20 Rhetorical Devices High School Students Should Know
When you hear the term “rhetorical devices,” perhaps you picture old, bearded men sitting around a pile of grapes, debating love and democracy. Maybe the Roman orator Cicero comes to mind. I’m guessing you don’t think of your favorite rapper, though songwriters use rhetorical devices too. In fact, you yourself have certainly employed several already today.
While rhetoric is the art of speaking and writing well, rhetorical devices are language tools—tools made up of language, that operate on language. Some rhetorical devices help articulate a thought coherently and cleverly. Others act more as decoration—stylish accessories that grab the reader’s or listener’s attention. Ultimately, we employ rhetorical devices to formulate a strong argument and deliver a persuasive, eloquent message.
Where Will You Find Rhetorical Devices?
Rhetorical devices run rampant all around us. Once you recognize them, you’ll find them in political campaign speeches, motivational speeches, throwaway comments, clichés, corporate literature, old-fashioned literature, poetry, song lyrics, advertising, and more.
AP Lang Rhetorical Devices
A quick note here on rhetorical devices found in forms of art: these rhetorical devices often have some crossover with literary devices. Yet not all literary devices are rhetorical devices. The key difference lies in the fact that rhetorical devices work to convince the receiver about something, while literary devices work to create an aesthetic effect.
So, which devices should you use in AP Lang? Both, actually. Rhetorical devices will elevate any academic paper, and particularily argumentative and analytical papers. For that reason, you can even apply them to scientific papers. On the other hand, literary devices will work best in more creative papers—descriptive and narrative essays.
Why Use Rhetorical Devices?
Knowing how to harness rhetorical devices will assist you when writing a thesis paper or drafting an oral presentation. But if you still prefer your innocence, back when you used rhetorical devices spontaneously and inadvertently, read ahead. They’ll also come in handy in debates, whether you’re facing down the captain of your rival debate team or convincing your parents to let you go camping.
Changing someone’s mind depends on ideas. Ideas, in turn, operate through the coding of words and how they compute in the brain. Thus, mastering the ways that words—and specifically rhetorical devices—work will thus give you a boost when asserting your ideas. Heck, they may even work to change your own mind.
20 Rhetorical Devices Examples that High Schoolers Should Know
The following rhetorical devices appear as a single word, a sentence, a paragraph, part of a verse, or even as several pages. You’ll learn to recognize them either by their appearance or by the effect they create.
Rhetorical Devices Examples 1-5
Anaphora involves a repeated word or expression occurring at the beginning of each successive phrase, clause, sentence, or verse. Winston Churchill employed anaphora in his June 4, 1940 speech when speaking to the House of Commons about Nazi resistance:
“…we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Churchill’s repetition creates a drumroll effect, building to an emotional crescendo. His use of anaphora worked as a rallying cry for England. Consider using Anaphora when you want to say something memorable and moving.
Antanaclasis involves the repetition of a word within a phrase or sentence in which the second occurrence utilizes a different or contrary meaning from the first. Take this advertisement slogan by the cat food brand Felix:
“Cats like Felix like Felix.” The first time the word Felix appears, it refers to the cat, the brand’s mascot.
The second time it appears, it refers to the food brand itself. Clever, right? Consider using antanaclasis when you want to make a point that will stick. The juxtaposition of the repeated word’s various meanings will create the impression that you know your subject so well that you can riff on it.
Antanagoge juxtaposes a negative point next to a positive point, in an attempt to refute or counterbalance the negative point. For example, the child of military parents might say:
“I had to change schools every two years, but I got to live in a lot of cool places.”
In an AP Lang paper, you’ll want to anticipate counterarguments that weaken your thesis. Then, use antanagoge to address and undermine those counterarguments to better argue your point.
Apophasis means the raising of an issue by claiming not to mention. Take this excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield speech made in 1858:
“He then quotes, or attempts to quote, from my speech. I will not say that he willfully misquotes, but he does fail to quote accurately.”
Through apophasis, Lincoln explicitly suggests an idea by phrasing it in the negative. This hedging invites the curious listener to wonder if indeed Lincoln’s opponent willfully misquotes. Apophasis hinges on suspicion, inviting the listener to imagine what you imply. While planting an idea, it keeps the idea-planter safely beyond the bounds of accusation.
