For many, public speaking is one of the most terrifying things imaginable. Thankfully, we can rely on the many, many rhetorical devices to give us a helping hand.
What are rhetorical devices?
A rhetorical device is typically defined as a technique or word construction that a speaker or writer uses to win an audience to their side, either while trying to persuade them to do something or trying to win an argument.
As you are about to see, the majority of rhetorical devices have names that come from Greek or Latin. While the concept of public speaking developed early around the world, much of what we know about the art of public speaking comes to English speakers from the ancient Greeks. The Greeks cultivated the art of rhetoric and many great philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, thoroughly studied it. The ancient Romans greatly valued rhetoric as well and they continued to build on the Greek rhetorical traditions that came before them.
What worked for the ancient Greeks and Romans still works wonders today. Rhetorical devices are effective tools that any writer or speaker can use to make their words more impactful to an audience. Rhetorical devices make speeches more persuasive, writing more memorable, and are just what you need if you are trying to really take advantage of ethos, pathos, and logos.
Rhetorical devices vs. literary devices
Literary and rhetorical devices are sometimes discussed separately, but it’s important to note the relationship and occasional overlap between the two. A literary device is an element, like a metaphor, imagery, and others, that draws us into a story. Have you ever been so wrapped up in a story, book, song, or poem, that you just couldn’t walk away from it? If so, there’s a good chance the writer has mastered the art of using literary devices.
To compare, rhetorical devices are often described as those elements that are incorporated intentionally to invoke responses in the reader, as well as influence the tone of a work.
Often, rhetorical devices emphasize a specific language pattern, word, sentence structure, or rhyming pattern. They include formative techniques, like repetition or hyperbole, that accentuate certain elements of a work for the purpose of getting the reader’s attention, persuading them, or drawing out an emotional response. It is often said rhetorical devices are used to elicit a certain emotion via persuasion, whereas literary devices may be primarily used to enhance storytelling.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular, effective, and interesting rhetorical devices that turn our words into award-winning speeches and writing.
List of 41 top rhetorical devices
Example: He was a wolf among sheep.
A hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration.
Example: The plate exploded into a million pieces.
Alliteration is repeating the same or similar sounds at the beginning of words.
Example: She sells seashells by the sea shore.
An analogy is a comparison between two similar things, typically using figurative language. Metaphors and similes—more on them later—are usually considered to be types of analogies. Sometimes, analogies are considered to be a unique device that is a comparison that explains itself; basically, a complex metaphor or long simile.
Example: Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you are going to get.
An onomatopoeia is a word that imitates the sound it refers to.
Example: The thunder boomed and the lightning crashed.
Allusion is the act of casually referencing something, usually a work of popular culture.
Example: Finishing his memoir was his white whale.
Oxymoron is a figure of speech that uses two opposite words together.
Example: The treaty led to a violent peace.
Satire is using humor to criticize public figures.
Example: When Senator Jackson said “numbers don’t lie,” he forgot that his first name wasn’t “Numbers.”
Example: Youth is wasted on the young.
A simile is a comparison in which something is said to figuratively be like something else.
Example: It was as hot as a desert this morning.
Example: Ashley said it was a beautiful day while drying off from the drenching rain. (Ashley ironically referred to poor weather as “beautiful.”)
Personification is the act of giving human elements to non-human things.
Example: The beautiful valley spread its arms out and embraced us.
An anecdote is a brief story about something that happened to the speaker, usually something funny or interesting.
Example: Five years ago, I went to the store and met some clowns. Those clowns gave me the advice I am sharing with you now.
Example: The baseball struck him in a sensitive area.
Connotation is using words to suggest a social or emotional meaning rather than a literal one.
Example: This is a house, but I want a home.
Example: We must put an end to this peculiar institution. (“Peculiar institution” is a euphemism for slavery.)
In rhetoric, apostrophe occurs when a writer or speaker directly addresses an absent person, a concept, or an inanimate object.
