Stylistic DevicesJust here for the exercises? Click here.
Common stylistic devices in English
Stylictic devices (also known as rhetorical devices or figures of speech) help to craft lively and interesting texts. We use them to grab and keep the reader or listener’s attention. Click on the tabs below to find explanations and examples of the more common rhetorical devices. They are useful for analysing texts as well as for writing your own essays, speeches etc.
repetition of initial consonant sound
Alliteration is the repetition of the initial sound of two neighbouring words or words that are near each other in a sentence (i.e. connected by a conjunction or preposition). Alliteration is often used for emphasis because it draws attention to a phrase.
- beautiful bouquet
- rare and radiant (poem by Edgar Allen Poe)
- grass grows greener on the golf course
- My mother makes a mouthwatering meat pie.
Repetition of initial consonant sound means that only the sound has to be the same, but not the actual consonant.
- a philosopher from Finland
- giants are jumping joyfully
- I knew she’d be a natural at kneading the noodle dough
If two words start with the same letter but have a different initial sound, the words are not alliterated.
- sea shanty
- cutting chillis
Be careful not to confuse alliteration with assonance!
See: → Assonance
indirect reference to a person, event or piece of literature
Allusion is reference to a person, place or thing (e.g. historical event, idea etc.). Note that allusion works best when it is short and refers to something the reader is already familiar with, such as:
- famous people
- historic events
- (Greek) mythology
- the Bible
When an audience is already familiar with a person/event then context and background will be clear to them. Thus, a few words are enough to conjure an image (often an entire scene) in the reader/listener’s mind. Allusion has the following advantages:
- Lengthy explanations can be avoided.
- The reader/listener actively engages in the analogy.
- The message sticks in the reader’s mind.
- Are the US facing a second Vietnam?
Allusion to the Vietnam war; often used in connection with the Iraq war.
- I thought this software would be useful, but it turned out to be a Trojan Horse.
Allusion to the Trojan warriors in the Trojan horse form Greek mythology.
Many allusions to historic events, mythology or the bible have become well-known idiomatic sayings.
- Achilles’ heel
Allusion to Achilles from Greek mythology who was invincible, except for one weak spot. His heel.
- He was a good Samaritan.
Allusion to the story of the merciful Samaritan from the New Testament.
- He is a real Romeo with the ladies.
Allusion to character of Romeo from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet who romantically declares his love for Juliet.
- to have your 15 minutes of fame
Allusion to Andy Warhol’s famous saying in which he remarks that everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.
successive clauses or sentences that star with the same word(s)
- Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers.
- Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
- Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.*
Anaphora is often used together with parallelism.
* Source: US President Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech on 21st January 2013 in Washington, D.C., USA.
contrasting relationship between two ideas
- We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
- To err is human; to forgive divine. (Alexander Pope)
- One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. (Neil Armstrong)
having more than one possible meaning
A word, statement or phrase has more than one meaning. Unintentional ambiguity is considered a flaw in writing because it is vague or confusing. However, many writers use ambiguity intentionaly in their work. It can be used to create a deeper meaning and allows the reader/listener to interpret the meaning in their own way, involving them in the text.
- The attacker hit the man with a book.
Did the attacker use a book to hit the man? Or did the man have a book with him when he was attacked?Milk drinkers are turning to powder (newspaper headline)
It’s not clear whether people who usually drink fresh milk are now drinking powdered milk, or whether the actual people are turning into a powder.As Mercutio lays dying he says “… ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” (Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespere)
grave (noun) – a place in the ground where someone is burried or grave (adjective) – seriously bad
repetition of vowel sounds
Assonance is the repetition of the vowel sounds of two or more neighbouring words (or words that are near each other in a sentence) but have different initial consonant sounds. Assonance is often used to add rhythm and music to poetry and prose by creating internal rhyme. It makes writing more pleasurable to read and helps to set the mood.
- Here, there and everywhere.
- Light the fire.
- Strips of tinfoil winking like people *
Repetition of the vowel sound means that only the sound has to be the same, but not the actual vowels.
- Go and sew the dress you know.
- Here, you hear the audience cheer.
If two words have the same vowel(s) but the sound is different, there is no assonance.
- Here, there and everywhere.
- An engineer sweeps the deck.
Be careful not to confuse assonance with alliteration!
