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21. Rhetoric

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By Paul Newall (2005)

In this essay we look at rhetoric, introducing the subject and some of its traditional divisions before providing a guide to common rhetorical figures and their uses. As we progress, we will see why rhetoric is of crucial importance in understanding philosophy and indeed any area of inquiry.

What is Rhetoric?

There have been many different definitions of rhetoric over its long history, which stretches back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans in particular. However, it is generally understood as the study of writing and speaking effectively; that is, to appreciate how language is at work when we write or speak it and employ any lessons learned in making our own writing and speaking better. What we mean by "better" is itself up for debate, of course, and it is here that the negative conception of rhetoric comes into play - that of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, where convincing others is seen as the hand-waving and sophistry that is used in place of reasoned argument.

This distinction between content and form - what is said and how we say it - was emphasised by Aristotle as logos and lexis, or what is communicated and how respectively. Ultimately, though, this distinction proved untenable, based on a view of language as little more than the means by which we share our thoughts and failing to take into account the inseparability of ideas and the language used to express them. Indeed, how we say things is precisely the way in which we ensure that our desired meaning has been transmitted to others, so there can be no passing on of ideas without also taking into account lexis.

The Divisions of Rhetoric

Rhetoric has been studied for very many years as a result of its crucial importance, and a number of divisions have been made. The first was a tripartite distinction between the appeals that are possible when speaking or writing, namely:

  • Logos, or the appeal to reason;
  • Pathos, or the appeal to emotion; and
  • Ethos, or the appeal to character.

Notice that here we can immediately see why the complaint that an argument is "mere rhetoric" is misguided: an argument can contain more or less reasoning and a lot or little emotive language, but both are rhetoric intended to convince. For ethos, Aristotle considered an appeal to character to be any attempt on the part of the speaker or writer to establish his or her knowledge of the subject under discussion and their benevolence towards the audience, both providing credibility for what would follow.

This brings us to the next division, also three-way, of rhetoric in the larger sense. We distinguish between:

  • Kairos, or the occasions for speech;
  • Audience, or who will hear or read it; and
  • Decorum, or fitting words and subject together.

Kairos includes considerations like the contexts for a speech or piece of writing, while audience looks at where a discourse may take place. Traditionally oratory was split again into three: judicial (or forensic), deliberative (or legislative) and epideictic (or ceremonial). Different requirements like these would and do occasion different rhetorical approaches. Decorum, lastly, deals with making appropriate use of rhetoric, depending on both kairos and audience.

There were also five canons of rhetoric:

  • Invention, or coming up with something to say in the first place;
  • Arrangement, or the order of a discourse;
  • Style, or how it is said;
  • Memory, or how the orator recalls information; and
  • Delivery, or the way in which the discourse in performed.

Some of these are straightforward but others are quite subtle. Arrangement, for example, involved the study of how to put together a speech of piece of writing. Should we start with the conclusion or only give it at the close? Do we provide counterarguments separately or include them in the main body of our own argument? Do we need to set the scene, as it were, or should the discussion be formal and move straight to the meat of it? And so on. Likewise memory included not just the powers of recollection of the speaker (after all, do we use notes or try to remember all the content, which often looks much more impressive?), but also estimates of how much the audience would be able to keep in mind. Is it necessary to point listeners to remarks made earlier, for instance, or can we assume they would recall them unaided? When in the discourse should reminders be placed? And so on again. Lastly, the delivery of a speech has a great deal to do with its reception, as anyone familiar with comedians will know. Does a situation call for a serious approach, or would some jokes be welcome? Will a dead-pan voice work or should stress and emphasis be placed on words, phrases and particular ideas? If so, which and when?

All these things have their role to play in speaking and writing, hence the importance of the study and rhetoric. For our purposes, rhetoric is involved in philosophical arguments and discussion just as it is inevitable in all other areas, as we said. With that in mind, we can now analyse specific rhetorical devices that have occurred often enough that their use and effect is well understood.

A Guide to Rhetorical Devices

In no particular order, the following guide gives copious instances of rhetorical devices at work and attempts to explain both how they work and why we should be interested. By the end we should have increased our ability to spot them in the speech or writing or others and hence determine how well they have be employed, as well as learning how to use them ourselves.


We tend to think of expletives as synonymous with swear words but the latter are just one example of this rhetorical device. An expletive is a word or short phrase that we use to lend emphasis to words on either side of it. Compare these two sentences, for example:

  • What we find is that the new tax law is fundamentally unjust.
  • What we find, then, is that the new tax law is fundamentally unjust.

