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What are Rhetorical Devices?

Rhetorical devices refer to any language that is used by a writer or speaker to achieve a certain purpose.

Image of person typing

The word rhetoric comes from the Greek word meaning “speaker”, and is used for the art of persuasive speaking or writing. Rhetorical devices refer to any language that is used by a writer or speaker to achieve a certain purpose. They are also called stylistic devices, persuasive devices, or simply rhetoric.

In writing, rhetorical devices are linguistic tools used to create a particular reaction or emotion from the reader. The main intent of using these devices in writing is to persuade the reader to think or feel a certain way, to strengthen the main argument, or to help the reader see something the writer wants them to see. Rhetoric can also assert a point of view, express important ideas in a creative manner, and help readers remember things. Knowledge of rhetorical devices can help a writer or speaker strengthen persuasive skills and assist with developing good writing techniques.

Common Rhetorical Devices

Rhetoric has not changed all that much over time. From the time of the ancient Greeks to modern times, rhetoric has appealed to human sensibilities using four different strategies:

  • Logos: This is an appeal to logic, where the writer tries to persuade using logic or reason. They may make use of statistics, facts, or even statements from authoritative figures.
  • Pathos: This is an appeal to emotion, where the writer persuades using emotions. They may invoke emotions like fear, pity, or empathy in readers.
  • Ethos: This is an appeal to ethics, where the writer tries to persuade the reader by attempting to convince them of their credibility or expertise within a subject.
  • Kairos: This is an appeal to time, where the writer tries to convince the reader that the time has come for a particular concept or idea.

Rhetorical devices are very common in language. As there are so many, it is helpful to break them down into categories. These categories include:

  • Rhetorical sound devices
  • Rhetorical word devices
  • Rhetorical sentence devices, and
  • Rhetoric in figures of speech.

Rhetoric Sound Devices

Onomatopoeia is a rhetorical sound device that refers to words representing sounds.

image of word art with wor boom.

Rhetorical sound devices are those devices used by the author to appeal to the audience’s auditory senses. They include:

  • Alliteration
  • Assonance
  • Consonance, and
  • Onomatopoeia.


Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in two or more words or syllables. Examples include “wet and windy day” or “soft, squishy pillow”. One example from literature is an old nursery rhyme:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”


Assonance is similar to alliteration but this time the writer uses similar vowel sounds in a row rather than consonants. One example is William Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils.

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze


Onomatopoeia refers to words representing sounds. Examples include sizzle, whack, and zap. Shel Silverstein’s poem Noise Day is a great example:

Chomp your food with a smack and a slurp,

Chew – chomp – hiccup – burp.


Cacophony refers to the use of a combination of words with loud, harsh sounds. An example is Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells:

In the startled ear of night

How they scream out their affright,

Too much horrified to speak,

They can only shriek, shriek

The word shriek seems to indicate that the bells are not melodious, but rather appear to have a high-pitched piercing sound.

Rhetorical Word Devices

Rhetorical word devices utilize word repetition to emphasize a point the author is trying to make. They include:

  • Anaphora
  • Epistrophe, and
  • Diacope.


Anaphora is the repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive sentences, phrases, or clauses. It is used to express emotion and as a means of emphasizing or affirming a point or idea. Examples include the phrases “Monkey see, monkey do” and “So many places, so little time”. J. D. Salinger uses anaphora in his novel Catcher in the Rye:

It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place.


Epistrophe is the opposite of anaphora; it is the repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive sentences, phrases, or clauses. For example, in Julius Caesar by Shakspeare, Brutus says:

Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.

Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.

Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended.

The importance of this phrase is emphasized by repeating it three times.


Diacope is a repetition of a phrase or word, broken up by other intervening words. One example is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To be or not to be that is the question”.

Rhetorical Sentence Devices

Rhetorical sentence devices are often used when writers want to emphasize relationships between ideas or even surprise readers.

They include:

  • Chiasmus
  • Aposiopesis, and
  • Inversion.


Chiasmus is when two or more parts of a sentence are reversed. The second half of the sentence is a mirror image of the first, but in reverse order. Examples include the quotes “Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you” and “You forget what you want to remember and remember what you want to forget”. In Shakespeare’s Othello, chiasmus is demonstrated in the phrase “Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves.” The verbs “dote” and “love” mirror each other, while the verbs “doubt” and “suspect” are also parallels.


