What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric Definition

Rhetoric is used in speech and writing to make a specific impact on the audience/reader. Rhetoric often relies on language and composition techniques to create an effect that is intended to:

  • persuade
  • convince
  • influence
  • entertain
  • impress
  • motivate

Occasionally, rhetoric can sound insincere or empty, as if the words lack meaning.

Use of Rhetoric in Literature

Writers often use rhetoric in the form of figures of speech to engage and have an effect on the reader. Rhetoric can be used in description and/or dialogue as a means of making an impression or point that the writer wants the reader to accept. However, overuse of rhetoric is likely to feel tedious and/or meaningless to readers.

Difference Between Rhetorical Device and Figures of Speech

Rhetorical figures or devices are employed to achieve particular emphasis and effect. Rhetorical devices, however, are different from “figures of speech”. Wherever and whenever a figure of speech is used in written texts and speech, it alters the meanings of words. For example, the metaphor used in the expression “He is a tiger,” is a complete altered form of the simple idea “He is brave.” Try to compare this example to the use of a rhetorical device in the example below:

I am never ever going to rob anyone for you and never, never ever give in to your sinful wish.”

The repetition in the above example does lay emphasis on the statement but does not alter the sense of it.

Common Rhetoric Examples

Below are a few examples of how rhetoric is employed by using various literary devices:

  • How did this idiot get elected? – A rhetorical question to convince others that the “idiot” does not deserve to be elected.
  • Here comes the Helen of our school. – An allusion to “Helen of Troy,” to emphasize the beauty of a girl.
  • I would die if you asked me to sing in front of my parents. – A hyperbole to persuade others not to use force to make you do something you don’t want to do.
  • All blonds are dumb. – Using a stereotype to develop a general opinion about a group.

Nevertheless, the difference between rhetorical devices and figures of speech is so minute that both share many features. A figure of speech becomes a device in rhetoric when it is aimed at persuading the readers or listeners.

The Importance of Rhetoric

Rhetoric is very important in common life in general and in academic life in specific. In general, it is used to convince people around you. However, when you are in an academic setting, you use subtle arguments to win people, convince others and make your arguments strong. It is through the knowledge of rhetoric that a person uses communication effectively to win the public. Specifically, in political life, people use all modes of rhetoric to make their arguments strong and win more votes. The reason is that democracy reinforces this perception that it is better to win the public heart rather than to rule by force.

Three Modes of Persuasion in Rhetoric

As rhetoric is associated with making an appeal to the mind, there are three major strategies in rhetoric that make a common appeal strong. The first one is the ethos which is the appeal to authority, while the second one is pathos which means appeal to emotions. The third one is logos which means appeal to logic. There is a fourth mode which is kairos means to make rhetoric suitable to the time. This suitability of timing is sometimes very important, while at other times it is not so important. However, logos, pathos, and ethos are very important to make an argument convincing and persuasive.

Difference between Rhetoric and Dialectic

Whereas rhetoric intends to persuade, dialectic does not mean it. Rather, dialectic is more academic in which persuasive techniques are used with a purpose not to persuade but to interpret and present arguments. Also, whereas figurative and bombastic language is the hallmark of rhetoric, dialectic is marked with soberness as well as pragmatic choice of words. Also, dialectic is rather sophisticated while rhetoric could be tautological. Moreover, whereas rhetoric intends to convince, dialectic intends to unearth truth rather than interpret.

Examples of Rhetoric in Literature

Let us try to analyze the use of rhetoric in some literary works:

Example #1: Paradise Lost by John Milton

“…advise him of his happy state—
Happiness in his power left free to will,
Left to his own free will, his will though free
Yet mutable.”

John Milton’s Paradise Lost has several examples of rhetoric. The above sentence is from Book V: The repetition of the phrase “free will” emphasizes the theme of human creation, which is making free choices, but the phrase “yet mutable” creates ambiguity that, despite being free, Adam had to be careful, as a wrong act could make him lose his freedom.

Example #2: Death, be not Proud by John Donne

“Thou ‘art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy ‘or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?”

John Donne addresses death in his Death, Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10). The rhetorical question “why swell’st thou then?” serves to play down the horrific nature of death. He devalues death by calling it a “slave,” and that it keeps the despicable company of “poison, war, sickness” and seeks their support.

Example #3: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman

“Flood-tide below me! I watch you, face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.”

Anaphora is a device where the same word or phrase is repeated at regular intervals to achieve a rhetorical effect. Here Walt Whitman in his poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry use anaphora to create a rhetorical effect.

Function of Rhetoric

Rhetoric, as explained above, is a tool for writers and orators which empowers them to convince their readers and listeners about their point of view. Often, we find rhetoric examples in religious sermons and political speeches. They aim to make comparisons, evoke tender emotions, and censure rivals, and all this is done to persuade listeners.

Advertisers give their ads a touch of rhetoric to boost their sales by convincing people that their product is better than other products in the market. For instance, in an advertisement, a girl – after shampooing her hair with a particular product – says, “I can’t stop touching my hair.” This is an attempt to entice consumers, through visual rhetoric, to buy this product, in order to have soft and shiny hair like her.

Synonyms of Rhetoric

The following words are the closest to the meaning of rhetoric: oratory, eloquence, diction, delivery, power of speech, discourse, composition, and expression could be replaceable words.

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