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The study of rhetoric stretches back to classical Greece.  Today the term is most commonly taken pejoratively, meaning bombastic or exaggerated language.  But rhetoric also has a neutral meaning—rhetoric is the art or science of persuasion by means of stylistic and structural techniques.  The study of rhetoric is useful because it encourages us to think of writing (and speaking, for that matter) as a series of strategic choices.  Every attempt to put words together includes choices about which words to use (diction) and how to arrange them (syntax).  Rhetoric is also useful because it encourages thinking about one’s audience.  Different audiences require different rhetorical choices.



Perhaps the first rhetorical choice a writer makes—and all writers make this choice whether they realize or not—is diction, or what words to use.  Different words, even if they ostensibly mean the same thing, have different connotations.  Words derive their connotations from two sources: people’s common experience and an individual’s personal experience.  Words represent ideas, events, objects, but also the feelings we attach to ideas, events, and objects.  Thus, the word rat represents a certain kind of rodent—among other things. That is its denotative meaning.  But a rat also evokes in us feelings of fear and disgust—its connotations.

Idiom is a use of words, a grammatical construction peculiar to a given language, or an expression that cannot be translated literally into a second language.

bulletdon't put all your eggs in one basket
bulletbetween a rock and a hard place

Levels of diction. There are at least four levels of diction: formal, informal, colloquial, and slang. Formal refers to the level of usage common in serious books and lofty discourse; informal refers to the level of usage found in the relaxed but polite and cultivated conversation; colloquial refers to everyday usage and may include terms and constructions accepted in that group but not universally acceptable; and slang refers to a group of newly coined words that are not yet a part of formal usage.  It should be noted that the accepted diction of one age is often unacceptable to another.

IMAGERY: the representation through language of sense experience

Auditory imagery. The representation through language of an experience pertaining to sound.

bullet"Br-r-r-am-m-m, rackety-am-am, OM, Am: / All-r-r-room, r-r-ram, ala-bas-ter- / Am, the world's my oyster." --Mona Van Duyn, "What the Motorcycle Said"
bullet"Sssh the sea says / Sssh the small waves at the shore say, sssh / Not so violent, not / So haughty, not / So remarkable. / Sssh / Says the tips of the waves / Crowding the headland's / surf." --Rolf Jacobsen, "Sssh"

Gustatory imagery. The representation through language of an experience pertaining to taste.

bullet"Taut skin / pierced, bitten, provoked into / juice, and tart flesh" --Helen Chasin, "The Word Plum"
bullet"The excrement of the dugong is precious ambergris / because it eats such beauty. Anyone who feeds on Majesty / becomes eloquent. The bee, from mystic inspiration, / fills its rooms with honey." --Rumi, "The Force of Friendship"

Kinesthetic imagery. The representation through language of an experience pertaining to movement or tension.

bullet"Teeth tear through the walls of the apple / like a plane crashing in the suburbs." --Ricardo Pau-Llosa, "Foreign Language"

Olfactory imagery. The representation through language of an experience pertaining to smell.

bullet"To sniff the heavy honeysuckled-smell / Twined with another odor heavier still / and hear the flies' intolerable buzz." --Richard Wilbur, "The Pardon"

Tactile imagery. The representation through language of an experience pertaining to touch.

bullet"Touching you I catch midnight / As moon fires set in my throat / I love you flesh into blossom." --Audre Lorde, "Recreation"

Visual imagery. The representation through language of an experience pertaining to sight.

bulletIt / sits there like a glass of beer foam, / Shiny and faintly golden, he gurgles and / coughs and reaches for it again and / gets the heavy sputum out, / full of bubbles and moving around like yeast" --Sharon Olds, "The Glass"
bullet"Like them in shapes of fleeting fire / She mingles with the light / Till whoso saw her sees her not / And doubts his former sight." --Hugh MacDiarmid, "A Herd of Does"


Alliteration. The repetition of initial consonant sounds in words, as in "rough and ready."

bulletPrecédence, none, whose portion is so small / Of present pain, that with ambitious mind / Will covet more." --John Milton, "Paradise Lost"

Assonance. The repetition of identical or similar vowel sounds, especially in stressed syllables, without repetition of consonants.

bullettilting at windmills
bullet"My words like silent raindrops fell" --Paul Simon, "Sounds of Silence"

Consonance. The repetition of consonant sounds--not limited to the first letters of words.

bullet". . . and high school girls with clear skin smiles" --Janis Ian, "At Seventeen"

Onomatopoeia. The use of a word whose sound suggests its meaning: bang, clang, buzz, sigh, murmur.



