I. What is a Rhetorical Device?
A rhetorical device is any language that helps an author or speaker achieve a particular purpose (usually persuasion, since rhetoric is typically defined as the art of persuasion). But “rhetorical device” is an extremely broad term, and can include techniques for generating emotion, beauty, and spiritual significance as well as persuasion.
II. Examples of Rhetorical Devices
Hyperbole is a word- or sentence-level rhetorical device in which the author exaggerates a particular point for dramatic effect. For example:
Berlin was flattened during the bombing.
Because the city was not literally left flat, this is an exaggeration, and therefore hyperbole. But it still helps express the author’s main point, which is that the city of Berlin was very severely damaged.
Analogy is an important device in which the explains one thing by comparing it to another. At the sentence level, this might be as simple as saying “my cat’s fur is as white as a cloud.” But analogies can also function at much higher levels, including paragraphs and whole essays. For example, you might argue against war by drawing an extended analogy between the war on terrorism and World War 2. The success of the whole argument would depend entirely on how well you could persuade readers to accept the analogy!
The counterargument is the most important rhetorical device for college-level essays. A counterargument is a response to your own view – for example, if you’re arguing in favor of an idea, the counterargument is one that goes against that idea. In order to make your own argument perspective, you have to acknowledge, analyze, and answer these counterarguments.
III. Types of Rhetorical Devices
Because the term is so broad, there are countless ways to categorize rhetorical devices. For example, we might group them by function: e.g. persuasive devices, aesthetic devices (for creating beauty), or emotional devices. We could also group them according to the types of writing they belong to: e.g. poetry vs. essays.
The clearest way to categorize, though, is probably by scale: that is, what level of the writing does each device affect?
A. Word Level
Before we even get to full sentences, there are many rhetorical devices that operate at the level of individual words or groups of words. For example, the “metonym” is a rhetorical device in which a part stands in for the whole. For example, you might say that a ship is staffed with “twenty hands,” where each hand stands in for a full human being.
B. Sentence Level
Most rhetorical devices operate at the sentence level. They affect the meaning of a sentence, or a chunk of a sentence. For example, parallelism is an important rhetorical device in which different parts of a sentence have the same grammatical structure: “I am disgusted by your methods, but impressed with your results.” Notice how each underlined portion has the same pattern of adjective, preposition, pronoun, and plural noun.
C. Paragraph Level
Paragraph-level rhetorical techniques are especially important in essays, where they help to signal the structure of the argument. One example would be the topic sentence. Topic sentences open the paragraph and introduce its main idea, which is then supported and explained in the body of the paragraph. This is one of the most important techniques for structuring paragraphs effectively.
D. Structural Level
Some rhetorical devices cover the whole structure of a piece of writing. For example, the 5-paragraph essay is a rhetorical device that many people learn in high school for structuring their essays. The five paragraphs involve an introduction, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. This structure is rejected by many college-level writing instructors (and thus may be thought of as a bad rhetorical device), but it’s a rhetorical device nonetheless.
IV. The Importance of Rhetorical Devices
Rhetorical devices are just like artistic techniques – they become popular because they work. For as long as human beings have been using language, we’ve been trying to persuade one another and evoke emotions. Over time, we’ve developed a huge variety of different techniques for achieving these effects, and the sum total of all such techniques is encapsulated in our modern lists of rhetorical techniques. Each rhetorical device has a different purpose, a different history, and a different effect!
V. Examples of Rhetorical Devices in Literature
“If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear.” (Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
This famous quote, like many of Shakespeare’s lines, employs rhyme and meter, the two most basic rhetorical devices in verse. Although not all poetry has rhyme or meter, most classical poems do, and these rhetorical devices were probably important in helping poets memorize their works and sing them in front of audiences.
The dialogue form is an important structural device used in philosophy and religious scriptures for thousands of years. By putting different arguments in the mouths of different characters, philosophers can present their readers with a broader range of possible views, thus bringing more nuance into the conversation. This device also allows philosophers to make their own arguments more persuasive by responding to the various counterarguments presented by characters in the dialogue.
VI. Examples of Rhetorical Devices in Popular Culture
“Ah, yes – Zorro! And where is he now, padre? Your masked friend? He hasn’t shown himself in 20 years!” (Don Rafael, The Mask of Zorro)
A rhetorical question is a question that the audience is not supposed to answer – either because the answer is obvious, or because the speaker is about to answer it for them. It’s one of the most common techniques in oratory (speeches) and essays. In this case, Don Rafael is using a rhetorical question to undermine the crowd’s confidence in Zorro, their legendary defender.
“The microphone explodes, || shattering the mold.” (Rage Against the Machine, Bulls on Parade)
The two vertical lines (||) represent a caesura, or pause. This is a common rhetorical device in poetry, but is also found in music. In the recording of the song, there’s a beat’s pause in between “explodes” and “shattering.”
VII. Related Terms
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, either through speaking or writing. In ancient Greece, the concept of rhetoric was given huge cultural importance, and philosophers like Aristotle wrote whole books on rhetoric and the techniques of convincing others.
Today, people sometimes view rhetoric in a negative light (as when someone says of a politician’s speech that it was “all rhetoric and no substance”). But this is a shame, since we are very much in need of leaders who have mastered the art of persuasive reasoning and respectful argumentation. Rhetoric has fallen from its former place of honor, and perhaps this explains the lack of productive dialogue in our political arena, driven as it is by sound bites and personal attacks.
Figure of Speech
When a rhetorical device departs from literal truth, this is called a “figure of speech.” The most common figure of speech is a metaphor, in which one thing stands for another (e.g. “he unleashed a hurricane of criticism”). However, many rhetorical devices employ literal truth and therefore should not be thought of as figures of speech.