148 - Rhetorical Language

Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speaking or writing. Rhetorical devices are those clever switches of words that grab your attention. Further to expanding the vocabulary I came across a wealth of words—wordsI ought to know—labelling rhetorical devices.

This was coupled with the wonderful A Word A Day, AWAD, having one of its irregular competitions. The week’s words were: antimetabole, zeugma, synecdoche, epanalepsis and hendiadys. I knew only synecdoche—and had that misunderstood.


Wikipedia has a substantial glossary of rhetorical terms. A good deal of these refer to larger topics than within a sentence, such as canon [the collection of works in a particular field. Eg the biblical canon, Mozart’s canon1] or bathos2 [switch of style that results in the ludicrous, hence laughter or ridicule].

I’m interested in the words such as AWAD chose and in examples. There is, I find, a lot of confusion, which I assume stems from what might be called poor definition but could equally be multiple overlap of definitions.


You will know alliteration from school; five miles meandering with a mazy motion, Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge; whisper words of wisdom, Let it Be, the Beatles. A repeated sound, as in tongue-twisters.


Similarly, assonance, a repeated similar vowel sound, and far harder to recognise: It beats as it sweeps as it cleans! - slogan for Hoover vacuum cleaners, using the repeated ee sound. Thin Lizzy, “With Love” with an ‘eh’ sound - I must confess that in my quest I felt depressed and restless. Consonance is similar, repeating the final consonant sound; Mike likes his bike. Dr Seuss uses a lot of assonance, consonance and alliteration, which is why it is fun to read out loud.

You will know onomatopoeia and maybe can even spell it. Buzz, fizz, hiss, bang, click, snip, hum , plop—where the word copies the sound it represents.

Last of these is dissonance, disrupting the pattern. A good one is beans means Heinz, an obvious advert; you might say this is assonance with the pattern disruption only in the spelling.  Poetry is full of this, the disruption or clashing of sounds. of course one man’s discord is another’s harmony, so this can be hard to agree upon. Trying to find a better assonance: Right said Fred let’s have a slice of bread; and its related dissonance, Right said Fred let’s have a cup of tea. You might improve this.

You may know syllogism, a conclusion based upon propositions assumed true; agreeing with Wikipedia to use M – Middle, S – subject, P – predicate, then a typical syllogism is to say that All M are P, all S are M, so all S are P. There are many forms of syllogism, caused by replacing ‘all’ with ‘some’ or ‘no’. All squares are rhombuses, all squares are rectangles, some rhombuses are rectangles (and some rectangles are rhombuses). But, you realise, many rectangles are not rhombuses. This is outside what I want to discuss here.

You will know allusion, a reference to a famous person or event. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark, Howard Ruff. That lies outside what I want to include here.

You will know oxymoron, a two word paradox such as eloquent silence, ignorantly read, expensive economy, useless plan, living dead, only choice, deafening silence, open secret, liquid food, short wait, big baby, small crowd, common difference, once again....




New words to me: Now there’s a simple test for inclusion.


Anaphora - repetition, often in threes, at the start of a sentence or phrase: very easy, very effective, very readable. Will you remember this? Will you use this? Will you apply this?  Also called conduplicatio. I have a dream ..., Martin Luther King, Do not pass Go, do not collect $200... Monopoly


Antimetabole - A repetition of words or an idea in a reverse order.

To fail to plan is to plan to fail.                                     (pronounced AN-ti-muh-TAB-uh-lee)

From [AWAD tells us] Greek antimetabole, from anti- (opposite) + metabole (change), from meta- (after, along) + bole (a throw). Earliest documented use: 1589.

“Carl Sagan's antimetabole 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' immediately comes to mind.” Dieter Hartmann; A Multi-Messenger Story; Nature (London, UK); Jul 21, 2011.

...and from the AWAD competition in issue 644, where I have removed the attributions:


Not just the tale of a whale, Moby Dick is a whale of a tale.

Please consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Your doctor will help determine if you are fit to exercise before you exercise to be fit.

To forget to decide is to decide to forget.

No matter how many times you beat death, death will beat you in the end.

My mother was a chemist and we wrote on her tombstone: "She did what she liked, she liked what she did."

Some of my students of English have trouble distinguishing between "to learn" and "to study". I tell them that it is possible to learn without studying and, alas, to study without learning, especially with music or the television competing for their attention.