Aposiopesis is when a sentence is broken off and left unfinished. Examples include: “I’m so angry I could…” or “If only…” An example of aposiopesis in literature is found in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: at one point in the story, Aunt Polly becomes so angry she cannot even finish her sentence, saying, “…If I get hold of you, I’ll…”.


Inversion is when the normal syntactic order of words or phrases in a sentence is reversed. Instead of saying “Yesterday, I saw a ship” the author would write “Yesterday a ship I saw,” or instead of saying “I was shocked,” they might say “Shocked, I was”. In Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, Whitman chooses to use inversion in the following passage:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

He could have said “Every atom that belongs to me belongs to you as well,” but his choice of wording takes on a much more poetic feeling.

Rhetorical Figures of Speech

Figures of speech, which are often used in writing, refer to words or phrases that have a separate meaning from their literal definition. Some of the most common figures of speech include:

  • Metaphors
  • Similes
  • Hyperbole
  • Personification
  • Paradox
  • Irony, and
  • Rhetorical questions.


Metaphors are figures of speech used to compare two things that are not alike. In Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, he uses a metaphor to compare the mind to a palace:

You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.


A simile is a type of metaphor. Similes are figures of speech that compare two unrelated things using the word like or as. Examples include phrases such as “They fought like cats and dogs” and The house is as clean as a whistle”. Poet Langston Hughes uses a simile in his work Harlem to compare dreams to raisins that dry up in the sun:

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?


Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which something is greatly exaggerated. Examples include statements like “The spider was as big as a house” and “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The Concord Hymn, he uses hyperbole to state the following:

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.


Personification is a figure of speech in which animate, human characteristics are given to inanimate objects or non-human creatures. Most children’s literature uses this device to include talking animals and animals who do human things. Other examples include sentences such as “The sun smiled at us” and “The waves danced in the wind”.

In Mary Oliver’s poem When Death Comes, death itself is given human traits using personification, and is shown taking coins from a purse:

When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn;

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse


A paradox is a figure of speech in which a situation, person, or thing combines contradictory features or qualities. Socrates once employed a paradox, saying, “I know one thing: that I know nothing”. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, he uses a paradox in the phrase All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.


Irony is a figure of speech in which there is a distinct difference between the surface meaning of something that is said and the underlying meaning. It can also be a difference between what might be expected to happen and what actually occurs. In O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, the wife character sells her hair to buy a watchband for her husband, while the husband sells his watch to buy combs for his wife’s hair. The outcome is not what either character expected.

Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical questions are questions that are asked for dramatic effect rather than to generate an answer. Examples include phrases like “How could I be so stupid” and “Can I do anything right today?” In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks a question, but she is not looking for an answer. Rather, she is just expressing her frustration that Romeo and his family are enemies of her family:

Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

Lesson Summary

Rhetorical devices are persuasive devices used by writers to achieve a certain purpose by persuading readers or listeners. There are four different rhetorical structures writers can use:

Lagos: appeal to reason

Pathos: appeal to emotion

Ethos: appeal to ethics

Kairos: appeal to time

As there are so many rhetorical devices, it is helpful to break them into four categories:

  • Rhetorical sound devices
  • Rhetorical word devices
  • Rhetorical sentence devices
  • Rhetorical figures of speech

Rhetorical sound devices include:

  • Alliteration: repetition of initial consonant sounds.
  • Assonance: repetition of vowel sounds.
  • Onomatopoeia: words that imitate sounds.
  • Cacophony: a combination of words with harsh, loud sounds.

Rhetorical word devices include:

  • Anaphora: repetition at the beginning of successive sentences, phrases, or clauses.
  • Epistrophe: repetition at the end of successive sentences, phrases, or clauses.
  • Diacope: repetition that is broken up by intervening words.

Rhetorical sentence devices include:

  • Chiasmus: parts of a sentence reversed.
  • Aposiopesis: a sentence broken off and left unfinished.
  • Inversion: reversal of the normal order of words.

Rhetorical figures of speech include:

  • Metaphors: comparing two unlike things.
  • Similes: comparing two unlike things using like or as.
  • Hyperbole: using great exaggeration.
  • Personification: giving animate qualities to inanimate things.
  • Paradox: combining contradictory features or qualities.
  • Irony: having a differing surface meaning and underlying meaning.
  • Rhetorical questions: asking questions for effects, not answers.
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