A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices


Michael Stuart Kelly

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While surfing the Internet, I came across a book that I found highly beneficial for my own writing.

I would like to share it.

A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices

by Robert A. Harris

It was originally written in 1980 and gradually changed by the author over time. The last update as of this posting was April 6, 2005. On a first look, it seemed like a glossary of 60 terms, so I started skimming it. I usually do that with glossaries. I had to stop at several places, though. It is not a glossary. It is a highly intelligent and penetrating discussion of how to "get to" the reader/listener. And it comes with examples, sometimes from the best of the world's literature.

It is damn interesting.

Here is a quote from the end of the discussion on "understatement" so you can see what I mean:

Remember, the goal of writing is to persuade, not to offend; once you insult or put off your opponent, objector, or disbeliever, you will never persuade him of anything, no matter how "obviously wrong" he is or how clearly right you are. The degree and power of pride in the human heart must never be underestimated. Many people are unwilling to hear objections of any kind, and view disagreement as a sign of contempt for their intellect. The use of understatement allows you to show a kind of respect for your reader's understanding. You have to object to his belief, but you are sympathetic with his position and see how he might have come to believe it; therefore, you humbly offer to steer him right, or at least to offer what you think is a more accurate view. Even those who agree with you already will be more persuaded because the modest thinker is always preferable to the flaming bigot. Compare these statements and consider what effect each would have on you if you read them in a persuasive article:

    Anyone who says this water is safe to drink is either stupid or foolish. The stuff is poisoned with coliform bacteria. Don't those idiots know that?My opponents think this water is drinkable, but I'm not sure I would drink it. Perhaps they are not aware of the dangerous bacterial count . . . [and so on, explaining the basis for your opinion].
      This particular passage really rang a bell in my head. I recently had a strong change of heart about over-the-top type expression as the norm for my nonfiction. Sometimes that is called for, but overuse turns people off. There is much truth in an artistic adage I learned when I was studying music:
      The more you use an effect, the less effect it has.
      I was seduced stylistically for a while by colorful jingo-like phrases such as "weasel words," and "say what you mean and mean what you say," etc., implying that rhetorical variety is the equivalent to sanctioning evil.
      It is not.
      Limiting yourself by overusing an exaggerated rhetorical method is nothing more than a sign of linguistic incomeptence. I have decided to curtail this in order to grow as a writer.
      However, this was not the part that called out to my attention when I skimmed the "understatement" discussion. My eye stopped on the humor (as usual):
      Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse. --Jonathan Swift
      Dayaamm! :D
      The world's literature is so full of good things! All you have to do is look.
      I intend to put this book into a Word file, print it, and read and reread the parts that most interest me in developing my own style. I want to make them sink into my subconscious and become second nature. There's even a test at the end.
      I highly recommend this book. Thank you, Mr. Harris.
      Michael
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  • 1 month later...

Remember, the goal of writing is to persuade, not to offend; once you insult or put off your opponent, objector, or disbeliever, you will never persuade him of anything, no matter how "obviously wrong" he is or how clearly right you are. The degree and power of pride in the human heart must never be underestimated. Many people are unwilling to hear objections of any kind, and view disagreement as a sign of contempt for their intellect. The use of understatement allows you to show a kind of respect for your reader's understanding. You have to object to his belief, but you are sympathetic with his position and see how he might have come to believe it; therefore, you humbly offer to steer him right, or at least to offer what you think is a more accurate view. Even those who agree with you already will be more persuaded because the modest thinker is always preferable to the flaming bigot. Compare these statements and consider what effect each would have on you if you read them in a persuasive article:  

Anyone who says this water is safe to drink is either stupid or foolish. The stuff is poisoned with coliform bacteria. Don't those idiots know that?  

My opponents think this water is drinkable, but I'm not sure I would drink it. Perhaps they are not aware of the dangerous bacterial count . . . [and so on, explaining the basis for your opinion].

This is not only an excellent example of not only how to get your point across in writing, but how to go about doing the same in everyday discussions whether they be on the message boards or face-to-face.

I have long held and shared with others that as soon as you attack another person(their ideas inclusive) verbally they in most cases immediately start thinking what kind of a SOB you are and formulating a response rather than listen to whatever else you have to say with anything approaching an open mind.

This is why all too often discussions dissolve into pissing matches.

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Michael,

Sounds good to me, the ability(or lack there of) to communicate thoughts effectiviely is probably one of the greatest hindrances to man's progress and cause untold amounts of problems.

I remember hearing a story of how Archimedes upon finalizing his law of buoyancy while stting in the tub was so excited he ran through the streets naked shouting "Eureka". After calming down he realized the next greatest task was trying to explain it to others.

I look forward to your posts.

L W

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