Both impart the same information but notice that the expletive in the second (the word "then") signals to the reader that a summation of prior discussion is coming, or that a conclusion is to be given. The contrast is even more apparent if we speak them aloud: in the second, again, the expletive provides the emphasis and actually forces us to slow down as we say the words, providing a cue for any listener to note that the important point has been reached.

Sometimes an expletive can occur at the start of a sentence:

  • In brief, you should be more careful.

On other occasions, although less often, it can be placed at the end:

  • The result was to be expected, of course.

In both the expletive adds a power to the statements that would otherwise be lacking (to test this, try repeating them aloud as before). The apparently superfluous "of course" in the second makes the statement emphatic and suggests to the listener or reader that it was so straightforward as to hardly be worth investigating, while the first lets us know that a précis is to follow.

Expletives are typically used in printed dialogue so often that we barely notice:

  • "What I meant", he said, "was that you should do something about it."

If we experiment with the placement of the expletive we can see how easy it is to ruin the effect, or even make the line difficult to read at all:

  • "What I meant was that", he said, "you should do something about it."
  • "What I", he said, "meant was that you should do something about it."
  • "What I meant was that you should", he said, "do something about it."

And so on. Once we understand how expletives work and how to use them, we can begin to spot them everywhere - in your humble narrator's musings, for example. We should expect to find them whenever a writer is trying to lead us through a chain of reasoning, say, but perhaps be more wary when we observe them in a political speech.

Similes, Analogies and Metaphors

One of the most familiar devices in rhetoric, a simile involves comparing two things that share a resemblance in at least one way - usually in vividly descriptive terms:

  • Their passing cut through the defence like a rapier.
  • Her smile was like sunshine, warming me to the core.
  • He was as silent as a church mouse.
  • As the rock stands fast, so was his will resolved.

There are so many examples of similes that it would be impossible to list them all here, but they often involve words such as "like", "as" or "does", and their negations. The danger is using them is that sometimes the comparison may not be close enough or accurate at all:

  • We need academic consensus like the very air we breathe.
  • As the crusaders were shackled and bound, so are the guardians of the freedom of speech today.

Emotive similes can have a considerable effect but overdoing them can result in incredulity, especially when images of warfare or a struggle against oppression are invoked. They are closely related to analogies (and indeed these may be employed together), which also invite a comparison but use it to explain a difficult concept or idea by reference to a simpler one:

  • The man who keeps silent in the face of tyranny is as guilty as him who notices a fire and fails to raise the alarm.

The difficulty to be avoided, however, is offering false analogies, which can be fallacious. Nevertheless, a speaker or writing hoping to sway opinion may resort to these and hence the question we must ask ourselves is: are the two (or more) things compared actually analogous?

When instead we believe that two situations are so close as to be identical, we can appeal to metaphors:

  • The lack of subtlety is this discussion is killing all possibility of compromise.
  • This debate is a war and we must use all weapons at our disposal.
  • Nature is beautiful to behold but seldom gives up her secrets easily. She must be wooed and approached with caution and reverence.

Like similes and analogies, metaphors are very common but the choice of terms has important consequences for how they will be understood by listeners or readers. For example, consider the effect of these alternatives:

  • This silly idea is becoming more popular.
  • This silly idea is starting to infect public opinion.
  • This silly idea has become an infestation.
  • This silly idea is a cancer on our society.

The implications for action here differ in strength and the emotive appeal of describing ideas as diseases is one that many writers have relied upon. However, the language used often has far more to do with the opinions of the author than the reality of the situation. Thus while selecting an appropriate metaphor (or analogy or simile) requires careful consideration, we also need to ask whether those chosen by others are accurate to their purpose or not.

Other forms of metaphor include metonymy and personification. The first involves a metaphor where the comparison is with something associated with but not identical to the target of discussion:

  • The crown brought the prosecution against her.
  • The state cares little for my concerns.

Plainly no prosecutions are brought against people by the kind of crown a monarch would wear; instead "the crown" is understood it its wider role as synonymous with the workings of government. Similarly, we appreciate that "the state" is not really a person who does or does not care but a metaphor for what we mean.