Example: You have made a fool out of me for the last time, washing machine!
Antithesis is using parallel sentences or clauses to make a contrast.
Example: No pain, no gain.
Sarcasm is using irony to mock something or to show contempt.
Example: Oh, yeah, he is a great guy. A great guy who took the last slice of pizza.
Consonance is a repetition of consonants or consonant sounds.
Example: Mike likes Ike’s bike.
21. rhetorical question
A rhetorical question is a question that isn’t intended to be answered. The point of asking the question is to make an audience think or to cause an emotional reaction.
Example: Can we really know what our place in the universe is? We have asked ourselves this question for millennia.
An epithet is a nickname or descriptive term used to refer to someone.
Example: You need to listen to me and not Clueless Kevin over there.
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the start of phrases, clauses, or sentences.
Example: I came, I saw, I conquered.
In rhetoric, climax is ordering words so that they build up in intensity.
Example: Look at the sky! It’s a bird! A plane! Superman!
Cacophony is the act of purposefully using harsh sounds.
Example: The gnashing of teeth and screeching of bats kept me awake.
Assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sound with different consonants.
Example: She and Lee see the bees in the tree.
A person is making a pun when they humorously use words with multiple meanings or words with similar sounds to create wordplay.
Example: The farmer tried to get his cows to get along, but they insisted on having a beef with each other.
Parallelism is using grammatically similar phrases or sentences together.
Example: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
An aphorism is a short sentence that presents truth or opinion, usually in a witty or clever manner.
Example: A penny saved is a penny earned.
Synecdoche is when a part of something is used to refer to a whole.
Example: The commander had an army of 10,000 swords. (The people holding the swords were there, too.)
Parody is an imitation of something with the intent to poke fun at it.
Example: If Edgar Allen Poe had written this speech, it might have opened with “Here we are, weak and weary, gathered on a Monday dreary.”
A colloquialism is an instance of informal language or a local expression. The act of using such language is also called colloquialism.
Example: Here in Philly, we love to eat hoagies and all kinds of tasty jawns.
Understatement is using language to intentionally lessen a major thing or event.
Example: The erupting volcano was a little problem for the neighboring city.
Syllogism is an argument based on deductive reasoning that uses generalizations to reach specific conclusions. Usually, a syllogism follows the format of “A is B. B is C. So, A is C.”
Example: Dogs are mammals. Biscuit is a dog. Therefore, Biscuit is a mammal.
An eponym can refer to “a word based on or derived from a person’s name,” such as the Gallup poll, named after statistician G.H. Gallup, or Reagonomics (a combination of the last name Reagan and economics). As a rhetorical device, an eponym can be an allusion to a famous person.
Example: He is the LeBron James of chess.
Metonymy is when the name of something is replaced with something related to it.
Example: He loved music from the cradle (birth) to the grave (death).
In rhetoric, parenthesis is an interruption used for clarity.
Example: The audience, or at least the paying members of the audience, enjoyed the show.
In rhetoric, an expletive is an interrupting word or phrase used for emphasis.
Example: The eggs were not, in any sense of the word, delicious.
In rhetoric, metanoia refers to any instance of self-correction. Metanoia can involve things like retracting a previous statement to replace it with a new one or amplifying a previous statement by using stronger language.
Example: We’ll work on it on Sunday. No, let’s make that Monday—it’s the weekend after, all!
Chiasmus is reversing the grammatical order in two otherwise parallel phrases or sentences.
Example: Dog owners own dogs and cats own cat owners.
Asyndeton is the removal of conjunctions from a sentence.
Example: Get in, cause a distraction, get out.
Take the quiz
Are you ready to write with these rhetorical devices? You can review them using our Rhetorical Devices Word List, where you can practice with flashcards and practice quizzes. And when it’s time, fit in this quiz to quickly distinguish which terms you now know before you apply them to your next project.