See: → Alliteration
*Source: The Bee Meeting by Sylvia Plath
reversal of words in two parallel clauses (AB/BA)
Chiasmus, also known as reverse parallelism, is a criss-cross structure in which the words in the second part of two parallel clauses are inverted. Chiasmus usually follows an AB/BA pattern. This figure of speech can be found in many types of writing including advertising, literature, speeches and scripture. It places emphasis on the message and creates powerful, thought-provoking phrases which are easy for the reader/listener to remember.
- When the going gets tough the tough get going. (famous saying)
- All for one and one for all. (Moto associated with The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas)
- Do I love you because you are beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you? (song text, Do I love you because you’re beautiful? by Oscar Hammersmith)
- Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. (Inaugural address by John F. Kennedy, 20 January 1961)
See: → Parallelism
leaving out parts of a sentence
Ellipsis is a sentence that is not grammatically complete. The meaning of the sentence remains unchanged despite the fact that a word or words have been left out. Ellipsis is not just common in spoken language, it is often used in advertising or newspaper headlines.
- James is going to Chile, Richie to Spain.
- Mother deaceased. Funeral tomorrow. Yours faitfully. (The stanger by Albert Camus)
Enumeration is the process of listing details, words or phrases step by step. It clarifies an idea for the reader/listener and helps to avoid ambiguity. Enumeration is used by writers to eloborate on an idea and convey a strong clear message.
- And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual.*
*Source: I Have a Dream, speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., 28 August 1963
nicely phrasing unpleasant information
A polite or indirect way of expressing unpleasant information to avoid saying something harsh or impolite. Euphemism allows a writer to write about things which may be considered socially taboo or inappropriate.
- before I go
a euphemism for die
- a curvy woman
a euphemism for overweight
- the company is downsizing
a euphemism for firing people
- vertically challenged
a euphemism for short
See: → Litote
Used sparingly, hyperbole effectively draws the attention to a message that you want to emphasise.
- I am so hungry I could eat a horse.
- I have told you a thousand times.
- I could hear you from a mile away.
Be careful! Don’t overuse hyperbole, otherwise it may not have the effect you want.
Opposite: → Understatement
question raised and answered by the author/speaker
The author/speaker raises a question and also gives an answer to the question. Hypophora is used to get the audience's attention and make them curious. Often the question is raised at the beginning of a paragraph and answered in the course of that paragraph. Hypophora can also be used to introduce a new area of discussion.
- There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.*
See: → Rhetorical question
* Source: “I Have a Dream” Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. on 28th August 1963 in Washington, D.C.
changing usual word order
Inversion or anastrophe changes the usual order of words in a sentence to create a particular emphasis, rhyme or rhythmic effect. Sentences can be inverted in many different ways including:
- putting an adjective after its noun
- the ocean blue
- putting a verb before its subject
- “Wait”, cried the man.
- putting a noun before its preposition
- oceans between
- swapping the position of the subject and object
- Lucy was her name.
a form of understatement
Litotes is a form of understatement which uses the negative opposite of a word to weaken or soften a message.
- Not bad. – instead of: Very good.
- You are not wrong. – instead of: You are right.
See: → Understatement
Metaphor compares two different things in a figurative sense. Unlike in a simile (A is like B.), the word “like” is not used in metaphor (A is B.).
- Butterflies in my stomach.
a metaphor for being nervous
- Time is a thief.
a metaphor for time moving quickly
See: → Simile, Metonymy, Allusion
figurative expression, closely associated with the subject
Metonymy replaces the subject with a figurative expression that is closely associated with it in terms of place, time or background. However, the figurative expression does not refer to a physical part of the subject (see synecdoche).
- The White House.
- The Crown.
A king, queen or members of a royal family.
- The pen is mightier than the sword.
“Pen” stands for written words and “sword” for physical violence.
See: → Metaphor, Synecdoche
word imitating a sound
The pronunciation of the word imitates a sound. Onomatopoeia is used because it's often difficult to describe sounds. Furthermore, a story becomes more lively and interesting with the use of onomatopoeia.
- The waters splashed as we jumped into the pool.
- Put your phone on silent so that it doesn’t beep durng the film.
- We grilled sausages over the crackling fire.
- The bees were buzzing.
use of two contradictory terms to describe one thing
An oxymoron uses two words with opposing meaning to describe something. Oxymorons are common in everyday language and they can be amusing if you take a moment to think about the actual meaning of the individual words.
- pretty ugly
- seriously funny
- crash landing
- random order
Oxymoron is also found in literature and poetry. It can add drama to writing and cause the reader/listener to consider the meaning of contrasting ideas.
