perspectives.

Writers can choose from dozens of rhetorical devices or techniques to help them meet their rhetorical goals. These fall into four broad categories: sounds, words, sentences, and figures of speech. We can't look at every device in this lesson, but we will cover a few of the major ones.

Rhetoric of Sounds

The rhetoric of sounds is rhetoric at its most basic level: the sounds of the words themselves. Writers use the following devices to attract readers' attention and alert them that something important is going to be said.

  • Alliteration occurs when sounds are repeated at the beginning of words. Julius Caesar's famous assertion, 'Veni, vidi, vici' (which means, 'I came, I saw, I conquered') is an example of alliteration in both Latin and English.
  • Assonance happens when a writer repeats vowel sounds. Listen for the repeated long 'o' sound in the following: 'Woe to those who go to Pogo!'
  • In onomatopoeia, words imitate sounds. Every time you say, 'Crash!', 'Woof!', or 'Bang!', you are using onomatopoeia.

Rhetoric of Words

Writers also use rhetoric of words, usually repeating a word or phrase to drive home an important point. Take a look at the following two rhetorical devices at the level of words.

  • When a writer uses anaphora, he or she repeats a word or set of words at the beginning of sentences or lines. Winston Churchill did this when he was trying to rally the English people during World War II. He exclaimed, 'We shall fight in the trenches. We shall fight on the oceans. We shall fight in the sky... We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island...'
  • In epistrophe, a writer repeats a word or set of words at the end of sentences or lines. For instance, an author might assert, 'If the rain comes, I will go. If it is dark, I will go. If it snows, I will go.' Apparently, he or she is committed to going somewhere and wants the audience to know that for sure.

Rhetoric of Sentences

Sentence structure can also accommodate rhetorical devices, especially when writers want to surprise their readers or emphasize the relationships between ideas.

  • In aposiopesis, a writer deliberately leaves a sentence unfinished to startle the reader and express a strong emotion. A character in a novel might call out, 'I can't! I mustn't! I will not say that...' The reader is left hollering back, 'What!?!'
  • When using chiasmus, a writer splits his or her sentence into two parts. The second part provides a mirror image of the first part. John F. Kennedy's famous line 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country' is a prime example of chiasmus.
  • Sometimes a writer uses inversion to make the reader sit up and take notice. Inversion is simply an unusual word order that stresses some important phrase or point. For example, a writer might say, 'I, with the help of my friends, survived.' The phrase separating the subject and the verb seems out of place, but it underscores the fact the writer's friends played a key role in his survival.

Rhetoric of Figures of Speech

Finally, writers frequently use figures of speech as rhetorical devices. Figures of speech are expressions that use words in a way that goes beyond their normal meaning and thereby catches the reader's attention, emphasizes important points, and aids memory.

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