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Rhetorical Devices


Some rhetorical techniques aim at persuasion by trying to give something that looks like a good argument or looks like good reasoning. One common sort of rhetorical devices is a slanter. Slanters are most commonly used to give a statement or position on an issue either a positive or negative slant. So, if a statement P has a positive slant, it attempts to get the reader to accept or have a more accepting attitude towards P. If P has a negative slant, it attempts to get the reader to reject or have a negative attitude towards P. Slanters, then, try to manipulate you into thinking a certain way just by slanting an issue in a positive or negative light.

Type I Rhetorical Devices are rhetorical devices often in the form of a single word or short phrase. They are slanters in that they cast a negative or positive slant to the sentence in which they occur, leading one to accept or reject the claim. Remember, no argument is given for accepting or rejecting the claim. That’s how these rhetorical devices work.


A euphemism is a way of naming something or calling something in terms that gives a more positive slant to it than it would normally have. They may be used to refer to something in such a way as to associate the thing with something positive, cast it in a positive light, or make it more neutral. A dysphemism is an expression that is used to produce a negative effect on a listener’s or reader’s attitude toward something, or to minimize the positive associations it may have by casting it in a negative light or associating it with something negative. When someone uses a euphemism or dysphemism, they are trying to sway you into thinking positively or negatively about something. Some examples of euphemisms include “reburbished”, “pre-owned”, and “freedom fighter”. Some examples of examples of dysphemisms would be something like “second-hand”, “used”, “terrorist”, etc. Here’s another example: suppose your romantic partner is going to break up with you. One way of making this break-up sound more awful is by saying that they are dumping you. To refer to someone breaking up with another as dumping the other is dysphemistic. A euphemistic way of referring to that act would be something like freeing the other person of any of the customary romantic obligations and giving the person the full freedom to see or not to see anyone else. So, if you’re breaking up with someone, a euphemistic way of putting is “Hey, I’m going to free you of any romantic obligations or expectations with respect to me.”

It’s important to note that not all euphemisms are bad. Sometimes their use is appropriate. When dealing with a sensitive matter, it might be best to use a euphemism that is neutral. For example, it might be more polite to say that someone “passed on” or “passed away” instead of saying that they’re “dead” or that they “died”. You don’t say “he’s crazy” or “she’s psychotic”, but rather that he or she is “mentally ill”. These are legitimate uses of euphemisms. Notice that the use of euphemism in these cases is to be polite, not necessarily to convince or manipulate anyone into believing something.


These are linguistic methods for “hedging a bet”, or, to protect a claim from criticism by weakening it. Weaselers are used to get someone to think a certain way while leaving a way for the speaker to weasel his/her way out if challenged. To an uncritical listener, statements using weaselers may sound very convincing when in fact the statements are weak or unsubstantiated. Furthermore, the use of weaselers make it difficult to charge the person of being deceptive because technically they are not lying, but rather banking on the listener to not be a critical thinker. For example, if you look at shampoos or lotions, you’ll often read things like “Guaranteed to give you healthy-looking hair after just one week of regular use!” or something like that. Now, suppose you used the product and your hair came to have a healthy shine, but it actually damaged your hair beyond repair. Did they lie to you? No – they said that their product is guaranteed to give you healthy looking hair. They never promised or guaranteed to give you healthy hair. Things like “healthy-looking skin” is like this: healthy-looking skin isn’t the same as healthy skin. Other words that might indicate weaseling include “maybe”, “perhaps”, “appears”, “seems”, “up to”, and “virtually”.

Sometimes we do have a legitimate need to use words like “seem” or “appears” or “maybe”, etc. When you’re not sure whether or not the person in the distance is your friend Maddy, you might say “that seems like Maddy” or “that may be Maddy” or “that person over there appears to be Maddy”. You might also describe some sort of energy drink as making you genuinely feel more energetic, or doing something to make you appear healthier. These are all fine, and aren’t necessarily weaselers. It really depends on the context and motives of the one using these words. In legitimate cases, these wouldn’t be called ‘weaselers’, since the intention wouldn’t be to weasel. Weaselers are found in places where there is an attempt at persuading someone into doing or believing something, and the weaselers themselves are playing a key role in the effort at persuasion.


To downplay something is to make someone or something look less important or less significant, or to make someone look less deserving of praise or recognition. This can be done with words like “mere”, “merely”, “only”, “just”, and even by putting certain words in “quotes”. Conjunctions can also be used in subtle ways to downplay things, such as the conjunctions “however”, “although”, “but” and others. When someone downplays something, the person is trying to make you believe that you shouldn’t think too highly or that you should think negatively about something. But if that’s the case, the burden is up to the person to give you reasons. Consider the following examples:

  1. “Although the company polluted the town’s water supply, they provided jobs to thousands of its residents.”
  2. “Although the company provided jobs to thousands of its residents, the company polluted the town’s water supply.”

