Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

Name That Rhetorical Device!

There are Buicks bigger than hearses to be won if you can guess the rhetorical devices behind the doors.  Identify the device, and the prize is yours. . .

Or not. 

I’ve never been the kind of rhetorician that savors labeling odd rhetorical maneuvers with their Latin names. “Figures of speech” can verge on the arcane.  And lists of them can reach into the dozens.  I can’t say this kind of pedantry stopped my professors, who relished letting a Latinate name roll of the tongue: a kind of verbal jewel placed before us to admire. We students were supposed to be impressed,  as if a chemistry teacher had just put two clear liquids together to produce a black solid. Indeed, an academic field may benefit from some mystifying language.

Or not.  Perhaps we do not need yet another specialty that insists on its multisyllabic terms that stand for what can be described in plain English.  But like every other language person, I admit to having my favorites. After all, figures of speech do have social functions. There are some devices that are so cunning or memorable that they merit their own display case. Recognizing them provides a thrill that may be totally unjustified.  But there it is.  Rhetoricians are a different lot.


There are some devices that are so cunning or memorable that they merit their own display case.

Synecdoche: The use single element to stand in for the whole.  It’s an old and sometimes respectable rhetorical tactic to use one person or thing as a stand-in for a much larger class.  Think of images of firefighters in the smoke of the World Trade Center, or a Dorothea Lange photograph of a dust-bowl family.  Similarly, if we say “Abraham Lincoln captured the zeitgeist of his time” we would be giving the Civil War era a much-needed moral facelift.  His earthly practicality and fleeting idealism reflected the tensions of the time.  To be sure, the assertion is pretty reductive.  But a synecdoche has the advantage of making big ideas more apparent by reducing them to a single vessel. Among other things, this device is what makes television news possible.

Affirmation by Denial: This is usually a statement in which a questionable claim is repeated, but then innocently disavowed.  The wily speaker or writer doing this usually thinks he can have it both ways: repeating a slander or untruth as an innocent piece of information, then stepping out of the way and feigning a degree of neutrality.  Candidate Donald Trump pulled this shift on President Obama all the time, raising the specter of birtherism, and then putting some daylight between himself and the bogus assertion.  And we could do the same for him:  “Some people think the President might have mental health issues. I’m not saying that, but I hear it a lot.”  Better that a person simply take ownership of an idea, if they choose to raise it.

Anaphora: The repetition of a word or phrase for emphasis.  Oral rhetoric especially favors anaphora.  There is something inherently pleasing about a verbal structure built around parallel repetitive elements. It’s the basis of most pop music, in addition to memorable speeches that have entered the American canon.  Consider one of the most famous examples uttered by Martin Luther King in August of 1963:  I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi . . . will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

Oxymoron: The use of two words or phrases in apparent contradiction to each other: for example, “jumbo shrimp,” “civil war,” “military intelligence,” “educational television,” “congressional leadership” or “militant pacifist.”  Actually, an oxymoron can arise from the mixing of any two ideas that seem to be unlikely partners.  The best of these can offer what Kenneth Burke called “perspective by incongruity.” A pairing of two dissimilar terms make a new reality. But the simplest effects may be comic, as in this famous reference to a lover’s easily muddled thinking, from Act 1 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?

Enthymeme:  The presence of this device is indicated by what is not said.  Aristotle seemed to be the first to notice that the art of addressing an audience includes the skill to understand when they will provide their own experiences as evidence.  Hence, the enthymeme: a claim where what is left unsaid will be supplied from the reservoir of the audience’s own knowledge.  This has many virtues, the most profound of which is that audiences are effectively induced into being co-participants in their own persuasion.

When the 1968 presidential campaign of Lyndon Johnson ran a particular attack ad against GOP candidate Barry Goldwater, Goldwater’s name was never mentioned.  The images were enough to identify the Arizona Republican’s scary thoughts about the possible use of “tactical” nuclear weapons in Vietnam.  The so-called “Daisy ad” created by Tony Schwartz help assure a Johnson landslide, even though it only appeared on television a few times.  As Schwartz later noted, the ad recruited viewers as a “workforce,” completing associations triggered by the images.

