Monday, March 31, 2014

What's a Rhetorical Device?

By Karen Albright Lin

We hear the term, but do we really understand what a rhetorical device is and what types exist? There are some that are so obscure, so archaic, they are rarely found in today’s writing. But it is shocking how many we do use without realizing it. They are our friends, artistic techniques and rules for using language. Think metaphors, backloading, analogies, alliteration, and paraphrasing. We use them because they have great impact on our writing. They help to persuade or please. They turn mundane writing into interesting writing, more elegant writing.

When I studied up on them, I noticed they fell into three categories with a convenient acronym of WIG.

W – order and use of Words or phrases
I – way of presenting an Idea
G Grammar or punctuation


An example of a W device would be ANAPHORA. It is a repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. It helps emphasize a thought or feeling. She couldn’t stop dreaming. She couldn’t stop wandering. She couldn’t stop hesitating before making decisions.

One W device most of us are familiar with is ALLITERATION, repeated initial sounds. Sherry was shipped to shore. Alliteration is an artful aid in arrangement.

One of my favorite I rhetorical devices is APOPHASIS. It is the mention of something in disclaiming intention of mentioning it, essentially pretending to deny what is really affirmed. "I don't want to say anything bad about another attorney, especially one who's a useless drunk."

Another I:  we PARAPHRASE, often euphemistically. This is a restatement of text or a passage in another form or using other words, often to clarify meaning. If your character’s enemy has died, he “is no more,” he’s “gone to meet his maker,” or as John Cleese would say, “his metabolic processes are now history.”


ASYNDETON is a G technique in which you omit words or phrases between items in a list. An example would be omitting the word “and.” His snake-bit arm was swelling, shaking, growing red.

Another G, POLYSYNDETON, uses a conjunction (usually AND or OR) between a series of words in a list of three or more. It adds rhythm and a sense of compressed time. The secretary brought me coffee and faxes and mail and women and air freshener.

These are only six of upwards of 100 rhetorical devices I’ve found in my research. We don’t want to overuse any one technique, but if we keep as many of them as possible in our bags of tricks, we will have vivid, luxurious, and engaging prose.   

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. I got so much out of this post. I haven't always been sure of what a "rhetorical device" was, although familiar with the term. But I loved the way Karen spelled out the various techniques. I've bookmarked this post.

    1. So glad it was helpful to you Elizabeth! Some mighty beautiful writing can come out of judicial use of many of these devices. I've got a list of 100, some archaic but just as interesting. Just can't imagine PPW wanting that many installments posted here. :)

  2. Great blog and you're right. We use these all the time and don't even think about. Now I have names for them. :)

    1. Yes indeed, Sharla. Some of the more archaic ones are totally cool too...we should start to use them again. I may, sometime in the future post about more of them.


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