Practical Rhetorical Terms — with Examples!

In ancient Greece and Rome, rhetoric was considered part of the trivium, or the three main courses of study for ambitious young men. It remained popular until the Middle Ages, after which it gradually ceased to be a requirement for students. This is ironic, considering how important being a good speaker continues to be to this day.

Of course, some rhetorical knowledge is very helpful for writers. The better your characters can speak, the more depth it gives to your story. Today, iUniverse presents several rhetorical terms, along with concrete examples.

Anaphora: a succession of sentences beginning with the same word or group of words. The 20th century saw many practitioners of this strategy, including Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill. Here is an excerpt from Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech that he gave to inspire his countrymen during World War II:

churchill“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air . . . We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!”

Here, the repetition of “We shall” helps Churchill’s speech reach an inspiring crescendo.

Eristic: aiming to win a debate via your style and power of argument, rather than by the truth.  In essence, it means persuading the audience that one is right, even if he is not. Who is famous for doing this? Lawyers! But numerous instances can also be found among the conversations of Dr. Samuel Johnson, in James Boswell’s biography. One can also see it in political debates! For a wealth of examples, see The Art of Being Right by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Several of his tactics include “Claim victory despite defeat” and “Persuade the audience, not the opponent”.


Aposiopesis: This must be one of the most unpronounceable words in our language – it actually comes directly from Greek. The term means stopping short in the middle of a line, for dramatic effect. We often see this in dramatic speeches, or even from comedians. Generally, the break in speech is indicated by a dash, as in this case from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer:

She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
“Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll –

She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat….

A more theatrical example is seen in this quote from King Lear, when the eponymous character begins venting his rage:

No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall— I will do such things,
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

Aposiopesis can also be stated directly, rather than with a dash, as seen in this speech from Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see my bold portion, where Antony begins to weep):


Mark Antony

You all did love him once, not without cause.

What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?

O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason. Bear with me.

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,

And I must pause till it come back to me.


Peroration: Some of the best speeches, or at least the most memorable, have ended with a stunning and profound climax. The term peroration means “the end of a speech”, though it is generally only used when the end of a speech is particularly dramatic or impactful. There is often a crescendo or hyperbole. American history is full of great perorations, as in these three examples here:


Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster:  “. . . that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart,— Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” (Webster-Hayne debates, 1830)

Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death!” (1775)

Nathan Hale: “I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.” (1775)

 Churchill’s speech above is also an excellent example of the use of a galvanizing peroration.

Apophasis: Bringing up a subject by denying that it should be brought up. Again, this is often used by politicians and people seeking approval from an audience. One example from everyday conversation is the way in which we use the phrase, “not to mention”, as in, “He’s made some bad decisions as a supervisor lately, not to mention his chronic absenteeism.” Another example would include the following hypothetical phrase from a politician during a speech:

  • “I will not stand here and boast about my immaculate military record, or my successes in bringing large swathes of the population out of poverty . . .”


Anapodoton: Our last term for today signifies an incomplete sentence, in which the latter part is implied rather than stated outright. It is somewhat similar to aposiopesis, mentioned above. Here are some examples:

  • “If you think I’m going to sit here and listen to this nonsense . . .” Here, the latter phrase, “then you are mistaken”, is implied rather than stated.
  • “When in Rome . . .” So many of us know the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, that it is not necessary to complete the sentence. A humorous example can be seen in this clip from one of The Simpsons Halloween specials.

 –By Tom McKinley

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