Rhetorical Devices

Style is part of classical rhetoric and a number of rhetorical devices are worth considering in any analysis of style. For the analysis of literature a knowledge of rhetorical devices is indispensable, since there is often a considerable density of rhetorical figures and tropes which are important generators and qualifiers of meaning and effect. This is particularly the case in poetry. Especially the analysis of the use of imagery is important for any kind of literary text. (For further details see Analysing a Metaphor and Symbol).

Figures of speech in classical rhetoric were defined as “a form of speech artfully varied from common usage” (Quintilian, Inst. Orat. IX.i.2). The forms of figurative languages are divided into two main groups: schemes (or figures) and tropes.

Rhetorical schemes describe the arrangement of individual sounds (phonological schemes), the arrangement of words (morphological schemes), and sentence structure (syntactical schemes). Rhetorical tropes are devices of figurative language. They represent a deviation from the common or main significance of a word or phrase (semantic figures) or include specific appeals to the audience (pragmatic figures).

The following definitions are mainly based on:
Abrams 1988, Corbett 1971, Holman/Harmon 1992, Preminger 1993, Jahn 2002 Link, Scaif 2002 Link.

Schemes: Phoneme-level (level of individual sounds)


the same sound is repeated at the beginning of several words or in stressed syllables of words that are in close proximity

  • Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell (T.S. Eliot, Book of Practical Cats)
  • Moping melancholy mad (Housman, Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff)
  • Dombey and Son had often dealt in hides but not in hearts. They left that fancy war to boys and girls, and boarding-schools and books. (Dickens, Dombey and Son)

the same or similar vowel sounds are repeated in the stressed syllables of words that are in close proximity while the consonants differ

  • Breathing like one that hath a weary dream (Tennyson, The Lotos-Eaters)
  • Gun, drum, trumpet, blunderbuss and thunder (Pope, Imitations of Horace)
two or more consonants are repeated, but the adjacent vowels differ
  • Friend/frowned
  • killed/cold,
  • horse/hearse

the sound of the word imitates the sound of the thing which that word denotes

  • clatter, bash, bang, rumble, sniff, howl, etc.
  • […] aspens quiver
    Little breezes dusk and shiver
    (Tennyson, Lady of Shalott - imitates the sound of the breeze in the leaves)
  • Hear the loud alarum bells –
    Brazen bells!
    What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
    [...] How they clang, and clash and roar! (Poe, The Bells)

Schemes: Word-level

anadiplosis / reduplicatio
(Greek for “doubling back”) the word or phrase that concludes one line or clause is repeated at the beginning of the next
  • A wreathed garland of deserved praise,
    Of praise deserved, unto thee I give,
    I give to thee, who knowest all my ways,
    My crooked winding ways, wherin I live. (Herbert, A Wreath)
  • [...] if you have a lot of things you cannot move about a lot, [...] furniture requires dusting, dusters require servants, servants require insurance stamps [...]. (E.M. Forster, My Wood)
a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses or lines
  • Because I do not hope to turn again
    Because I do not hope
    Because I do not hope to turn. (T.S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday)
  • So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this and this gives life to thee. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)
climax / gradatio
(Greek for “ladder”) arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in an order of ascending power
  • Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)
a word or expression is repeated at the end of successive phrases, clauses or lines
  • There chiefly I sought thee, there only I found thee;
    Her glance was the best of the rays that surround thee.
    (Byron, Stanzas Written on the Road between Florence and Pisa)
  • We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.
    (Nixon, Inaugural Address)
  • We meet tonight and part tonight. (Dickens, Dombey and Son)
geminatio / epanalepsis
the repetition of the same words immediately next to each other
  • Peace, peace seems all (Browning, The Bishop Orders His Tomb)
words with the same pronunciation and / or spelling but with different meanings
  • their – there
  • ball (toy) – ball (dance event)
  • hear – here
polyptoton /
one word is repeated in different grammatical or syntactical (inflected) forms. A special case of polyptoton is the figura etymologica which repeats two or more words of the same stem
  • There hath he lain for ages, and will lie (Tennyson, The Kraken)
  • […] love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116) – figura etymologica
portmanteau words (blend, contaminatio)
words formed by blending two words into one
  • spellotape (spell + sellotape in Harry Potter)
  • brunch (breakfast + lunch)
A combination of anaphora and epistrophe, so that one word or phrase is repeated at the beginning and another word or phrase is repeated at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences
  • Much is your reading, but not the Word of GOD
    Much is your building, but not the House of GOD.
    (T.S. Eliot, The Rock)
use of words with the same or similar meanings
• alter – change
• brief – short
• assist – help
  • I hate inconstancy - I loathe, detest,
    Abhor, condemn, abjure the mortal made
    Of such quicksilvery clay [...] (Byron, Don Juan)
one idea is repeatedly expressed through additional words, phrases, or sentences
  • small dwarf
  • With malice toward none, with charity for all. (Lincoln, Second Inaugural)