Asterismos uses a word or phrase to draw attention to the thing that follows. Just look at Matthew’s words from the New Testament (10:16):
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…”
You’ll find asterismos in poetry, but also in casual speak—even in rap music. Just look at the first line in Drake’s song “Nonstop”: “Look, I just flipped the switch.”
In formal writing, asterismos requires a light touch. Employing an occasional asterismos can add more nuance and variety to your writing, and sometimes creates a transition between ideas.
Rhetorical Devices Examples 6-10
Chiasmus relies on an inverted relationship between the syntactic elements of parallel phrases. A simpler way of saying this is that the grammatical structure could be seen as two parts, reversed.
If you’ve ever been scrolling on your phone when your mom walks by, only to be lightly berated with, “Working hard, or hardly working?” then you’re acquainted with chiasmus.
Chiasmus operates by taking an idea and turning it on itself. However, not every chiasmus creates deeper meaning. You can’t force it. Nor will adding it to a paper strengthen the main idea. When done well, the wordplay creates an allusion of cleverness, which can lend the general idea an illusion of greater wisdom. Just think of John F. Kennedy’s historic words, “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you.”
Epistrophe involves the repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses. Like Anaphora, epistrophe works well in speeches, because the repetition makes it memorable and moving. Here again, Abraham Lincoln provides us with a perfect rhetorical devices example in his Gettysburg Address:
“…a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Euphemism involves the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. For example, when a company “lets someone go” or “downsizes” they mean that they are firing the employee. When someone’s dog suffers from sickness and old age, people might “put him to sleep.” Evidently, this sounds more sensitive than “We killed our dog.”
While euphemisms generally work to protect the listener from feeling offended, they can also work in the reverse, and help the speaker save face. This rhetorical device goes hand-in-hand with understanding tone and register when writing academic papers.
Eutrepismus involves dividing a speech into parts and organizing it numerically, for the purpose of clarity. For example, consider these pasta instructions:
“First, boil salted water. Second, add the pasta and cook for the number of minutes listed on the package. Third, drain the pasta and add it to your sauce of choice.” Simple, right?
Of course, a good pasta involves more nuance, especially if you want to eat it al dente. Likewise, Eutrepismus comes with a few stipulations. Never use the word “first” and then follow it up with “secondly,” or “next,” or “after.” Be consistent. Moreover, don’t overuse eutrepismus. While this rhetorical device can help younger students organize a 3-point thesis statement, it can come across as lazy or unnatural when used as transition words in college papers.
Hyperbaton is a transposition or inversion of idiomatic word order. Think Yoda, from Star Wars. Or think Emily Dickinson, the queen of hyperbaton:
“From Cocoon forth a Butterfly
As Lady from her Door
Emerged—a summer afternoon—
Here Dickinson moved the verb from its normal syntactical position (from cocoon emerged forth a butterfly) to a later position. She seems to make the verb wait, then burst forth. The suspense she achieves matches the action taking place; form fits function.
While hyperbaton makes Yoda appear both silly and wise, it can also work to create tension, set a mood, create lyricism, or to simply draw the reader’s attention.
Rhetorical Devices Examples 11-15
Hyperbole sounds fancy, but it simply means exaggeration. “I’ve seen that movie a thousand times.” “I could eat a horse.”
Hyperbole works well in advertisements because brands wish to convince the consumer that their product trumps all others. Take the Brilliant Brunette shampoo ad: “Adds amazing luster for infinite, mirror-like shine.”
Hyperbole works well when the speaker and receiver both understand implicitly that the exaggeration should be taken figuratively, not literally. But use it cautiously. While hyperbole in poetry sounds flattering, hyperbole in political speeches can come across as laughably false. Hyperbole in an AP Lang paper may sound like you’re exaggerating to make up for a lack of research.
Hypophora, also called anthypophora and antipophora, operates as a question which the speaker or writer answers themselves. Like antanagoge, hypophora works to anticipate the receiver’s objection and dissolve it before they have a chance to ask. It can deliberately undermine an opposing view, or simply grab the reader’s attention.
How should you use hypophora? Just as I have here! In colloquial contexts, hypophora blends in nicely, because it seems to casually address the reader. In formal papers, you’ll want to use it sparingly, so as not to turn the rhetorical device into a gimmick.
Many types of irony abound—verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. Irony exists in all sorts of texts, as well as in plays, films, and everyday situations. But what is irony, exactly? At its most fundamental, irony involves contradiction. For example, a fire station burning down is ironic. Yet this irony may not help you write a paper.
