Rhetorical devices revisited

Have you ever thought that the word oxymoron itself becomes a great oxymoron if you just add the letter f to the beginning of the word?

Not sure what an oxymoron is? We’ll check it out further down.

Earlier this year, I read a book on the magic of rhetorical devices and the value they add to a writer’s output when used astutely. Ever since, I have been giving whatever time I can spare to the issue of how to use these devices; I also wanted to share my findings with readers of my blog.

This is my second blog post on the subject. Like in the first one, which can be found here, I discuss five of them and quote examples of rhetorical devices in writing.

And like in that first post, I would point that out that while mastery over rhetorical devices is a force multiplier for any writer, these devices need to be used sparingly as surprise weapons, subtle devices that sneak past the reader’s eyes and go deep before they bring about a “Hello, what was that?” reaction.

Let’s get going with the first of the five devices.

rhetorical devices

rhetorical devices

Hypallage, or transferred epithet:

The hypallage achieves subtle surprise effect by transposing an action or a quality, like a state of mind, from one element to another, less likely element.

If you were to say, “Bruce had a nervous moment or two on the plastic surgeon’s table before the sedative took over,” you don’t really mean that time was nervous. You are just employing a literary device to stress Bruce’s feelings just before his face went under the scalpel.

Consider this example from Jeeves and the Impending Doom by P G Wodehouse; it is an example typical of the author’s approach to writing, which I love:

He uncovered the fragrant eggs and b and I pronged a moody forkful.

On a less frivolous note, we have an example of use of hypallage by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield:

(Peggotty) rubs everything that can be rubbed, until it shines, like her own honest forehead, with perpetual friction.


Alliteration is the deliberate repetition of sounds or letters in close sequence, usually within a sentence or within a few consequent sentences.

Here’s something I created just for this post:

One windy day, Woodrow Wilson opened his windows wide.

Would you say that is a bit of writing worthy of being the first line of a biography?

Edgar Allan Poe achieves alliteration by dangling several ds in his most famous poem, The Raven:

the raven

the raven

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

This particular specimen is my favorite piece of alliteration as far as this post is concerned, though it is not exactly from the world of literature. It is the makeup brand Maybelline’s slogan.

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.

Nice work there, guaranteed to draw in customers, especially those who are authors choosy about their makeup and the language it is sold in!


Anaphora refers to the intentional repletion of a word or set of words at the beginnings of two or more consequent clauses. Here’s one of my own creations, again:

If it preens, if it struts, if it raves, if it rants, if it overcombs, it must be the Ace of Trumps.

If that made you grimace, I apologize and make this peace offering of a much better, more classic example: the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

I had A Tale of Two Cities as a text book in high school, and most of my classmates can recite that paragraph by rote even now, about four decades later. Powerful stuff.

We’ll wrap up our examples of anaphora with a typically hard-boiled contribution from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.


The epistrophe is like the anaphora applied at the wrong end, the butt end; a word or a set of words is repeated at the ends of consecutive clauses or sentences, as you will see here in my creation:

She wanted a diamond necklace, I gave it to her; she wanted a St. Moritz holiday, I gave it to her; she wanted a Bugatti, I gave it to her; she didn’t know where to stop. She wanted some real prime real estate. I gave it to her.

Did I do better with this one?

This paragraph from The Grapes of Wrath is probably a good example of why john Steinbeck is the author he is:

Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . . An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there…..

Let’s wrap up epistrophes with this extract from a book on rhetoric, The Arte of Rhetorique by Thomas Wilson:

Where affections bear rule, their reason is subdued, honesty is subdued, good will is subdued, and all things else that withstand evil, for ever are subdued.


An oxymoron creates a paradox by using combinations of words or phrases of opposite meaning or significance. This device makes for strong emphasis because of the startling effect of the contradiction.

Remember the first paragraph of this post? Would you say foxymoron is a great oxymoron?

Mark Twain, with his typical wit, had this to say, this time by way of oxymoron:

It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.

He worked fast, I must say. I often take longer. Like, say, forever.

Yogi Berra shows he is probably better at playing with words as he was at playing ball.

No one goes to that restaurant anymore—it’s always too crowded.

Delectable. A Home run.

Let’s wrap up the episode with this no less delectable contribution from Andy Warhol:

I am a deeply superficial person.

So ruminate over these five devices as I hope you will have ruminated over the five in my first post. Understanding rhetorical devices and using them smartly add layers to an author’s sheen. In the meantime, I will work on some more and keep you informed.

You got any examples of clever use of rhetorical devices you think folks should know? Tell them in the comments.

  • Charles Ray

    Great post! I’m overcome with the brevity of your wit and the profundity of your prose.

Rhetorical devices revisited

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 5 min