- I must be cruel only to be kind (Hamlet, by William Shakespeare)
- Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow (Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare)
See: → Paradox
parallel sentence structure
Successive clauses or sentences that are similarly structured. This similarity makes it easier for the reader/listener to concentrate on the content of the text rather that the structure.
- Like father, like son
- It is by logic we prove, but by intuition we discover.
- When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Note: Parallelism is a useful device for writing instructions. The parallel structure allows the reader to concentrate on the content and the will immediately know what to do (see examples below).
- First, open the book.
- Now you have to read the text.
- Look at the pictures.
- The questions have to be answered.
- Open the book.
- Read the text.
- Look at the pictures.
- Answer the questions.
As you can see, the second set of instructions is easier to follow (and remember) than the first set. The change of structure in the first example is confusing and distracts the reader from the content. It might be okay with simple instructions, like the ones we have used here, but following more complex instructions can be really hard if they have not been written in parallel structure.
The normal progression of a sentence is interrupted by extra information or explanations enclosed in commas, brackets or dashes. The extra information can be a single word, a phrase or even a sentence.
- John, a 7-year-old cat from Doncaster, hid in the engine area of his owner's car for a 60-mile trip to the seaside.
- At midnight last night, Skip (a guard dog for Bonds Ltd in Bury) hospitalized two burglars.
- My boss – who is never late – didn't turn up until midday yersterday.
Depending on the importance attached to it, additional information can be enclosed in brackets, commas or dashes.
Brackets – not important: Sebastian (Mandy’s brother) organised the trip.
Commas - neutral: Sebastian, Mandy’s brother, organised the trip.
Dashes - emphasised: Sebastian – Mandy’s brother – organised the trip.
attribution of human characteristics to animals, inanimate objects or abstractions
Personification or anthropomorphism is the representation of animals, inanimate objects or abstract concepts as having human characteristics (behaviour, feelings, character etc.). Personification can make a narration more interesting and lively.
- The wind howled.
- The stars were dancing in the sky.
- The avalanche raced down the mountain.
repeating words or phrases
Words or phrases are repeated throughout the text to emphasise certain facts or ideas.
- The rain is falling all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.*
* Source: Rain a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.
question without a direct answer
The author/speaker poses a question, but doesn't answer it directly. The answer, usually yes or no, is seen to be obvious.
Rhetorical questions are used to provoke, emphasise or argue.
- Isn’t that nice?
- What’s the matter with you?
- Are you kidding me?
- How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?*
See: → Hypophora
* Source: Blowin’ in the wind by Bob Dylan.
Two things are compared directly by using the structure A is like B or A is as … as B.
- My love is like a red, red rose.
- The shirt fits like a glove.
- As light as a feather.
- As cold as ice.
Other possibilities include:
- A is (not) like B
- A is more/less than B
- A is comparable with B
- A is almost like B
- A is similar to B
- A is …, so is B
- A does …, so does B
- A seems like B
See: → Metaphor
using a part instead of the whole or vice versa
Synechdoche is a kind of generalization or specification that refers to something by using one of its parts. There are differents ways of using synedoche. The following possibilites are common:
A part represents a whole
- All hands on deck! (hands = ship’s crew)
- I bought myself a new set of wheels. (wheels = car)
A whole represents a part
- At the Olympics, Great Britain won the gold medal at rowing. (The rowing team won a medal, but not the whole country.)
- The army helped citizens to clear up the disaster zone. (army = soldiers)
Something specific for something general
- We need to buy a new hoover. (Hoover is a brad of vaccum cleaners. The success of this company has lead to its nae being used as a general term for vacuum cleaner.
- Truck – for any type of truck with all-wheel drive.
Something general for something specific
- To cross the pond. – Den (großen) Teich überqueren. (pond (Teich) = Atlantischer Ozean)
- The animal scurried away – Das Tier huschte weg. (animal (Tier) = ein ganz bestimmtes Tier, z. B. Hund, Delfin, Schlange)
A material for a product
- silver – stands for cutlery, even when it is not made of silver.
- plastic – stands for a credit card
- glasses – reading glasses
See also: → Metonymy
weaken or soften a statement
A statement is deliberately weakened to sound ironic or softened to sound more polite.
Note that understatement is a common feature of the English language in everyday situation. It is especially common in British English.
- Tokyo is not the cheapest place in the world.
instead of saying that Tokyo is very expensive
- It’s just a scratch.
instead of saying that you have a big wound
- I wouldn’t say it tasted great.
more polite than saying: It tasted terrible.
Opposite: → Hyperbole