Concerning rhetoric, Merriam-Webster describes irony as “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.” Let’s take a look at a character description written by the duchess of irony herself, Jane Austen:
John Dashwood “was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather coldhearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed.”
While Austen says one thing about John Dashwood, she makes it clear by the end of the sentence that she means quite the opposite. Noticing irony—in historical events, in literature, and elsewhere—and pointing it out in an analysis will show a greater understanding of the subject and strengthen your commentary.
Litotes involve an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary. Put simply, litotes appears as a double negative.
“I won’t say no.”
“I’m not so bad at this.”
“You won’t be sorry.”
Litotes can work to preserve a (false) sense of modesty or politeness, or to insinuate something that can’t or shouldn’t be said. It often involves humor and leaves room for interpretation.
With metaphor, a word or phrase denoting one kind of object/idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them. Elvis Presley was no stranger to metaphor. Just take his hit song, “Hound Dog”:
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time…”
Obviously, Presley isn’t singing about a canine. Whoever he’s talking about, the metaphor reveals that Presley thinks he’s a wuss. Do use metaphors. Use them in papers and poems, use them at soccer practice, or use them for fun. So long as the analogy makes sense and sharpens an idea, the metaphor will strengthen your rhetoric, and make your language more interesting.
Rhetorical Devices Examples 16-20
Metonymy means the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated. Take this line from the Netflix show “Queen Cleopatra”:
“Rome knew that Egypt was the breadbasket of the Mediterranean.”
Here, “breadbasket,” implies that ancient Egypt acted as a major cereal-producing region. It doesn’t matter whether or not the Egyptians actually used baskets to hold the wheat that made the bread. The imagery implies the meaning. Metonymy occurs frequently in casual speak, and can flavor more formal papers and speeches by adding figurative, image-driven language.
Procatalepsis, also called prolepsis and prebuttal, appears as an objection to an argument before the argument is made. Like hypophora, it anticipates what the reader or listener might think, in order to dispel doubts. Yet unlike hypophora, procatalepsis doesn’t appear as a question. Take this line from Plato’s The Apology:
“Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken…”
You may be thinking, but that first sentence ends in a question mark! It does, true. However, Plato formulates the sentence as if he believes someone will ask this question. (He does not ask a question himself.) Plato then confirms why Socrates did not feel ashamed. His argument appears stronger for having refuted this assumption.
Simile uses “like” or “as” to describe something by comparing it with something similar. In Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” he compares a “deferred dream” to other ideas using simile:
“Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?”
Simile harnesses emotion here through the use of imagery and comparison. Simile, like metaphor, can and should be used in a variety of contexts, to deepen ideas and spark connections.
With synecdoche, a part replaces the whole, or something larger replaces the part. For example, the Pentagon signifies U.S. military leaders. If someone asks if you’d like a glass, they’ll probably give you a glass with a drink in it, not an empty cup. Synecdoche behaves like metonymy, and can work to make language more casual, colloquial, or colorful.
Zeugma describes how a word can be used to govern two or more words while applying to each in a different sense. This might sound confusing, but the idea is pretty simple—and fun. Take this example from Harry Potter:
“A lamp flickered on. It was Hermione Granger, wearing a pink bathrobe and a frown.”
The verb “wearing” here applies both to an article of clothing and to a facial expression. Yet these two items, a frown and a bathrobe, don’t usually appear on the same list. This juxtaposition creates an element of surprise. Zeugma hinges on this surprise and grabs the reader’s attention. While zeugma works best in creative texts, you may find a clever way to slip it into an AP Lang paper.
Rhetorical Devices Examples – Final Thoughts:
We hope you have our list of 20 rhetorical devices examples to be useful and informative. You may also wish to check out some additional related blogs and resources.
- College Transitions’ tips for “High School Success”
- SAT Dates
- Merriam-Webster, a superb English language reference for AP Lang
With a BA in Literary Studies from Middlebury College, an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, and a Master’s in Translation from Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, Kaylen has been working with students on their writing for over five years. Previously, Kaylen taught a fiction course for high school students as part of Columbia Artists/Teachers, and served as an English Language Assistant for the French National Department of Education. Kaylen is an experienced writer/translator whose work has been featured in Los Angeles Review, Hybrid, San Francisco Bay Guardian, France Today, and Honolulu Weekly, among others.
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