Schemes: Sentence-Level

the speaker fails to complete his sentence, (seemingly) overpowered by his emotions
  • Sir Leicester's gallantry concedes the point; though he still feels that to bring this sort of squalor among the upper classes is really – really – (Dickens, Bleak House)
the omission of conjunctions to coordinate phrases, clauses, or words (opposite of polysyndeton) where normally conjunctions would be used
  • What can the sheepdog make of such simplified terrain? no hills, dales, bogs, walls, tracks (C. Day Lewis, Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park)
  • I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
    Leave following that which it is gain to miss (Sidney, Astrophil and Stella)
  • that government of the people, by the people, for the people (Lincoln, Gettysburgh Address)
from the shape of the Greek letter ‘chi’ (X); two corresponding pairs are arranged in inverted, mirror-like order (a-b, b-a)
  • At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely. (W. Somerset Maugham)
  • Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave (Pope, Dunciad)
  • Fair is foul and foul is fair. (Shakespeare, Macbeth)
  • Swans sing before they die – ‘twere no bad thing
    Did certain persons die before they sing.
    (S.T. Coleridge, Epigram on a Volunteer Singer)
a word or phrase in a sentence is omitted though implied by the context
  • A mighty maze! but not without a plan. (Pope, Essay on Man)
(see also inversion)
(Greek for “stepping over”) a figure of syntactic dislocation where phrase or words that belong together are separated
  • I got, so far as the immediate moment was concerned, away. (James, Turn of the Screw)
  • Were I, who to my cost already am,
    One of those strange, prodigious creatures, Man. (Rochester, Satire Against Mankind)
clauses and sentences are arranged with subordination, usually longer sentence constructions (opposite of parataxis)
  • The house had a name and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighted to tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night’s hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised and defaced in Cromwell’s wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodeled and disfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed into the careful keeping of a shrewd American banker, who had bought it originally because (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain; bought it with much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a real aesthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell you just where to stand to see them in combination and just the hour when the shadows of its various protuberances – which fell so softly upon the warm, weary brickwork – were of the right measure. (James, Portrait of a Lady)
the usual word order is rearranged, often for the effect of emphasis or to maintain the meter (a type of hyperbaton)
  • Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
    And often is his gold complexion dimmed (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)
    (instead of: Sometime the eye of heaven shines too hot and his gold complexion is often dimmed)

the repetition of identical or similar syntactic elements (word, phrase, clause)

  • Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals. (Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray)
  • Though the heart be still as loving
    And the moon be still as bright (Byron, So We'll Go no More A-Roving)
  • Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. (Dickens, Dombey and Son)
clauses or sentences are arranged in a series without subordination, usually shorter sentence constructions (opposite of hypotaxis)
  • My hot water bottle was red, Manchester United’s colour. Sinbad’s was green. I loved the smell off the bottle. I put hot water in it and emptied it and smelled it. I put my nose to the hole, nearly in it. (Doyle, Paddy Clarke)
the unusual repetition of the same conjunction (opposite of asyndeton)
  • It is a land with neither night nor day,
    Nor heat nor cold, nor any wind, nor rain,
    Nor hills nor valleys. (Ch. Rossetti, Cobwebs)
  • Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
    Unequal laws unto a savage race,
    That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. (Tennyson, Ulysses)
redditio / kyklos / framing
a syntactic unit or verse line is framed by the same element at the beginning and at the end
  • Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
    Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.
    (Shakespeare, Measure for Measure)
  • Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity! (Browning, The Bishop Orders his Tomb)
(Greek for “yoking”) one verb controls two or more objects that have different syntactic and semantic relations to it
  • Harriet had broken all her old ties and half the commandments [...]
    (Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night)
  • Or stain her honour or her new brocade.
    Forget her prayers or miss a masquerade,
    Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball
    (Pope, Rape of the Lock)


opposition, or contrast of ideas or words in a parallel construction
  • Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed. (Samuel Johnson)
  • Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

addressing an absent person, a god or a personified abstraction
  • Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)
substitution of an agreeable or at least non-offensive expression for one whose plainer meaning might be harsh or unpleasant
  • […] one particular lady, whose lord is more than suspected of laying his umbrella on her as an instrument of correction, [...] (Dickens, Bleak House)
obvious exaggeration for emphasis or for rhetorical effect
  • […] he couldn’t, however sanguine his disposition, hope to offer a remark that would be a greater outrage on human nature in general […] (Mrs Chick’s response to her husband’s suggestion that the starving baby should be fed with the teapot since there was no nurse. Dickens, Dombey and Son)
expression of something which is contrary to the intended meaning; the words say one thing but mean another
  • ‘Well!’ said Mrs Chick, with a sweet smile, ‘after this, I forgive Fanny everything!’ It was a declaration in a Christian spirit, and Mrs Chick felt that it did her good. Not that she had anything particular to forgive in her sister-in-law, not indeed anything at all, except her having married her brother – in itself a species of audacity – and her having, in the course of events, given birth to a girl instead of a boy […]. (Dickens, Dombey and Son)