Not to decide is to decide not to.

To finish first you must first finish.

Good from afar, but far from good (stated in reference to someone's appearance).

Wind in the autumn leaves Autumn leaves in the wind.

Once you become addicted, you don't drink alcohol, the alcohol drinks you.

Define style? Style defines.

A picture perfect day is a day in which you are still in the picture.

One of the best known practitioners of antimetabole is the character "The Sphinx" from the movie Mystery Men. He supplied us with gems like "To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn" and "He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions", among others.

Several years ago the satirical magazine Private Eye lampooned the Australian writer and critic Clive James's fondness for this device by saying he used it so that "this clever effect thus achieves the effect of cleverness."

Potential hotel slogan: Rest assured that we'll assure your rest

NYT layout team motto: If it's fit to print, we'll print it to fit.

He who owns little is little owned.

Old age is when it takes you all night long to do what you used to do all night long.

For a female of the species Homo sapiens, to be clever is to pretend not to be clever.

"which should we be more concerned with—policing our military or militarizing our police?"

Poetry straddles the fence between a wonder of words and words of wonder.

Training the engineer is as important as engineering the train.

Reality television is only television reality.

Great ideas can be ideas that grate.

To use Apple Pay is to pay Apple.

"I think of you a lot because I think a lot of you."

"If you're going to let people upset you, you're going to be upset a lot."

Just because it's interesting to the public, doesn't mean it's in the public interest.



Epistrophe - the same as anaphora but at the end of the phrase. Also called antistrophe. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


"Most strange, but yet most truly, will I speak:
That Angelo's forsworn; is it not strange?
That Angelo's a murderer; is't not strange?
That Angelo is an adulterous thief,
An hypocrite, a virgin-violator;
Is it not strange and strange?"
(Isabella in William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Act 5, scene 1)


Symploce, both anaphora and epistrophe.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail."
(attributed to Benjamin Franklin and others)



Epanalepsis a phrase used at the start and end of the compound sentence.

Walmart: Always low prices. Always.

Bruce Forsyth: Nice to see you, to see you, nice.

From the AWAD page:  Memory, memory, where did I leave my memory?
I grieve it and wonder, but mostly, I grieve it.
Shimmery photo comes, and another—shimmery.
Believe it—I have a past—please, believe it! 
           Jerry Lightfoot, Dallas, Texas (jjfoot tx.rr.com)


Synecdoche, when a part stands for the whole, or the other way about. My wheels means the car, glasses means spectacles, cash means coins, coppers means coins. Not always true, but used in this way can bring attention to a feature. Send in the troops, where troops are merely part of the armed forces who would be sent, is synecdoche.

Synecdoche is (too) easily confused with metonymy. Metonymy uses symbolism and refers to something closely linked but not a part of the thing. Britain voted no at Brussels refers to the political representatives, not the country. Julius Caesar’s ...countrymen, lend me your ears is metonymy; ears for attention.


Anadipiosis - has much in common with symploce, repeating a phrase at the end of one line near the start of the next. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God John 1:1


Zeugma connects two or more parts of speech by another part of speech;

    a subject with multiple verbs (diazeugma), I wrote this and edited it, you read this and understood it;

    a verb with multiple objects, He caught a plane and the ‘flu;

  a verb with multiple subjects Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.

Zeugma is confusable with syllepsis, which may be the same thing. I suspect zeugma is a less specific term. Syllepsis is where a verb applies only to one of the subjects, They saw lots of thunder and lightning , where you don’t see thunder, and He works his work, I mine Ulysses, Tennyson, where I works mine is wrong.

From AWAD 644 again. Attributions on the site.

The respiratory performance artist held her breath and her audience's attention.

Before meeting his parents, she put on fresh lipstick and airs.

Once upon a time when Facebook and I were both younger, I posted a status update announcing that I had just seen the band, The Hold Steady, perform in the middle of the afternoon, a rainstorm, an empty swimming pool, and a crowd of hipsters.

When you buy clothes like that, you debit your bank account and your credibility

While thinking and driving, I ran out of ideas and gasoline.

The mailman delivered her package and her baby.

He changes his mind more often than his socks.

He won the lottery and the hearts of several women.

A red-light district is the place where love and money are made.

