The magic of rhetorical devices

When I was in school, I learned about figures of speech. I seem to remember being introduced to seven—or was it eight—figures of speech: simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, understatement…

Oh dear.

For the most part, we got the idea. It seemed metaphor differed from simile only in the use of the word like. Hyperbole and understatement were like liberals and conservatives. We were fine with personification, because we had Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser and Marc Anthony’s “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech, which was one of our favorite elocution contest choices, included the line, “O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts.”

So imagine my surprise when I took up writing late in life and found that “figures of speech” was for schoolboys; adults talk about things called “tropes” and “rhetorical devices”, of which there are not seven or eight, but seven or eight thousand, seemingly. Seems like if we had only been taught rhetorical devices in school, we would not have had time for any other subject.

These figures of speech, tropes and rhetorical devices are insidious. They get into you like an undetectable virus that stays for life. Consciously and unconsciously, authors use them all the time. You can’t pick up a book and read a line without running into some rhetorical device or the other.

But most authors don’t know the zero point half of it, as I proved in that first paragraph.

A book I read recently talked extensively about rhetorical devices, and I got hooked. Seems if you want to be an author worth your ink, you want to master as many of them as you can and use them. Use them judiciously, I should add, because rhetorical devices should appear infrequently and discreetly, such that they initially register only on the subconscious of the reader, then cause a big impact. Kind of like a firecracker dressed up as a candle on a birthday cake.

I don’t think you will ever regret any time and effort you devote to getting familiar with rhetorical devices and trying them out. What you have to strive for is to make the use of these devices come natural to you; at that stage, they will read natural, too.

I will continue to give time to rhetorical devices in the days to come, and I am going to blog about what I learn.

I am going to start now, with the five rhetorical devices I named in that first paragraph. They are five of the most common of rhetorical devices—the junior high school child level—and I am going to illustrate them with examples of superb use by other writers.


Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration to emphasize. According to the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, hyperbole is not deceit, but “an elegant surpassing of the truth.”

Here’s some elegant surpassing of the truth by Carl Sandburg:

It’s a slow burg—I spent a couple of weeks there one day.

Delicious. Time shows down to a 1:14 proportion as you chew on that one.

slow burg

slow burg

And some more surpassing of truth by John F. Kennedy, at a White House dinner honoring forty-nine Nobel Prize winners:

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House–with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

I confess I have my doubts about this one, though: was Kennedy talking hyperbole or was he talking sarcasm?


Metaphor is a word or phrase to describe an object or action that refers to some other object or action to show similarity, even if the comparison cannot be taken literally.

How can a discussion on rhetorical devices be complete without at least one reference to Groucho Marx?

A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.

Doesn’t that quote make you squirm with delight? (If I were to update it, I would probably substitute “chartered jet” for “taxi”).

P G Wodehouse had his moments, too.

He was a Frenchman, a melancholy-looking man. He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.

That last quote gets your imagination firing overtime, doesn’t it?


The simile uses words and phrases—often using the word like—to achieve a vivid comparison of one subject to another.

We’ll start off with Mark Twain on this one.

He mounted the Genuine, got lifted into the air once, but sent his spurs home as he descended, and the horse darted away like a telegram.

Though this simile stirred up my imagination, I am not sure if it belongs in this post. I wonder how many of my readers will have even heard of the word “telegram”, let alone know what it means.



Let’s go from Mark Twain to Terry Pratchett now:

Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.

Oops. I wonder if that was personal experience speaking.


My definition of personification may raise hackles, but here goes: personification is the attribution of human qualities to animals and objects.

Here is an example of how P G Wodehouse used personification:

Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing gloves.

Once again, use of a rhetorical device that has you actually envisaging a device something like a flat brass knuckle, made of lead and fitting inside a boxing glove. You wonder just how much havoc that device, when directed by Fate, is going to achieve.

And for a more philosophical use of personification, consider this contribution from Christopher Moltisanti:

Fear knocked on the door. Faith answered. There was no one there.

More touching, more inclined to make you ruminate.


Understatement is playing around with words to make something less important, less momentous than it is actually is.

Here is a classic example.

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Journalist Henry Morton Stanley, on meeting long-lost missionary David Livingstone after a 700-mile trek through tropical African forest.

I conclude my examples with this rather macabre contribution from Donald Rumsfeld in response to criticism of the war in Iraq.

Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.

He could live with that, I suppose, since it was not his own death he was talking about. He probably knew his own death wouldn’t depress anybody.

Well, back to the business at hand.

I hope you get the idea: rhetorical devices are like make up and alcohol. Skillful make up can convert ugly to good looking, good looking to gorgeous. Prudent alcohol can convert dull to lively, lively to rollicking.

In both cases, you have to know where to stop.

See you next time. I have some rhetorical devices to bone up on.

The magic of rhetorical devices

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 5 min