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Rhetorical Devices

Rhetorical devices are parts of literature that are used to persuade audiences. They make use of the three “modes of persuasion.”

The modes are logos, pathos, and ethos. When writers use rhetorical devices, they liven up their text, making it far more interesting to read than if these devices hadn’t been used. They’re often necessary as well if the writer wants to convince the reader that what they’re describing is possible, realistic, and perhaps even an agreeable ideological principle. 

Rhetorical Devices pronunciation: rhe-tor-ee-cuhl dee-vi-ses
Rhetorical Devices definition and examples

Definition of Rhetorical Devices 

Rhetorical devices are anything a writer uses in order to bring the reader over to their side. In academic writing, debates, speeches, and other formal documents, these devices are used to persuade the reader that the writer’s opinion is the correct one. For example, in a political speech, a politician is going to use every kind of appeal they kind, emotional, logical, etc., in order to convince the audience that their policies, politics, and personality are the right ones. They have a goal, and they have to achieve it through the use of rhetoric. The same can be said for those writing important academic research papers. Rhetorical devices, especially those that display the writer’s knowledge and professionalism, are important for convincing the reader that their thesis is correct.

Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion 

Understanding Aristotle’s modes of persuasion is an important part of understanding how rhetorical devices operate. He defined them in Rhetoric, describing how they affect the audience and how they should be used. They are: 

  • Ethos: appeals to the audience’s respect for credibility. Readers who want an authoritative source will seek out ethos in what they consume. A writer or speaker who has credibility will also have authority, trustworthiness, and expertise. They will demonstrate their personal qualities, or moral character, to the reader or audience. For example, East of Eden by John Steinbeck in which the author uses his own family as inspiration for the Hamiltons. 
  • Pathos: appeals to reader’s emotions in order to make them feel something. It is one of the most important components of literature. Without an emotional reaction, the author doesn’t have much more to work within the way of getting and keeping the reader’s attention. For example, ‘Funeral Bluesby W.H. Auden in which he uses pathos to make his readers experience grief along with the narrator. Read more W.H. Auden poems.
  • Logos: appeals to the reader’s logic in order to create a persuasive argument. Of the three, he believed logos outranked the other two in importance due to the fact that any argument, no matter where it’s made, needs logic to work. For example, the courtroom scene in To Kills a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Common Rhetorical Devices 

  • Amplification: a rhetorical device that’s used to improve a sentence or statement with additional information.
  • Antiphrasis: a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean, but their true meaning is obvious.
  • Antistrophe: a rhetorical device that’s concerned with the repetition of the same word or words at the end of consecutive phrases. 
  • Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.
  • Deductive Reasoning: also known as top-down logic, is a rhetorical device and a way to build a successful argument.
  • Enumeration: a rhetorical device that occurs when a writer chooses to list out items, events, ideas, or other parts of a story/setting.
  • Exemplum: a short story, narrative, anecdote, or tale that’s used in literature to explain moral reasoning.
  • Paralipsis: a rhetorical device that occurs when the writer pretends to hide the idea or statement they actually want to express.
  • Pleonasm: a rhetorical device that occurs when a writer uses two or more words to express an idea
  • Tmesis: a rhetorical device that involves inserting a word in-between a compound word or phrase.

Examples of Rhetorical Devices in Literature 

I have a dream speech by Martin Luther King Jr. 

The “I have a dream speech” is one of the best-known and commonly quoted contemporary speeches. It is also a great example of enumeration. Consider these lines and how the rhetorical device works to King’s advantage: 

When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’

These lines demonstrate how the rhetorical device enumeration, or the use of a list to expand an idea, is used. King brings together different groups, all to celebrate the idea of freedom. He lists out groups, “Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics,” and so on. Without commas and the natural inflections of speech, it would be hard to interpret. But, due to the speaker’s skill with language, that’s not an issue. 

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare 

William Shakespeare’s history play, Julius Caesar, relays the story of Caesar’s assassination and the resulting events concerning Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony. In the following passage, there is a good and quite well-known example of pleonasm, an interesting rhetorical device:

And as he plucked his cursèd steel away,

Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it,

As rushing out of doors, to be resolved

If Brutus so unkindly knocked, or no.

For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.

Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!

This was the most unkindest cut of all.

The final line uses the phrase “the unkindest cut of all.” By using “most” in addition to “unkindest,” he maintains the meter in the line while also further emphasizing the “unkind” nature of Caesar’s death. The addition of “most” here elevates the emotions of the moment, ensuring that the reader is as moved as possible by the nature of the scene. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry. 

Hymn to Christ by John Donne

‘Hymn to Christ’ is a dramatic monologue that touches on many topics familiar to readers of Donne’s poetry. He compares physical love, which he is known for writing about, to spiritual love. He eventually settles upon the latter as the stronger of the two. These four lines from ‘Hymn to Christ’ contain two examples of tmesis, a very effective rhetorical device. Take a look at them below:

In whattorn shipsoever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem
Whatseasoever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood.

The words ‘Whattorn shipsoever” and “Whatseasoever” stand out right away. The first inserts the words “torn ship” in-between “whatsoever.” The second brings in “sea” in the middle of “whatsoever.” While tmesis is usually used to create humor, in this instance, it is used more seriously in order to emphasize the moment. 

Discover more John Donne poems.


What is a rhetorical device?

A part of literature that’s used to influence the reader to feel a certain way or believe/trust a piece of information.

What are rhetorical devices used for?

They are used to improve a writer’s literary work and make it more appealing to readers.

What is rhetoric?

The use of language that is employed in order to persuade someone to believe or support something.

Why use rhetorical devices in speeches?

They can be used to make someone’s speech feel more inspiring, believable, and persuade the audience to agree with whatever is being said.

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