Personification, on the other hand, is where we ascribe human characteristics to objects or situations (or even animals, which is typically called anthropomorphism):

  • The legislation is fighting me on this issue.
  • This steak is still kicking.
  • That tackle was unforgiving.
  • I've known more trustworthy cats than people, alas.
  • Truth is no respecter of hopes.
  • Even the very air around me cried out in protest.

Over doing this can result in strained descriptions, of course, but personification allows us to recast a potentially difficult idea in human terms and hence grasp it more easily. Even though it may make no sense in actuality to refer to the sea as a fickle master, say, those with minimal experience of maritime conditions will easily understand what is meant.


Sometimes we overstate things for rhetorical effect:

  • There were millions of people at the bus stop today.
  • It took me forever to finish the essay.
  • This political measure will mean the end of civilisation as we know it.

This intentional exaggeration is obviously not to be taken literally and is usually restricted in scope to one aspect of the sentence. Hyperbole is easily the most common rhetorical figure but can lose its impact if overdone. In particular, too much hyperbole can lead to readers or listeners not taking a piece seriously at all.


The use of understatement is something that satirists have a mastery of, but as a rhetorical device we can use it to try to persuade someone by rewording a sentence in less offensive terms. For example, suppose we believe a person's idea to be in error and wish to point this out:

  • I think there may be some additional factors that you may not have accounted for.
  • Your analysis is far too simplistic.
  • No one will take such an idiotic theory seriously.

There are many other alternatives we could use, but consider that if we want to convince the person that they are mistaken then we need to pitch our objections accordingly. Perhaps the idea really is idiotic in our opinion and we wonder if the proponent is actually bipedal or has grazed his or her knuckles, but is saying as much likely to incline them to change their opinion? For the second suggestion, it may depend on who we are talking to: a friend, say, may welcome the criticism but a stranger may not appreciate his or her thought being called simplistic, even if it is. Some people might still take offence at the first version, but the determining influences include what we want to achieve and whom we are talking to or writing for. How likely is a person to listen to our critique if they suspect we are talking down to them or dismissing them?

Sadly there are others who like to indulge in invective, particularly since the advent of the Internet and the risk-free nature of much commentary (that is, we can say just about anything without fear of actual retaliation), and write for a specific audience of those who apparently enjoy the feeling of superiority that comes from joining a group that insults another for whatever reasons. Although the term rhetoric is often applied to such behaviour, in the negative sense we discussed above, this is more a psychological issue than a philosophical one.


A litote is an understatement formed by the denial of an opposite. This sounds confusing but is actually quite straightforward and a common rhetorical device. For example:

  • Performances like that from the All Blacks are not uncommon.

Here "not uncommon" denies "uncommon" and therefore implies the opposite - "common". However, compare this with the plainer version:

  • Performances like that from the All Blacks are common.

Although this imparts the same information, there is no understatement - it just reports the situation, and no more. On the other hand, the litote in the first suggests that more could be said and that by describing the performances as "common" we were actually understating the matter somewhat.


The use of questions can take several forms, with different effects depending on what the writer or speaker wishes to achieve. Consider this example:

  • What of the possibility that social factors are to blame for the collapse? This criticism is misguided because...

Here a question is asked and then answered, which can have several benefits: on the one hand, it allows us to raise issues that the reader or listener may have in mind - anticipating objections, for instance; on the other, we can maintain interest in the discussion and keep the attention of readers and/or listeners with well-placed queries. This latter is a technique teachers often use, since by posing a question and pausing before nominating someone to answer, all the students have to think about it in case they are the one eventually asked. This device is called hypophora.

Some other possible uses include the following:

  • How can we address the economic difficulties in which we find ourselves? Firstly, we can look to...
  • What are the consequences of such an approach to history? There are several, of which the most important is...

In the first hypophora is used to change the scope or direction of the discussion, while in the second it allows the setting out of implications that the reader or listener may not have considered or understood.

A question that is asked but deliberately does not require an answer is called rhetorical (or erotesis). It can be used to state the obvious, as it were:

  • What kind of person would bet against the sun rising tomorrow, though?

Alternatively, it can be employed to create a favourable or unfavourable impression of an idea or argument:

  • This kind of thinking requires that we give up our sovereignty. Is that what we want?

In examples like this the rhetorical question can help to gloss over an implication (giving up sovereignty, in this case) that may not follow; moving from a questionable claim to demanding a response ("is that what we want?") can put the reader or listener on the back foot, requiring that they deny a conclusion rather than argue that the reasoning to get to it was unsound.

