Using Rhetoric in Writing

Although the term rhetoric can have a negative connotation in today’s world, with one side of an issue or ideology accusing the other of spewing “empty rhetoric” in a debate, rhetoric is actually a key aspect of persuasive communication.

With roots dating back to the ancient Greeks, as philosophers like Aristotle used and defined it, rhetoric is the art of persuasion and the effective use of language. Rhetoric appeals to an audience’s head, heart, and morals and is used to convince others to believe or accept something they might otherwise have doubted. When using rhetoric in writing, consider employing the following elements to make your writing the most effective.

Alliteration

When Sally sold seashells down by the seashore, she wasn’t just in it for the cash. She was also creating alliteration. Alliteration is the purposeful repetition of initial consonant sounds in words that are close together in a text. Alliteration gives the text a “sing-song” quality and rhythm that catches readers’ attention and can help focus them on a particular idea or emphasize a particular point. It can also affect the tone of a text, with “harsh” or “soothing” sounds being highlighted. Purposefully using alliterative words in a text can help draw your reader in as you manipulate the tone, allowing the reader to latch on to the repetition and engage with the text.

Allusion

When you warn an audience about the dangers of opening a Pandora’s box, pursuing a Quixotic dream, or being a star-crossed lover, you are using an allusion. An allusion is a reference to someone or something well-known or famous from literature, history, religion, or culture that can help an audience make a connection between a familiar concept and one which may not be as familiar. Using allusions as a rhetorical device in writing can help the author make a connection with the reader. The author uses a familiar character or idea to draw a comparison to a concept that may be less familiar to the reader. This comparison suggests to the reader that the author knows him or her and shares similar background knowledge and can make this connection for the reader to help further expand the reader’s understanding.

Analogy

In his short essay, “A Hanging,” George Orwell (1931) describes six Indian jail wardens preparing a prisoner to be transported to the gallows. “They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.” In this description, the reader can create a mental picture of this scene of the prisoner because Orwell uses an analogy to compare the similarities between the potential slipperiness of a prisoner seeking to escape the gallows and a fish caught by a fisherman.

To persuade a reader to believe or accept an idea or concept, a writer must help the reader see the similarities between that idea and something seemingly very different that the reader has already accepted or holds as true. To do this, a writer may use an analogy. An analogy is a comparison between two seemingly different concepts or ideas through which the author points out the similarities between the two. Metaphors and similes are literary tools that can be used to create an analogy. Using analogies as a rhetorical tool can convince a skeptical reader to accept and believe an idea by pointing out how it is similar to an idea the reader has already accepted. However, it is possible to create misleading or inaccurate analogies, so use them with care and caution, as a discerning audience may focus on the flaws in the comparison, which would lessen its persuasiveness and efficacy.

Anaphora

When Winston Churchill challenged the members of the British House of Commons to stay the course in the battle against Nazi Germany in June of 1940, he delivered a speech in which he claimed, “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 never surrender.” In that speech, he was employing the passionate rhetorical device of anaphora.

Anaphora is the deliberate repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences to create emphasis and to drive home a point. Used often in political speeches and writing, anaphora helps to build excitement or emotion until a climax is reached and the emotion engulfs the crowd or the reader as they are “swept up” in the moment. Appealing to the reader’s pathos or emotions, anaphora can be a very effective rhetorical device to sway emotions and create a sense of passion toward the ideas the author is presenting.

Hyperbole

After tripping over her backpack as she walked across the crowded room and falling onto the desk of the cutest boy in class, Layla later told her best friend that she was pretty sure she was going to die of embarrassment. Okay, well, maybe not die, but certainly be the laughing stock of the school for the next several weeks. Maybe Layla was exaggerating just a little bit, but when she did so she was using hyperbole to indicate to her friend just how terribly embarrassed she felt.

Hyperbole is the over exaggeration of an idea that adds emphasis and attention to the reality of the situation. You might greet an old friend and say, “I haven’t seen you in forever!” The hyperbolic overstatement suggests an emphasis on the importance of the idea. Though it has not literally been “forever,” it has been a long time. And while Layla will not literally die of embarrassment, her description does help her friend understand and appreciate the level of embarrassment Layla felt when she tripped and fell. When you use hyperbole in your writing, it is important to not overuse it, or, like the boy who cried wolf, your reader will begin to grow weary of the theatrics and your message may lose its impact.