Syntax is the order or arrangement of words in a sentence.  Individual words have meanings:  nouns are the names of persons, places, or things; verbs express action; adjectives describe; and so forth.   But only sentences can convey complex relationships between ideas, and the ability to use clear, forceful, and well-constructed sentences is a measure of one’s ability to think.  Therefore, the type, structure, and length of sentences provide significant clues to the thought processes of a writer or speaker.


Parallelism is one of the most useful and flexible rhetorical techniques.  Done well, parallelism imparts grace and power to writing.  It refers to any structure which brings together a series of related words, phrases, or clauses.  In other words, equivalent items (those joined by coordinate conjunctions) must be placed in comparable grammatical structures.  Parallel items are joined by coordinate conjunctions (especially and, or, nor) and correlative conjunctions (either/or, neither/nor/, not only/but also).

bulletShe went to the grocery store, the post office, and the gas station.
bulletEither you will turn in your essay on time, or you will suffer a significant penalty.
bullet“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.”—Constitution of the United States

Faulty Parallelism. If parallelism is ignored, grammar and coherence are ruined.

bulletShe believed in democracy, she worked hard for the candidate, and was ecstatic when he was elected.
bulletNot only could Henry tune a normal piano but also repair player pianos.

Isocolon.  An isocolon exists when parallel structures have the same number of words and sometimes even the same number of syllables.

bulletHis purpose was to impress the ignorant, to perplex the dubious, and to confound the scrupulous.
bullet“. . . but what else can one do when he is alone in a jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”—Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
bulletA good student questions his teachers, studies, his books, and learns his lessons.

Tricolon.  Three has always been a magic number.  The idea is simple:  lists of all kinds (things, qualities, reasons, examples) tend to come across most powerfully when they contain three items.  The tricolon is a sentence consisting of three parts of equal importance and length, usually three independent clauses. 

bulletCoriolanus doesn’t hide his contempt for the commoners; he doesn’t flatter them; he doesn’t try to soften his image.

Climax.  A climax in structure exists when the arrangement of parallel words, phrases, or clauses is in an order of increasing importance.

bullet“Renounce my love, my life, myself—and you.”  Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard”
bullet“. . . we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”—The Declaration of Independence

Antithesis.  “The juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, often in parallel structure.  Conjunctions that express antithesis include but, yet, and while. 

bulletI offered to help, but he refused my assistance.
bulletThe prodigal robs his heir; the miser robs himself.
bullet“ . . . ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”—John F. Kennedy, “Inaugural Address”
bullet“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”—Neil Armstrong

Antithesis can occur when the wording contrasts, when the sense of the statement contrasts, or when both contrast.

bulletContrasting wording:  Let the rich give to the poor.
bulletContrasting sense:  I helped him gain a balance in this world, but he pushed me down in return.
bulletContrasting wording and sense:  “Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in.  Those left behind, we will help to catch up.”—Richard Nixon, “Inagural Address”


Repetition is another useful tool available to writers.  Repetition allows a writer or speaker to hammer home an idea, an image, a relationship, to force the reader or listener to pay attention.  Two classic examples of the incredible power of repetition are Mark Antony’s “They are all honorable men” speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  anad Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.  Examine one of the classic instances of repetition, from a speech by Winston Churchill after the British evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940.  France had fallen to Nazi Germany, the United States was still neutral, and Britain stood alone:

            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 land, 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 thundering we shall fights fall like hammer strokes, building to that emphatic, defiant, and irresistible we shall never surrender.  In 1940 Churchill’s rhetoric was perhaps the most important weapon deployed against Adolph Hitler.  “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver.  Hit the point once.  Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.”—Winston Churchill

Alliteration is the repetition of initial identical consonant sounds.

bulletThroughout the play we are made to witness the force of politics to shape and shatter lives.

As with any rhetorical techniques, alliteration doesn’t make an argument more intelligent.  Done well, however, it can please the reader and make the reader more receptive to the argument.  Like any strong spice, alliteration should be used sparingly.

Anaphora is the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginnings of successive clauses.  In Churchill’s speech it is the repetition of the words we shall fight.

bullet“So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.                