Notice here that the first downplay the significance or importance of the company polluting the water supply, whereas the second downplays the significance or importance of the company providing jobs to thousands of residents. Here are some other examples:

  1. Don’t listen to Ms. Lee, she’s just a teacher.
  2. Don’t listen to Ms. Lee, she (only) thinks that she is a teacher.
  3. Yeah, okay, so she graduated from a “university”.
  4. Whatever, she only has a bachelor’s degree.

In statement 3, ‘just’ downplays that she is a teacher, as if being a teacher is insignificant or an unimportant role, or at least a role that is taken to be so lowly that Ms. Lee ought not to be taken seriously. In statement 4, to say that she thinks that she is a teacher, or to say that she only thinks that she is a teacher downplays that she is in fact a teacher. In fact, it downplays it to the point of diminishing any credibility that Ms. Lee may have as a teacher: she isn’t one genuinely, just in her dreams! Statement 5 uses quotation marks to downplay the university that she graduate from, making it seem that it’s just a university in name, but really not a bona fide university. Statement 6 downplays a bachelor’s degree, making it seem that it’s insignificant, or at least not strong enough to take what she says seriously.

The words “mere”, “only”, etc., and the use of conjunctions and quotes aren’t always used to downplay. There certainly are many cases in which their use is appropriate. I may say something like “Although John had good intentions, he nevertheless still made a terrible mistake.” This use of a conjunction does downplay John’s having good intentions. But this usage may be fine, since it may be aimed at trying to focus our attention on the main issue. Of course, all of this depends on whether or not further reasons are given for thinking that the focus ought to be on John’s making a terrible mistake and not on his having good intentions. Also, someone might say something like “I am “working” over the weekend” in order to make a funny remark. Perhaps the person is doing something like video-game testing, which the person finds extremely fun, making it difficult to see it as work. Lastly, we might use “only” to restrict the scope of something, such as “He satisfied only the first condition.” This use of ‘only’ isn’t downplaying, but only saying that no other condition but the first was satisfied by the person. “Mere” is used in a similar way as “only” sometimes.


These rhetorical devices are ones that make or rest upon some unwarranted assumption. The assumption tends to be subtle, and it makes you think that the assumption is true, when in fact no argument was ever given for it.


A stereotype is a thought or image about a group of people based on little or no evidence. In other words, stereotypes are unwarranted and oversimplified generalizations about the members of some group or class. First, since stereotypes are based on little or no evidence, they may be entirely false or they may be bad reasons. Second, stereotypes group people into simple categories, which may lead one to make an unjustified and unfounded judgment. In other words, one is lead by stereotypes to prejudge before carefully thinking about the issue at hand, i.e. accept something on prejudice.

Is there some kernel of truth to all stereotypes? People often defend stereotypes by claiming that there is. Let’s think critically about this. First, the adoption of a stereotype might be based on personal experience. However, just because you’ve experienced five, or ten, or even fifty members of some particular group, it doesn’t warrant a stereotype. People tend to form a stereotype after just the first encounter, and then expect and hence look for similar traits or characteristics in other members of the group. Hence, it biases one’s outlook and really distorts one’s judgment. Second, many times people fail to see other, more significant factors because they are blinded by some stereotype. For example, I’ve heard people say “Asians are good at math.” The problem here is that it doesn’t allow for variety: people are individuals and different from each other. Each person is his or her own individual, and to lump them all together under one category is to simplify them and fail to recognize the complexity and richness of each individual as an individual. Moreover, it prevents deeper, careful, and critical thinking. The stereotype could lead someone to think that being good at math is something that is inherent or necessary to being Asian. But that’s clearly preposterous. So, even if it were true that Asians did better at math on average, the answer may be more complex. For instance, it may be that anyimmigrant group that, one, culturally tends to emphasize the value of education, and two, does not speak English well, will tend to do especially well in math.


An innuendo is something that is subtly suggested or insinuated. In other words, an innuendo uses words with neutral or positive or negative associations to insinuate something deprecatory or even positive. A significant mention, also called a paralipsis, is one kind of innuendo, where a speaker makes a subtle suggestion that something is the case, but without explicitly committing to the suggestion. When someone makes an innuendo, what happens is that the innuendo subtly works to persuade you into thinking a certain way unless you’re careful and astute. Many times these innuendos are completely unsubstantiated, and it’s a tactic used by a speaker to persuade someone while avoiding giving reasons to support his or her view.

Here is an example. Suppose two people, A and B, get into an argument. One of them says to A “Well, at least I’M not a rapist!” What are people going to be led to think? People will pick up on the insinuation that B is making: that A IS a rapist. So, people will be led to think that A is a rapist. Of course, if B says “I’m not a rapist!” A can say in response: “I didn’t say that you were! I just said that I’m not! Why are you getting defensive! Maybe you are a rapist!” You see how this strategy works? It insinuates without actually explicitly saying.