Another possibility is that a rhetorical question needs no answer because the preceding discussion has already covered it:

  • You know that a vote for my opponent would cost you your job and that you cannot afford to be out of work. Will you support him, then?

A potential problem with instances such as this, which is common in political debates, is that they can (deliberately or otherwise) simplify matters in an attempt to force the reader or listener to act in a specific way. For example:

  • Do you really want pseudoscience taught in science classes? Do you not care about our children's education at all? Do you want religion in the schools?

This kind of rhetorical device thus allows us to link a series of complex issues via loaded questions. Instead of inviting debate on what constitutes pseudoscience, the ends to which education should aim or state intervention in schooling, potential discussion is reduced to yes/no and either/or false dilemmas that strip away any subtlety. These tactics are increasingly common, unfortunately, but can be noted easily enough with practice.

Lastly, procatalepsis is when questions are asked and answered by the writer or speaker, usually by anticipating objections:

  • It is typically suggested that this team will lack the strength in midfield to cope with the opposition, but this neglects the experience gained in the recent tour against...
  • It is often thought that the only way to address poverty is via governmental initiatives. However, I would advocate a greater role for...

Possible counterarguments can be presented in their strongest form or as straw men; usually this depends on how charitable the writer or speaker is being to the ideas he or she is trying to improve on, and plainly a meaningful critique relies upon charity far more than a swift and flawed description offered just for knocking down.

Asyndetons and Polysyndetons

Consider the following sentence:

  • The All Blacks have power, grace, speed, strength.

Reading it, we might expect it to have the ending "speed and strength", but this conjunction ("and") is missing. It has the effect of making it seem that the list could have gone on. Another might be as follows:

  • I wasted my afternoon reading, writing, thinking, dreaming.

In like fashion, it almost forces us to skip through the sentence in expectation of more to come. These are examples of asyndetons, when conjunctions are left out to achieve this sense of diversity, or even add emphasis by what seems like an afterthought:

  • Spencer was a wizard, a master.
  • Spencer was a wizard and a master.

Of these two, the first conjures up (excuse the pun) an image of the writer's thought process, as though he or she is struggling to describe Spencer and settles on "wizard" before rethinking at the last moment and amplifying with "master".

The opposite of asyndetons are polysyndetons. This time instead of leaving out conjunctions they are all put in:

  • The All Blacks have power and grace and speed and strength.

Now the rhetorical effect is one of trying to put into a few words something that is far bigger and too complex to capture in a single sentence. The best place to look for examples of polysyndetons is the Bible, especially the King James version, but we can use it whenever trying to create the impression of describing or explaining something while barely scratching the surface.

Parallelism and Chiasmus

Consider the following sentence:

  • When the day is over and the deal is done, let me know.

Here we have a balanced structure, where the first part ("day is over") is paralleled by the second ("deal is done"). This is called parallelism and helps to show a reader or listener that the parts of a sentence have equal import. It can be used particularly to aid with longer, more complicated statements. For example:

  • Due to the speed of their passing; because of the lines of their running; owing to the pace of their attacks; and thanks to the structure of their defence, the All Blacks played beautifully again.

Here the similarity between the way each of the reasons is given allows us to recognise that they are parts of a list and keep a grip on where the sentence is going, even though it is long (and could be still longer).

The converse is chiasmus, sometimes called reverse parallelism. Instead of the parallel structure ("day over" and "deal done"), the latter is reversed:

  • It was a long day but the night was short.

The expected parallel ("long day" and "short night") is altered, with the effect that the emphasis is different. Compare:

  • It was a long day but a short night.

In the former it seems as though a specific contrast is being made, pointing to some significance about the night, while the latter reads rather flat. Chiasmus can be made more complex, involving many layers, and the question of when to use it in place of parallelism is often one of judging how a sentence feels or sounds.


Sometimes a writer or speaker will deliberately mention something while claiming not to:

  • Luckily we need not discuss my opponent's marital infidelities when evaluating his claim to hold the moral high ground.
  • I would call you a liar and a cheat if you weren't my best friend.

The allusions or references here are called apophasis (or sometimes occupatio) and involve bringing up an issue (usually a damaging one) while maintaining a pretence of ignoring it, with considerable rhetorical effect. We can notice immediately that the first instance is ad hominem tu quoque while both are intentionally disingenuous. Compare these examples:

  • I do not mean to imply that a policy of aggressive intervention should be pursued; rather, I advocate...
  • I'm sure I don't need to remind you, madam, that there is no smoking allowed on this aircraft.

