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21 Rhetorical Devices Explained

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Rhetoric is often defined as “the art of language.” That might sound like a bit of a cliché (which it is), but it’s actually quite a nice way of saying that rhetorical devices and figures of speech can transform an ordinary piece of writing or an everyday conversation into something much more memorable, evocative, and enjoyable. Hundreds of different rhetorical techniques and turns of phrase have been identified and described over the centuries—of which the 21 listed here are only a fraction—but they’re all just as effective and just as useful when employed successfully.

1. ADYNATON

You’ll no doubt have heard of hyperbole, in which an over-exaggeration is used for rhetorical effect, like, “he’s as old as the hills,” “we died laughing,” or “hyperbole is the best thing ever.” But adynaton is a particular form of hyperbole in which an exaggeration is taken to a ridiculous and literally impossible extreme, like “when pigs fly!” or “when Hell freezes over!”

2. ANACOLUTHON

Often used in literature to create a stream-of-consciousness style in which a character’s thoughts flit from one idea to the next, anacoluthon describes a sudden and unexpected break in a sentence that leads to it being concluded in a different way than might have been expected. Although it can sometimes be due to nothing more than a speaker losing their train of thought, in practice anacoluthon can also be OH MY GOD I’VE LEFT THE GAS ON.

3. ANADIPLOSIS

Anadiplosis is an ingenious and memorable rhetorical device in which a repeated word or phrase is used both at the end of one sentence or clause and at the beginning of the next. As with practically all rhetorical devices, William Shakespeare liked using it (“She being none of your flesh and blood, your flesh and blood has not offended the king”), but you can thank George Lucas for what is now probably the best-known example: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

4. ANTHYPOPHORA

You know when you pose a question for dramatic effect and then immediately answer it yourself? That’s anthypophora.

5. ANTIMERIA

If you’ve ever friended or texted someone, emailed or DMed something, tabled a meeting or motorwayed your way across country, then you’ll be familiar with antimeria, a rhetorical device in which an existing word is used as if it were a different part of speech. More often than not this involves using a noun as if it were a verb, a semantic process better known as “verbing” (which is actually a perfect example of itself). Slang (and modern English in general, for that matter) loves antimeria, but it is Shakespeare who remains the undisputed master of it. Cake, drug, kitchen, squabble, ghost, blanket, graze, elbow, and crank were all only ever used as nouns before he got hold of them.

6. ANTIPROSOPOPOEIA

Prosopopoeia is just a more formal name for personification, in which inanimate objects are either described in human terms or given human characteristics. The opposite of that is antiprosopopoeia, a figure of speech in which a person is compared to an inanimate object. That might sound odd, but it’s actually a very effective form of metaphor able to confer a great deal of detail or information in a clever and often witty way—think about what it means to call someone a doormat, a tank, a firecracker, a mattress, or a garbage disposal and you’ll see precisely how effective it can be.

7. ANTONOMASIA

The Bard. The Iron Lady. The King. Ol’ Blue Eyes. When you substitute a proper name for an epithet or a nickname, that’s antonomasia.

8. APOSIOPESIS

In Act 2 of King Lear, the eponymous king rages against two of his daughters in a disjointed speech that ends with the famous lines, “I will have such revenges on you both that all the world shall—I will do such things—what they are yet, I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth!” The point at which Lear’s threat of revenge trails off, restarts, and trails off again is a perfect example of aposiopesis, a rhetorical ploy in which an idea is left unsaid or a sentence is left incomplete purely for emphatic effect. Why I oughta…

9. ASTERISMOS

Right. Okay. Here goes. Asterismos is the use of a seemingly unnecessary word or phrase to introduce what you’re about to say. Semantically it’s fairly pointless to say something like “listen!” before you start talking to someone, because they are (or at least should be) already listening. Rhetorically, however, asterismos is a seriously clever way of subconsciously drawing attention to what you’re about to say.

