Rhetorical Devices

Have you ever wondered what makes that Paul Graham essay so convincing? Or that Beatles song so catchy? Or that Star Wars quote so unforgettable?

Turns out this is an art. The art of persuasion, also known as rhetoric. Studying these tools gives you the power to make your writing more convincing and memorable.

Recently, I finished reading Mark Forsyth’s Elements of Eloquence, a book about rhetorical devices. There were 39 Rhetorical devices in total. Here are three of my favorites:

1. Anadiplosis

In Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace, Yoda famously said, Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

This is an example of anadiplosis, this is where the last word of one clause is used as the first word of the next. This device makes everything sound appealing, structured, and logical. It’s as if every phrase brings you on a journey from beginning to end and who doesn’t like a good journey?

2. Tricolon

Veni, vidi, vici” is latin phrased translated as I came, I saw, I conquered” attributed to Julius Cesar.

Three is the magic number in writing. In fact, I used a tricolon at the beginning of this post. Many of us use tricolons without noticing it. A tricolon is three words, phrases or sentences that parallel each other in structure and rhythm. When we have only have 2 items, we tend to associate those 2 items. For example the in the phrase, eat, drink and be merry”. If we had only eat and drink” we associate them with ingestive processes. However, add a third item, eat, drink and be merry” and the third breaks the association making the tricolon work. Adding a fourth item is known as a tetracolon, but tetracolons just sound weird.

3. Anaphora

Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream” speech has been etched into our culture’s psyche. Everyone knows it. Anaphora is what makes it so memorable.

Another example is Churchill’s WWII speech:

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 defend our island, 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.”

Anaphora is when you start sentences with the same word or phrase. I again, used it at the beginning of this post. It’s one of the most powerful rhetorical devices because of its ease of use and effectiveness. Forsyth calls this one the King of rhetorical figures” for a reason.

January 9, 2020

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