Rhetorical Shift: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Rhetorical Shift
  • 1:02 Examples of Rhetorical Shift
  • 2:40 Another Example of…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Just like shifting sands in a desert, a rhetorical shift can be hard to detect. In this lesson, you'll uncover just how these stylistic variations work and even get to pick out some examples from a very famous speech.

Definition of Rhetorical Shift

If you've ever driven a standard shift automobile, you know that doing so means you have to control the 'shifter,' the lever used to change gears in the transmission. You have to downshift to go up a mountain, shifting up when you're back on the straightaway. No matter the reason, as you shift gears, you can hear a difference in the sound of the engine. The same sort of thing happens with rhetorical shift, only the change you hear occurs in a speaker's or writer's style or tone and is often accompanied by a shift in focus.

Such shifts often occur between rhetorical modes, which represent in what manner or to what purpose language is used. There are many rhetorical modes; four of the most common are expository, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. Speakers and authors switch between these rhetorical modes for a variety of reasons -- for example, to spice up their presentations or to try to be as clear as possible so that audiences can follow their lines of reasoning.

Examples of Rhetorical Shift

Let's say a spokesperson from the CDC is explaining a disease outbreak and giving her assessment of it. She might interrupt her explanation (expository mode) to give a full description of the illness's symptoms and means of treatment. She hasn't really shifted focus -- she's still talking about this disease, but she's being more thoroughly descriptive of detection and prevention methods.

In another example, a pamphleteer attempting to persuade the public toward banning fracking might transition from his main argument into a narrative concerning the effects of the practice on a local farm. This is designed to appeal to our emotional faculties, rather than our rational ones. It also indicates a change in subject: from the dangers of fracking to what happened on the farm.

Sometimes, however, there is no shift in rhetorical mode or subject, but merely one in point of reference, meaning time. These types of rhetorical shifts are also often signaled by the appearance of a conjunction or other transition word. Variations of verb tense are also frequently seen as indications or results of rhetorical shifts.

For example, you might say to your friend, 'That was then, but this is now,' to indicate why your friend could perhaps get away with stealing candy at age five but not while in high school. In both parts of the sentence, the subject would be your friend's behavior; however, there has been a shift in time from when it was mildly endearing ('then,' when he was five) to when his actions could be seen as criminal ('now,' or the present day). Also, the two parts of the sentence are joined with a conjunction ('but').

Another Example of Rhetorical Shift

Most of us have probably heard or read the Gettysburg Address at some point, and some of us may have even had to recite it. Did you ever happen to notice, though, that there are a couple of important rhetorical shifts in this short speech?

The first shift occurs between the first two sentences:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

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