10. ASYNDETON

“We got there, the weather was bad, we didn’t stay long, we got back in the car, we came home, end of story.” When you deliberately miss out the conjunctions between successive clauses, you’re left with a choppy and abrupt series of phrases that energetically push things forward, an effect properly known as asyndeton. The opposite is called polysyndeton, when you add more conjunctions to a phrase or clause than are strictly necessary, often with the effect of intentionally dragging it out: “We ate and drank and talked and laughed and talked and laughed and ate some more.”

11. CHIASMUS

Apart from the fact that it’s part of a great speech, one of the reasons why John F. Kennedy’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” line is so striking is that is a fine example of chiasmus, a clever rhetorical formation in which the order of a pair of words or phrases in one clause (your country, you) is inverted in the next (you, your country). This gives a rhythmic and instantly memorable criss-cross pattern, AB-BA, which appropriately enough takes its name from the X-shaped Greek letter chi.

12. CONGERY

Congery is a form of tautology, the rhetorical use of repetition. It refers to a writer or speaker using a number of different and successive words or phrases that all effectively mean the same thing, purely to emphasise the point. That’s it. That’s all. Done. Finished. Finito.

13. DIALOGISMUS

In a dialogismus, a speaker either imagines what someone or something else might be thinking (“I bet that guy’s thinking, ‘what am I doing here?’”), or else paraphrases someone’s earlier words (“‘Don’t worry!’ she told me. ‘Everything will be fine!’”). In either case, the speaker ends up talking not as themselves just for rhetorical effect.

14. DYSPHEMISM

If a euphemism is a nicer turn of phrase used in place of a more offensive or embarrassing one (like “call of nature” or “bought the farm”), then a dysphemism is an offensive or detrimental phrase deliberately used in place of a nicer one. This applies to everything from using an insult instead of someone’s name, to phrases like frankenfood and junk food that try to influence what we should think of genetically modified crops and take-out restaurants with just a few choice words.

15. EUTREPISMUS

First, we need to explain what this is. Second, we need to show how it works. And third, we need to explain what it achieves. Eutrepismus is the numbering or ordering of a series of phrases that are all under consideration, and it’s used to structure arguments and speeches more clearly, making them easier for an audience to take in and follow your train of thought.

16. EXPEDITIO

An expeditio is that instantly recognisable figure of speech in which you list a number of alternatives, and then proceed to eliminate all but one of them. “We can go for Italian, Mexican, or Chinese. But I had Chinese last night and you hate garlic, so it’s going to have to be Mexican.”

17. HYPOCATASTASIS

When you say that something is like something else (“as busy as a bee”), that’s a simile. When you say that something actually is something else (“a heart of stone”) that’s a metaphor. But when you just go all out and label something as something that it actually isn’t (“You chicken!”), that’s a hypocatastasis.

18. PLEONASM

When you use more words than are in actual fact absolutely really strictly necessary in order to communicate and make your point effectively and efficiently, that’s a pleonasm. It needn’t be as clumsy and as long-winded as that, of course, and more often than not the term pleonasm is used to apply to what is otherwise called “semantic redundancy,” in which extra qualifying words are used to force a point home—like “empty space,” “boiling hot,” or “totally unique.”

19. SYNECDOCHE

A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part or component of something is used to represent that whole—like calling a car your “wheels,” the staff of a company the “hands,” or the film industry as a whole “Hollywood.”

20. TMESIS

Tmesis is the proper name for that fan-bloody-tastic technique of splitting a word in half by inserting another word inside it. More often than not, the word being inserted in the other is a swearword (you can provide your own examples for that), but it needn’t always be—tmesis can be used any-old-how you like.

21. ZEUGMA

There are several different forms and definitions of precisely what a zeugma is, but in basic terms it describes a figure of speech in which one word (usually, but not always, a verb) governs or is directly related to two or more other words in the same sentence. So you can run out of time, and out of the room. You can have a go, and a laugh. And, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, you can go home in floods of tears and a sedan-chair.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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