Loaded Questions

A loaded question is a kind of innuendo. It is a question that rests on one or more unwarranted or unjustified assumptions. It assumes something in the question, and answering the question will lead to confirming this unwarranted assumption. However way you answer the loaded question, you end up accepting the assumption that’s loaded into the question, as it were. If the assumption is false, then you should not answer the question, but reject the question instead. One of the most popular examples of a loaded question is: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Notice that this question is a yes-no question, and that whatever answer someone gives, he ends up accepting that he at one point in the past beat his wife. If that assumption is false, the best thing to do is to say “I reject the question, for I never have in the past or in the present beat my wife.”


These rhetorical devices use humor and extreme exaggeration to cast a negative light on a claim so as to sway and influence people towards rejecting the claim

Ridicule / Sarcasm

These are basically ways of mocking a view in order to make others reject it. It’s basically making fun of a view or claim in order to sway others into thinking that the view or claim being mocked is false. When you mock or ridicule or laugh at a statement, you’re basically saying that you think that the statement is false. This method is a kind of bullying. When someone laughs, mocks, ridicules or responds sarcastically to something (“yeah, like THAT’S really true, pfff”), the person is suggesting not only that the claim is false, but that it and those who hold it deserve ridicule. Nobody wants to be ridiculed, so this method may work in persuading people: they move away from the view being ridiculed because they don’t want to be associated with it and also become the object of ridicule. Just because someone mocks or makes fun of a claim or view does not thereby make it false.

  1. Examples – There are plenty of examples of this. Here are just a few:
  • “Welfare is a necessity for a healthy state? HA! Whatever…”.
  • “Pff, as if.”


This is an extravagant overstatement or over-the-top exaggeration. Typically, hyperboles are used with excessively emotive words or phrases. The emotive words appeal to your emotion, and try to slant you in a certain direction regarding some issue. By presenting something in an extreme way is in itself something that is intended to evoke an emotional response, since typically people find extremes highly implausible and are likely to react with extreme surprise and total rejection. Hyperboles may either try to get you to buy into the hyperbole and think about something in an extreme way, or the hyperbole may be aimed at getting you to think highly or negatively about something in a milder way.

  1. Examples – Consider the following four examples:
  • “You can’t trust John because he’s the evil devil incarnated as a young man.” This is a hyperbole used with an emotive phrase. It’s colorful, somewhat amusing, and interesting, but an extreme exaggeration. It makes use of emotive words: “devil” and “evil” evoke a negative feeling in the audience.
  • “Sarah is feeling sick because she ate thousands of hot dogs.” Unless Sarah is a competitive eater, she probably did not eat a thousand hot dogs in one sitting. It’s an over-exaggeration – a hyperbole. Note that ‘thousands’ is the hyperbolic word and that it’s non-emotive, i.e. it’s fairly neutral.
  • “Rudy is a nazi terrorist.” This is a hyperbole that tries to get you to think that Rudy is an extremely horrible person. This hyperbole tries to get you to have an extreme attitude towards or view of Rudy.
  • “Everyone says that our pizzas are by far the best pizzas in the whole world.” This statement is like the third one. But the pizza store that advertises this may not actually expect anyone to believe what they say. They may, however, try to get you to think that while it may be an over-exaggeration that their pizzas are best in the world, their pizzas are nevertheless very good. Notice that the milder claim (very good pizzas) is what they want you to believe, and they do this by making the hyperbole. You might think “Well, there must be something to their pizzas if they’re saying everyone is giving them these rave reviews”.


These rhetorical devices put a positive or negative slant to definitions, explanations, analogies, or comparisons in order to persuade someone.

Rhetorical Definitions and Rhetorical Explanations

Rhetorical definitions try to define a word or phrase using emotively charged language in order to express or elicit an attitude about something. In other words, rhetorical definitions try to sway you into thinking a certain way by defining something with a positive or negative slant. Rhetorical explanations provide an explanation of something but with a positive or negative slant in order to express or elicit an attitude about something, or to get you to think a certain way. Both try to manipulate through psychological association. In both cases, the issue is presented in a way that slants it in one position, typically through evaluative or emotive language.

Rhetorical Analogies and Misleading Comparisons

A rhetorical analogy is a comparison between two things or a likening of one thing to another in order to make one of them appear better or worse than it might be. A misleading comparison are comparisons that leave out important information, usually making them unclear and vague, in order to mislead you into believing something. When someone makes a rhetorical analogy with something positive or negative, basically what they’re trying to do is get your mind to associate something positive or negative with some claim. But associating a claim with something negative or positive does not in itself provide any reason for thinking that one should in fact think positively or negatively of the claim. A misleading comparison does a similar thing: it misleads you into thinking that something is bad or good simply because it is being compared with something bad or good, respectively.

Sometimes it’s okay to make analogies and to make comparisons. Many times doing so can help the reader understand a complicated point or to clarify an idea. Using analogies and comparisons is bad when they are used to influence someone to think positively or negatively about something, or to get someone to reject or accept something, without giving any reasons whatsoever. When you are given a comparison, you should keep in mind several questions.

  • Is important information missing?
  • Is the same standard of comparison used?
  • Are the compared items really comparable?
  • Is the comparison expressed as an average?

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