Here the purpose is not to cast aspersions but to clarify: in the former, to explain exactly what is being argued; and in the latter, to gently call attention to a transgression without causing too much embarrassment. Both sets of examples are quite easy to spot but instances like the earlier pair are typically found in satires and are often fallacious.


Consider these sentences:

  • Great teams need loyal players, which is why ours is always struggling.
  • Since she lost the case, she must have been guilty.
  • There are only two options available to us and we have seen that the first failed.

An enthymeme is an informal syllogism in which one of the premises or the conclusion is missing. In the above examples, the major and minor premises and conclusion respectively are left out. Enthymemes are used when the omissions are assumed to be both understood and accepted by the reader or listener, in which case they read as or sound gently understated when compared to a formal syllogism. When a missing premise is not agreed, however, they become unsound; or when the absent conclusion does not follow they turn into non sequiturs. When used skilfully is the wrong way (or right, depending on your perspective), they enable slight of hand in argument because faulty premises can be concealed behind enthymemes - without detection, too, if delivered quickly.


If we want to clarify or expand upon a statement, particularly to widen its scope, we can use metanoia (also called correctio):

  • Carter is already the best five-eighth of the modern era - no, of all time.
  • Your proposal will effect everyone is this area, or even the entire region.
  • You fail to realise the impact of these measures - or at least you have not considered the consequences in enough depth.

The additional information can read or sound like an afterthought or as part of the discussion depending on how this device is used. It may seem quite close to the slippery slope fallacy, but only the second case above is a possibility. When the speaker or writer seems to urge us into concluding more than is actually implied, or else moves from a moderate to a bold claim using metanoia, then we should be wary of this error in reasoning.


A rhetorical device used to express uncertainty or irrelevance is aporia:

  • I am not convinced that the argument for gun ownership has yet been made in a credible form, but what is clear is that...
  • I have not been able to come to a decision about the new policy, since there seem to be good arguments both for and against it.
  • While I accept that my opponent has offered excellent criticisms of this proposal, this has no bearing on my own suggestions for...

As we can see from these examples, typically the doubt indicated is of a reserved form and can be employed to move a dialogue forward by admitting indecision or steering clear of areas with no bearing on it.


When writing or speech involves moving away from the expected word ordering, we say that hyperbatons are used. For example, delayed epithets involve placing an adjective after the noun it is describing:

  • His were motives indefinable.

Not all possibilities sound "right", though, and hence delayed epithets are a tricky device to use. Compare:

  • That was a movie good.

This is a matter of judgement: there is no difference between the two other than that one "works" while the other does not.

Another form of epithet is the divided, in which two adjectives are separated by the noun they describe:

  • It was a bloody war and brutal.
  • It needs a warmer month, less chilly.

Once again, this hyperbatonic style is a matter of feeling that we have the correct usage, since if overdone it can seem false, affected or needlessly poetic.

The last instance is parenthesis, in which another phrase or term is inserted parenthetically (hence the name) into a sentence:

  • My main concern - and this, at last, is the crux of the matter - is that this proposal does away with the final vestiges of personal responsibility.
  • There are times (this may be one of them) when excuses are just not enough.

These devices are, again, ones used extensively by your humble narrator. Notice, however, that there is a slight difference between the examples: the parentheses (or brackets) are slightly less pronounced as an interruption than the dashes. The latter do violence, as it were, to the flow of the discussion, halting it abruptly to make another, perhaps more important point, while the brackets suffice for short asides. The effect of either is even more dynamic and arresting in speech, since they give the impression of spontaneity - suddenly coming up with a new idea or objection that cannot wait. Often the speaker has actually been working towards such a statement but uses parenthesis to introduce it more dramatically.

Concluding Remarks

In summary, then, there is no such thing as "too much rhetoric". We can try to criticise a speaker or writer for including too much pathos at the expense of logos, or vice versa, but the effectiveness of a discourse depends on many other things such as location, audience and style. If a person fails to be convinced by our arguments, it is altogether too quick to assume them to be a textbook example of idiocy on rollerblades; instead, we may have misjudged any number of rhetorical aspects, including focusing too much on reasoning and not taking sufficient account of the many other facets of rhetoric. By familiarising ourselves with the many rhetorical devices we can come to understand why some speeches or pieces of writing persuade while others do not, as well as to notice when others try to use these same devices to influence us.

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