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.                                                   

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.”—Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream”

Antimetabole is the repetition of words, in successive clauses, in reverse grammatical order.

bulletYou have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Chiasmus is the reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses but without the repetition of words.

bullet“By day the frolic, and the dance by night.”—Samuel Johnson, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”
bulletHe labors without complaining and without bragging rests.

Polyptoton is the repetition of words from the same root or of the same word used as a different part of speech.

bulletLove is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds,/ Or bends with the remover  to remove”—William Shakespeare, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”
bulletLet me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “First Inaugural Address”

Polysyndeton is the repetition of conjunctions.

bulletIn the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.  And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.  And the evening and the morning were the first day.”—Genesis 1:1-5


Anastrophe or inversion is the inversion of natural word order.

bullet“Once upon a midnight dreary . . .”—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven”
bullet“United, there is little we cannot do in a host of co-operative ventures.  Divided, there is little we can do . . .”—John F. Kennedy, “Inaugural Address”

Apposition  is the placing of two nouns side by side, the second of which serves as an explanation of the first.

bulletThe bear, a massive black object, frightened the small children.
bulletI ran from the woman, a wrinkled stranger.

Asyndeton is the omission of conjunctions between a series of related clauses.  The use of commas with no intervening conjunction speeds up the flow of the sentence.

bullet“I came, I saw, I conquered.”—Julius Caesar
bulletThe elephants charged, the horses scattered, the Big Top tent fell down.

Ellipsis is the deliberate omission of a word or words implied by context.

bulletThe man lost three teeth, the woman two.
bulletI read Shakespeare, you Agatha Christie.

Parenthesis  involves the insertion of some verbal unit in a position that interrupts the normal flow of the sentence.

bulletOne day in class we got off the subject (as often happens with over-worked, sleep-deprived senior) and began to discuss the literature of Dr. Seuss.
bulletGrades (which should be abolished) are detrimental to the health and sanity of students.


Grammatical types.  Sentences are divided into four grammatical types.

            Simple sentence—one independent clause.

·        The dog barks.

Complex Sentence—one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses.

·        After the dog barks, it goes to sleep.

Compound sentence—two or more independent clauses.

·         The dog barks, and then the dog goes to sleep

Compound-complex sentence—two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.

·        After the dog barks, it goes to sleep, and then it wakes up.


Loose and periodic sentences.  A loose sentence is a sentence that follows the customary word order of English sentences, i.e., subject verb object.  The main idea of the sentence is presented first and is then followed by a string of details.  The periodic sentence, on the other hand, is not grammatically complete until the end of the sentence. 

Loose sentence:  Jane played the violin with an intensity never before seen in a high

school music class.  (The sentence is grammatically complete after


Periodic sentenceLove, as anyone knows except those who happen to be afflicted

                               with it, is blind. (The sentence is not grammatically complete until

                               after blind).

“Delay, of course, is the secret weapon of the periodic sentence.  By holding off the final words of the basic statement until the last possible moment, the sentence builds its own small feeling of suspense.”  Lucille Payne, The Lively Art of Writing

Position. The proper place for a word, or group of words, which a writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end of the sentence. The effectiveness of the periodic sentence comes from the prominence it gives to the main statement. 

“The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.” William Strunk, Jr., Elements of Style

Rhetorical Question.  A rhetorical question conveys a point rather than expects an answer.

bullet“How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”—Bob Dylan
bullet“If we live in the nineteenth century, why should we not enjoy the advantages which the nineteenth century offers?  Why should our life be in any respect provincial?  If we will read newspapers, why not skip the gossip of Boston and take the best newspaper in the world at once?”—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Sentence Openers.  One way to provide variety in our writing is to experiment with the following openers.


·        John fought the battle.

Expletive (both exclamatory and grammatical)

·        Wow, that was amazing!

·        It is true that I enjoy learning this material

            Coordinate Conjunction

·        But John didn’t laugh.

Adverb (single word or clause)

·        First, we must assess the students’ needs.

·        When the ship arrived safely, the passengers jumped ashore.

            Conjunctive phrase

·        On the other hand, John may have known all along.

             Prepositional phrase

·        By the way, John didn’t cry.

·        After the game we went home.

             Verbal phrase

·        To be certain, he pondered a moment before making his decision.

·        Tired, but happy, the old man crossed the sea.

              Absolute phrase

·        The ship having arrived safely, the passengers jumped ashore.


·        Gone was the wind that had brought us here.

·        Tired is he who faithfully does all his work