  • In addition [...] you are liable to get tide-trapped away in the swamps, [...] Of course if you really want a truly safe investment in Fame, and really care about Posterity, and Posterity's Science, you will jump over into the black batter-like, stinking slime cheered by the thought of the terrific sensation you will produce in 20,000 years hence, and the care you will be taken of then by your fellow-creatures, in a museum (Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa)
a figure of similarity, a word or phrase is replaced by an expression denoting an analogous circumstance in a different semantic field. The comparison adds a new dimension of meaning to the original expression. Unlike in simile, the comparison is not made explicit ( ‘like’ or ‘as’ are not used, see the longer discussion in Analysing a Metaphor)
  • The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.
    (Shakespeare, All's Well that Ends Well)
  • That fence about my soul (MacNeice, London Rain)
a figure of contiguity, one word is substituted for another on the basis of some material, causal, or conceptual relation
  • My Head and Heart thus flowing thro’ my Quill (Pope, Imitations of Horace)
    (i.e. the thoughts produced in my head and the feelings of my heart are expressed in the things I write with my quill)
(Greek for “sharp-dull”) a self-contradictory combination of words or smaller verbal units; usually noun-noun, adjective-adjective, adjective-noun, adverb-adverb, or adverb-verb – a paradoxical utterance that conjoins two terms that in ordinary usage are contraries
  • bittersweet, pleasing pains, loving hate, etc.
  • I will complain, yet praise;
    I will bewail, approve;
    And all my sour-sweet days
    I will lament and love. (George Herbert, Bitter-Sweet)
a daring statement which unites seemingly contradictory words but which on closer examination proves to have unexpected meaning and truth
  • Snail-paced in a hurry (Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market)
  • Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear. (Milton, Paradise Lost)
paronomasia / pun
wordplay, using words that are written similarly or identically, but have different meanings
  • […] he
    Who lied in the chapel
    Now lies in the Abbey. (Byron, Epitaph for William Pitt)
  • Holland [...] lies so low they're only saved by being dammed.
    (Thomas Hood, Up the Rhine)
  • Some folk are wise, and some are otherwise.
    (Smollett, Roderick Random)
  • I always say beauty is only sin deep.
    (Saki, Reginald's Choir Treat)
the use of words with disparaging connotations
  • […] the nurse, a simpering piece of faded gentility (Dickens, Dombey and Son)
a descriptive word or phrase is used instead of a proper name
  • finny race (for fish)
  • The Swan of Avon (for Shakespeare)

  • On one occasion [...] a mighty Silurian [...] chose to get his front paws over the stern of my canoe, and endeavoured to improve our aquaintance. I had to retire to the bows, to keep the balance right, and fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle, when he withdrew [...] I should think that crocodile was eight feet long. (Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa)

  • [...] the Fans round Talagouga wouldn't go at any price above Njole, because they were certain they would be killed and eaten by the up-river Fans. Internally consigning the entire tribe to regions where they will get a rise in temperature, even in this climate, I went with Mme Forget to M. Gacon [...]. (Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa)

personification / prosopoeia
animals, ideas, abstractions or inanimate objects are endowed with human characteristics
  • And moody Madness laughing wild
    Amid severest woe
    (Gray, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College)
  • On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some mark.
    (Dickens, Dombey and Son)

two things are openly compared with each other, introduced by ‘like’ or ‘as’
  • My heart is like a singing bird. (Christina Rossetti, A Birthday)
  • Youth like summer morn, age like winter weather.
    (Shakespeare, The Passionate Pilgrim)
the description of one kind of sensation in terms of another (description of sound in terms of colour: blue note; description of colour in terms of sound: loud shirt; etc.)
  • The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath
    Not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
    To conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.
    (Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream)

  • If music be the food of love, play on […] (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)
A figure of contiguity (form of metonymy), the use of a part for the whole, or the whole for the part: ‘pars pro toto’ or ‘totum pro parte’
  • I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’beer
    The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.” (Kipling, Tommy)
    (instead of ‘a soldier’, who wears a red coat)
understatement (meiosis)
an idea is deliberately expressed as less important than it actually is; a special case of understatement is litotes, which denies the opposite of the thing that is being affirmed (sometimes used synonymously with meiosis)
  • Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse. (Swift, Tale of a Tub)
  • This is not unexciting. (litotes)