Metaphor

In 1630, Puritan John Winthrop spoke to his fellow passengers aboard the Arbella and sought to reassure them about their quest to start fresh in New England. To allay their fears, he spoke about the gravity and importance of the experiment on which they were about to embark. Settling in the new world was a risky proposition, but he reassured his fellow travelers that their experience would be watched the world over and that their settlement would be seen as “a city upon a hill,” acting as a beacon of hope and possibility to other disgruntled, oppressed people. Now, Winthrop was not familiar with the topography of the new world—there was no guarantee that their settlement would be at the literal top of a hill. He did, however, know his Bible and used some verbiage from the Parable of Salt and Light to inspire his audience to believe in their destiny and to take seriously the responsibility of creating a settlement that would serve as an inspiration and beacon of hope for others. In this way, Winthrop used a metaphor to inspire his fellow travelers.

Like analogies, metaphors help the reader understand the commonalities between two seemingly different things or ideas by drawing attention to the ways in which they are similar. When Winthrop referenced the parable and its message to live and be your best self and let your light shine into the world, he was helping the audience see that their plan to create this new settlement would also spread light into the world and that their actions would be seen by the rest of the world.

Onomatopoeia

Crash! clanged the cymbals as the drummers beat the drums and the oompah of the tuba set the beat. Can you hear what is happening in that scene? That’s because there is onomatopoeia at work in the sentence. Onomatopoeia refers to words that imitate the sounds of things. Comic book words like pow or bang that show up in those jagged text boxes are onomatopoeia. Sounds of nature, like animal noises (woof, meow, and moo), the crashing roar of the ocean, the pitter-patter of rain, or the babbling of a brook through a meadow are all onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia helps make writing more vivid and interesting to the reader as it helps create a mental picture of the scene being described.

Oxymoron

After meeting the love of her life at a party, swearing their love to one another, and agreeing to wed in secret, young Juliet Capulet must say goodbye to her new beau, Romeo Montague. From her balcony, Juliet pines, “Parting is such sweet sorrow [t]hat I shall say good night till it be morrow” (II, 2, 184-185). The melodramatic young lady uses an oxymoron in her farewell. How can sorrow be sweet, after all? An oxymoron is a figure of speech whereby two seemingly opposite ideas are used together. In this case, Juliet is so happy to have found the love of her life, but so sad that she must say goodbye for now that the parting causes her to feel “sweet sorrow”—happiness that she has found love, but sadness that they cannot be together 100% of the time forever.

In rhetorical writing, oxymorons may be used to create a certain level of drama or to get the reader to think about the connection being made. In deafening silence the reader may come to an understanding or make a realization the author had been building up to in the original copy of a text. At that point, the open secret is out and the reader is changed forever, which may be bittersweet. (Can you find all four of the oxymorons used in the last two sentences?)

Parallelism

When Charles Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities with the proposal that “[i]t was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” and so on, he creates a pattern in the sentence that engages the reader. This structural pattern is called parallelism, and it is created when an author uses elements in a sentence that are grammatically identical or extremely similar in structure or sound. When ideas are presented in a parallel sentence, they are considered “equal” in importance and value. Parallelism creates a sense of balance in a sentence and can create a pattern in the overall text, increasing engagement by the reader and making it easier for the reader to remember certain ideas presented in the text. Parallelism is an effective rhetorical device because it creates an easy-to-read flow and the repetition of certain words or phrases to create the parallelism can be very persuasive to the reader.

Understatement

With the cab of the semi-truck hanging precariously over the edge of the bridge and a park full of families and children below, the responding officer noted, “Looks like we have a bit of a situation here.” Yeah, to say the least. This is exactly what understatement is: using language that is less strong or forceful than would be appropriate or expected, or using words that convey something to be less important or pressing than it actually is. Whereas hyperbole over exaggerates a scenario, understatement underplays a scenario. The effect is similar in that it gets the reader’s attention by seemingly minimizing an important point so that the reader reacts incredulously and gives the point extra thought and attention.

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