Rhetoric - Schemes and Tropes


I hope you enjoyed the recent series about the role critical-thinking can play in ethical decision making through an analysis of cases in this year’s Ethics Bowl “coopetition.”


I wanted to end that series as the national Ethics Bowl championship began, but if you’re hungry for more examples, my friends at ThinkerAnalytix have put together a host of Argument Maps (a subject they taught on this site last year) that cover other Ethics Bowl cases from earlier in the year (you can check them out at the bottom of this page).


With that digression behind us, it’s time to return to the subject of rhetoric – ways of choosing and organizing words that make arguments particularly persuasive, starting with a look at rhetorical devices.


To begin with, rhetorical devices fall into two categories: schemes and tropes.


Schemes involve the way words are organized (usually signifying using words in a nonstandard order in order to gain attention). Tropes, on other hand, involve your selection of words, specifically using words in unexpected ways, also to gain attention.


While that's a useful distinction, a more practical set of categories for understanding rhetorical devices include linguistic vs. strategic devices.


Linguistic devices include word sequencing (schemes) and word choice (tropes) designed to make your communication more interesting to the listener.


Some of these are literary devices, the same ones you learned about when you were first introduced to poetry and creative writing in elementary or middle school.


For instance, one of the most familiar literary devices is alliteration, which is the repeating of a consonant sound at the beginning of a set of words (such as a politician who once condemned his critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism”). You can also repeat a consonant sound at the end of words (this is called consonance, for instance: “we cannot back track”), repeat a vowel sound (called assonance, like “there isn’t a quick fix”), or just jump right in and rhyme your words (as in “I like Ike”).


Another familiar pair of literary devices includes metaphor and its skinnier cousin simile.


Metaphors create a connection between two seemingly unrelated things by saying one thing is another (as in “America is a shining city on a hill”). Similes do something similar but use “like” or “as” to make sure the audience knows you are not supposed to take the comparison literally (as in political satirist P. J. O’Rourke’s “the government is like a baby, making a loud noise at one end with no sense of responsibility at the other.”)


It’s no accident that the same devices that make stories, poems, and song lyrics (whether written, spoken, or sung) memorable and moving also work in persuasive communication like political speeches. The fact that they are so widely used is simply a choice by persuaders to not make their communication dry and boring.


While alliteration and the like are common in both written and verbal communications, other linguistic devices are primarily useful in spoken presentations like political speeches, sermons, or classroom lectures.


These include anaphora, the purposeful repeating of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases such as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of wisdom, it was an age of foolishness…” from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. You can also do this repeating trick at the end of a set of phrases or list (that’s called epistrophe), the canonical example being Abraham Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”


Before leaving the topic of linguistic devices, I need to highlight the most powerful scheme of them all: chiasmus, which repeats but switches word order, usually within the same sentence. The canonical example of this scheme comes from the inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy, which included this still-remembered request: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”


As those examples highlight, figures of speech are not just used by politicians or advertisers trying to persuade you. When your mom screams that she “spends half her life cleaning up after you,” she is engaging in hyperbole or intentional exaggeration for effect. The class clown who walks up to two kids necking at a party and asks “Have you two been introduced?” is engaging in the opposite technique: litotes (purposeful understatement).


A quick Google search will introduce you to dozens of additional rhetorical devices/figures of speech and in the next post in this series, I’d like to introduce strategic devices that can be used not to just enliven but to actually control debate.