1964 Daisy Ad

Famous Johnson campaign ad from 1964.

The Uses of Ambiguity

The usual response is to worry over any lack of clarity.  But it’s worth turning over this ordinary condition to see what the other side offers.

We often assume that language works best when it is stipulative: when words mean one thing and one thing only. This is the way mathematics functions. Ambiguity has been wrung out of most calculations and computer codes. In the not-so-distant past, the promise of mathematical precision was the firm hope of some linguists.  We usually have the same hope in mind when we attempt to “explain” a fact or attitude to another. We want to see our words as duplicates, more or less, of what is in our’s and others’ heads.

There is nothing wrong with this impulse.  An Alice-in-Wonderland world is not what most of us imagine as a functional environment.  We depend on predictable responses from others.  If a person says they are “feeling well,” we assume we know what they mean.

Slippery meanings have their functions.

Even so, meaning is almost never a matter of a one-to-one conversion.  We know this only too well when apparent certainties give way to the vicissitudes of real life. “I think she is coming,” “It’s not too spicy,” and “The computer glitch is fixed” are all statements from a very deep well of expressions that should come with a permanent asterisk of doubt. What we hear and what has been affirmed are almost never the same thing.

And yet, slippery meanings have many functions. Consider just a few of many:

A certain vagueness can trigger new insights. Breakthroughs in thinking sometimes happen by accident, or the near-accidents triggered by the use of analogies, poor word choice, metaphors, and on-the-fly comparisons.  These sideways glances into a problem can yield surprising new understandings.

Astrobiologist Caleb A. Scharf notes that “the simple truth is that scientists themselves constantly make use of analogies, metaphorical devices, and similes. Sometimes it’s the only way to build an intuition for a problem, by relating it to something else. Richard Feynman was perhaps one of the greatest players of this game, turning spinning plates into cutting-edge quantum physics and Nobel prizes.”  Notably, all of these rhetorical forms are significantly ambiguous.  Push them far enough and they break down into non-sequiturs.

A key advantage of ambiguity is perhaps what the poet John Keats meant in his often quoted letter to his brother in 1817. He said he admired Shakespeare for his “negative capability,” meaning that The Bard was “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Literature and narratives open up to multiple perspectives, making them knowable only in the serendipitous ways they create rainbows of associations within us.

Ambiguity preserves options. We depend on a certain degree of verbal skill to protect ourselves and allow for generous reinterpretation. The calculated spaciousness of a statement gives us room to adjust as a situation requires. It’s an old joke that a politician’s favorite color is plaid. But we often exercise the same kind of linguistic sleight of hand.  The response “I’d love to come to the party if I can” preserves a range of options later on.  “I’m not sure I understand what you mean” uses a non-committal response to perhaps fend off an overt statement one disagrees with. It’s almost as good as “Maybe.”

Advertisements are strategically ambiguous about what they are selling.  An audience member often finds their own way to a message.  And a certain indirection can help.  A McDonald’s-France ad featuring a closeted gay youth sharing a meal with his dead ends with the tagline, “Come as you are.”  A second look suggests that the message is a bit hypocritical.  Why can’t the youth be out to the rest of his family? Perhaps a casual viewer only sees the ad’s pitch for inclusivity.

Ambiguity lets us in. Music, poetry, and unresolved third acts leave room for audiences to hear or see what they need. Music carries the possibilities of multiple meanings even further. What did Dmitri Shostakovich mean by the crude and blunt marches embedded in the First Movement of his Fifth Symphony? Just a modernist impulse?  A taunt to authorities who wanted a more “Soviet” style from him?  A garish state of his own bouts of despair?  Who knows?  Or try to identify the emotional thread in a A Chorus Line’s big anthem, “What I Did for Love.”  Is the Hamlisch/Kleban song a simple expression of commitment to the precarious life of a Broadway dancer?  A “no regrets” act of defiance over a committed relationship that failed?  Or a defiant affirmation of same sex love, when it carried a heavier social stigma?  We hear what we need to hear.

Music can be partly understood in terms of the mathematics of tonality. But the emotional results of it and all the arts take us in a totally different direction:  to myriad evocations of feeling made possible by their welcome ambiguities.