She emerged from the hot tub wearing nothing but a hairband and a smile.

This Thanksgiving, count your blessings, your calories, and the hours before your dysfunctional relatives leave!

He popped the cork and the question.

The turncoat pitcher threw the ball and the game.

He dropped his inhibitions and his underpants.

She found her child and her happiness.

He saw the microscopic dot and the big picture.

We have a lawnmower that's difficult to restart when the engine's hot. My approach is a quick pace so the lawn can be finished without having to stop to refuel. My wife's method is a little different: "I mow until I give out or the gas does."


Hendiadys is where a conjunction is inserted between a word and its modifier, readable and correct rather than readably correct. So which is Here lies a lawyer and a good man, zeugma, hendiadys or both? The test is whether you could lose one noun and change it to a modifier. The good lawyer is not necessarily a good man, hence the joke value.

From AWAD once more:

Protons are positive and stunning.          Joshua Marx, Brooklyn, New York (marx.joshua gmail.com)

She described to me how painful and brutal her Crossfit exercise routine had become.
Randa Serag, Irvine, California (rserag gmail.com)

The fresh and baked cookies were delicious.     Winston, Seattle, Washington (winstons2004 gmail.com)

There's something I love about being home alone at night, the comfortableness of its being peaceful and silent.                 Madalynn Ramirez, Belton, Missouri (madalynnramirez yahoo.com)





Exercise: Recognise these, from AWAD’s competition:

1. Repeated words are not words repeated.        Cashman Kerr Prince, Norwood, Massachusetts                                

2. In his youth he had been tall and strong, but by the time I met him he was a pair of aching knees.                      Mariejoy San Buenaventura, Salaya, Thailand                                     

3. He checked out the book and the librarian        Vanessa Rasmussen, Vineland, New Jersey      

4. It's better to lose a moment in life than lose your life in a moment.   Pinny Gold, Brooklyn, N, USA  

5. The poor man lost face and a job so he cried a tear and for help.   Matthew Van Atta, Wellington, NZ                          

In baseball, not one in a thousand bats bats a thousand.    Stanley Mandell, Bellevue, WA USA                     

6. Wall Street lives to work while the absolute and corrupt work to live on Wall Street.3

                          Joshua Marx, Brooklyn, New York

Antimetabole 1, 4, 5   Synecdoche 2, 6  Zeugma 3, 5  6 is Possibly Zeugma, Antimetabole, Synecdoche, epanalepsis and hendiadys.



On re-reading this I see that I wouldn’t want to set or sit a test on the use of these words, as so many of the terms overlap; cause for disagreement and in so doing, cause for students to disregard the whole set of words as useless. If we do not have good definitions, then words fall into misuse and disuse.

I’ll extend this page as I discover more words. Suggestions appreciated; email button included nearby.


DJS 20141112




She lowered her standards by raising her glass/ Her courage, her eyes and his hopes

(Have Some Madeira, M'Dear, of course, Flanders and Swann)   complete words

Exercise: identify the rhetorical devices used in Madeira M’dear.


Further thoughts:

Antimetabole (which I keep on reading as anti-timetable)

I don't like people who don't think because people who don't think don't like me. 

If we puzzle words enough we can make word puzzles.

Does a timetable table time?

Do we use baby powder to powder baby? Gun powder to powder guns? Then what does custard powder do?

An antimetabolite (not antimetabole) acts as a toxin in cancer treatment:  "toxins are antimetabolites and antimetabolites are often toxins"


PIc from http://ghcdsapenglish.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/untitled.png


1 an example of double use of canon, since Mozart wrote several canons, not unlike Pachlabel. See here to see a bawdy side of Mozart. http://mentalfloss.com/article/55247/3-dirty-songs-mozart  Leck Mich im Arsch, Bona Nox, Difficile Lectu, each with a Köchel number.

2 Bathos: “the ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”        Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 1978.

3 live to work, work to live is antimetabole; absolute and corrupt, absolutely corrupt, hendiadys—possibly that gives two subjects for the verb, so zeugma. One might argue that two groups belong on Wall Street, so zeugma.


Wall street ..... wall street is epanalepsis: Wall Street refers to the people who work there, synecdoche.  Brilliant construction, or recognition, or both—all five of the week’s competition achieved.



© David Scoins 2017