Rail yard background, from the Library of Congress


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Rhetorical Figures
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Some examples

These examples illustrate the use of a few prominent rhetorical figures to show how such figures create effects we commonly perceive, often without recognizing them.

Parallelism is the use of similar structures in two or more clauses. Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address uses parallelism throughout. For one of many examples in the very short text, Lincoln says, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." The implied full sentence--"The world will little note [what we say here], nor long remember what we say here"-- becomes more elegant and concise because Lincoln uses parallelism to help his listeners hear the sentence's full meaning in spite of the missing words of the first clause.

The words Lincoln eliminates in the quotation above are an example of ellipsis, the omission of a word or short phrase that can be understood in context.

Parallelism is also a common method of producing antithesis, which occurs when contrasting elements are juxtaposed. Returning to The Gettysburg Address, we can find many examples of antithesis, from simple ones such as "The brave men, living and dead" (juxtaposing "living" and "dead") and more subtle ones such as the contrast between "say" and "did" in this sentence: "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Note how that sentence combines parallelism, ellipsis, and antithesis.

Anaphora is the repetition of the opening word or group of words at the beginning of a group of lines, clauses, or sentences. Whitman uses anaphora frequently, as in this passage from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry":

  Just as you feel when you look on the river 
     and sky, so I felt;	 
  Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, 
     I was one of a crowd;	 
  Just as you are refreshíd by the gladness of 
     the river and the bright flow, I was refreshíd;
  Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet 
     hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet 
	 was hurried;	 
  Just as you look on the numberless masts of 
     ships, and the thick-stemíd pipes of 
	 steamboats, I lookíd.

Aposiopesis, which literally means falling silent, is the technique of breaking off suddenly to convey some kind of emotion. Lord Byron uses aposiopesis in Don Juan to comic effect, as in this joke about what students really learn in college:

  [. . .] if I had an only son to put
  To school (as God be praised that I have none),
  'T is not with Donna Inez I would shut
  Him up to learn his catechism alone,
  No-- no-- I 'd send him out betimes to college,
  For there it was I pick'd up my own knowledge.

  For there one learns-- 't is not for me to boast,
  Though I acquired-- but I pass over that,
  As well as all the Greek I since have lost:
  I say that there 's the place-- but 'Verbum sat.'
  I think I pick'd up too, as well as most,
  Knowledge of matters-- but no matter what--
  I never married-- but, I think, I know
  That sons should not be educated so. 

The humor of the latter stanza comes from the narrator's constant aposiopesis and the reader's awareness of the kind of learning to which the narrator refers.

There are many other rhetorical figures that speakers and writers use routinely, knowingly or not. To get a sense of their abundance, see Gideon Burton's Silva Rhetoricae.

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