How to use rhetorical moves in your writing and why they matter

I fear we have lost the word “rhetoric” in its good and original sense, defined by the "American Heritage Dictionary" as “the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively.” That meaning still applies if you are studying Cicero or taking a good English composition course. But a semantic shift is under way, described by a tertiary definition: “Language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous.”

No one thought or talked much about rhetoric during the presidency of George W. Bush, his critics focused on gaffes which made him sound and appear the buffoon. But the ascendancy of Barack Obama brought rhetoric back into the foreground, and not in a good way. His political opponents – from Hillary Clinton to Mitt Romney – tried to turn Obama’s word power into a pejorative. In summary, the critics suggested that the candidate and then the president was a good speaker, a good reader from the teleprompter, but not a leader, not a principled person of action.

This sense is captured best in the phrase “empty rhetoric,” suggesting a  chasm between the world of language and ideas and the world of policy and political tactics. That Obama came from an unusual ethnic and culture heritage brought race into the equation. For some early critics in the African-American community, there rose debate about whether the candidate was black enough, and from the extreme right came the sense that this cosmopolitan orator was superior and detached – “uppity” in the old racist parlance.

As a critical reader, I need the ability to sniff out rhetoric that is empty, but as a writer I depend upon a rhetoric that is full. I didn’t attempt to make that last sentence seem “rhetorical,” but it is, a product of the see-saw effect of the parallel phrases “rhetoric that is empty” with “rhetoric that is full.” When I use the phrase “see-saw effect," you are getting more rhetoric, a metaphor designed to help you “see” an image to help explain a linguistic abstraction: the power of comparison and contrast.

So there are rhetorical moves everywhere. The more you read and listen carefully, the more you will recognize them. The more you recognize, the more you will find opportunities to use these moves in your own speaking and writing.

The ancient rhetoricians had names for just about every language move, so many as to defy memory and utility. But a few names for a few rhetorical moves will help you become a more elegant and persuasive writer.

Let’s take the word zeugma, for example, a move in which a single verb in a sentence creates two different senses by its attachment to two different objects. The AHD offers “He took my advice and my wallet.” Nice. Let me try a couple: “Gingrich dragged out his seven point plan and his blondest wife.” Or, “The County Commission voted to restore fluoride to the water and sanity to the public debate.”

James Geary, an expert on aphorisms, taught me a new move called a chiasmus, the name of the Greek letter X, in which two parallel phrases have their elements inverted. Try to remember the first time you heard that “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that counts.” The effect is a perfect cross between the catchy and the memorable. How about JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country”?

Here are several I found in a collection of inspirational sayings titled "Patches of Godlight" by Jan Karon:

“We do not need to get good laws to restrain bad people.  We need to get good people to restrain bad laws.”  – G.K. Chesterton

“Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” -- St. Augustine

“Courage is not having the strength to go on;  it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” – Theodore Roosevelt

“The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.” – D.L. Moody

“Those who make religion their god will not have God for their religion.”  – Thomas Erskine

Most of these seem devout, but who knew when I first told this old joke that I was passing along a chiasmus: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Here the parallels are replaced by the rhythm of the puns. Even Mae West got into the act: "It's not the men in your life that matters, it's the life in your men."

To keep filling you up with rhetoric, let me offer a handful of the most common and useful moves, with definitions from the AHD.

Synecdoche (not to be confused with Schenectady):

“A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for the part (as law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin)…or the material for the things made from it (as steel for sword).”

Metonymy (not to be confused with monotony):

“A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated, as in the use of Washington for the United States Government or of the sword for military power.”

Hyperbole (not to be confused with hyperbola):

“A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, as in I could sleep for a year or This book weighs a ton.”


“A figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite, as in This is no small problem.” (How about this understatement when the Taco Bell chihuahua tries to trap Godzilla: "I think I need a bigger box.")


“The set of associations implied by a word in addition to its literal meaning….” As in Hollywood holds connotations of romance and glittering success.

Add to the list the more commonly known rhetorical moves: parallelism, metaphor, simile, analogy, alliteration, and emphatic word order, and you have on your your lips or at your fingertips figures of speech and tools of writing that can serve you for a thousand years (that’s hyperbole).

Just remember it’s not the rhetoric in the writer that matters most, but the writer in the rhetoric, he said chiasmically.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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