Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part I


In his chronicle On the Education of an Orator, Quintilian notes that “the art of speaking depends on great labor, constant study, varied exercise, repeated trials, the deepest sagacity, and the readiest judgment.”  Writing, of course, is simply speech in print, and the arts of writing and speaking rhetorically have been held in high esteem since the beginning of civilization.  In the ancient world, royalty devoted years to the study of rhetoric (persuasive discourse) and philosophy.  They memorized famous texts in order to enrich their arguments with historical precedence.

Compelling argumentation is not merely intuitive.  Quintilian goes on to say, that “it is assisted by rules, provided that they point out a fair road, and not one single wheel-rut, from which he who thinks it unlawful to decline, must be contented with the slow progress of those who walk on ropes.”  The Greeks had an entire arsenal of rhetorical devices at their disposal, many of which we still use today whether we are aware of it or not.  In this hectic, technology-based era, we are bombarded with far more information than our ancestors would have dreamed possible; furthermore, most of this information is not presented objectively, but rather with a “spin” that reflects the bias of the source.

I was not made formally aware of stylistic, or rhetorical, devices—the “rules” that Quintilian speaks of— until my senior year of high school.  My literature teacher dictated a list of words to us, and while I dutifully copied them out, I did not perceive them as having any real importance.  It was only lately, in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, AZ, that the power of rhetoric is being frankly and widely discussed.

Using rhetoric is like Photoshopping thoughts*: they are changed in subtle (or sometimes not) ways so as to be rendered more convincing to the target audience.  Just as altered images can profoundly affect the way we see ourselves and others, so is adroit phrasing able to shape our thoughts.  Therefore, it makes sense to try and develop knowledge of rhetorical/heuristic devices, so that even if we cannot entirely prevent ourselves from reacting to and being manipulated by them, at least we can try to rationally analyze how and why we have come to a given conclusion (which is usually based on some form of evidence.  Thus, a study of this presentation is called for in order to validate the conclusion reached).  Beyond that, if one is constructing an argument, it helps to have knowledge of the proper tools.  It would be quite difficult to build a bookcase without knowing about hammers, levels, or saws, no matter how much wood was at one’s disposal.  Similarly, stylistic devices allow us to organize and structure our prose in a clearer, more forceful, yet more graceful, manner.  Returning to the carpentry analogy, it is the difference between saying “Bring me that heavy, bangy thing,” and “Please fetch me a hammer.”

*Figurative language!  This will be discussed in later chapters.

I. Clarity

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant….”–Horton the Elephant

Before you start playing mind tricks on your audience, you want them to understand what you’re saying, or at least think that they understand.  The clearer your message is, the more readily absorbed it will be.

Distincto: Furnish a precise definition for and give context to a word or phrase that might otherwise be interpreted several ways.  Popular among the legal set (i.e., lawyers).

Figure 1.0 Distincto

Exemplum: Use of concrete information/imagery to elucidate the meaning of a concept that may be abstract or unfamiliar.

Fig. 1.1 Exemplum

Amplification: Repetition of a key word or phrase adorned with choice descriptors designed to fix it firmly in the reader’s memory.

Fig. 1.2 Amplification

Metanoia: The qualification of a statement via its complete or partial rejection and subsequent restatement in more explicit terms, it brings a feeling of spontaneity and candor to the piece.

Fig. 1.3 Metanoia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s