The Art of Persuasion

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An easy guide to the lost art of rhetoric.

Attempts to persuade may be argumentative or non-argumentative. Non-argumentative means of persuasion include making eyes, brushing hands, and putting a good meal onto the table. But much more common, especially in the public sphere, is the use of rhetoric, which is the art of persuasive speaking or writing.

Barack Obama got himself elected and re-elected to the White House less by the force of his arguments than by his formidable rhetorical skills. The basis of his famous ‘Yes we can’ shtick, for example, is the rhetorical device of epistrophe (see later).

Rhetorical devices are also poetic devices that can be used to beautify as well as to persuade. Politics aside, rhetorical devices underlie all our favourite poems and songs and expressions.

In my new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, I managed to classify the most effective rhetorical devices into just eight groups: sound repetition, word repetition, idea or structure repetition, unusual structure, language games, opposition and contradiction, circumlocution, and imagery. I’ll now take you through these eight groups and try to explain the psychology of each one. (The examples I use are referenced at the bottom of the article.)

1. Sound repetition

The repetition of a sound or sounds can produce a pleasing sense of harmony. It can also subtly link or emphasize important words or ideas. There are two major forms of sound repetition: consonance and alliteration.

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound, as in, for example,

Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile/ Whether Jew or gentile I rank top percentile

Alliteration is a form of consonance involving the same consonant sound at the beginning of each word or stressed syllable.

Curiosity killed the cat.

Sibilance is a form of consonance involving the repetition of sibilant sounds such as /s/ and /sh/. Sibilance is calming and sensual, whereas alliteration on a hard sound produces an entirely different effect.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain… 

2. Word repetition

Word repetition can create alliteration, rhythm or continuity, emphasis, connection, and progression.

Words can be repeated in several ways.


Most obviously, a word can be repeated in immediate succession (epizeuxis), as in, for example:

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon

Or it can be repeated after one or two intervening words (diacope) or at the beginning and end of a clause or line (epanalepsis).

Bond, James Bond

The king is dead, long live the king!

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou my Romeo?

Or it can be carried across from one clause or line to the next, with the word that ends one clause or line beginning the next (anadiplosis). This brings out key ideas and their connection, imbuing the proposition with something like the strength and inevitability of hard, deductive logic.

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.

As well as single words, groups of words can be repeated, either at the beginning of successive clauses or lines (anaphora), or at the end of successive clauses or lines (epistrophe/epiphora).

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.


If you want to throw the kitchen sink at it, you can combine anaphora with epistrophe (symploce).

When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it.

In this particular example, the repetition conveys determination, resolve, and togetherness.

3. Idea or structure repetition

The repetition of an idea or structure can, if used correctly, add richness and resonance to expression. It can also add emphasis; create order, rhythm, and progression; and conjure up a total concept.

Let’s start with tautology, which is the repetition of the same idea within a line.

With malice toward none, with charity for all.

Pleonasm is a type of tautology involving the use of more words than is necessary for clear expression.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

The latter example is a combination of pleonasm and parallelism, which involves using a similar syntactical structure in a pair or series of related words, clauses, or lines. Three parallel words, clauses, or lines constitutes a tricolon, which is a particularly effective type of isocolon.


Structural or syntactical parallels can be highlighted by means of structural reversal (chiasmus).

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

4. Unusual structure

An unusual structure draws attention and can also create a shift in emphasis.

Hyperbaton is the alteration of the normal order of the words in a sentence, or the separation of words that normally go together. There are several types. Anastrophe involves inversion of ordinary word order. Hypallage involves transference of attributes from their proper subjects to others. Hysteron proteron involves inversion of natural chronology.

Above the seas to stand (anastrophe)

Angry crown of kings (hypallage)

Let us die, and charge into the thick of the fight. (hysteron proteron)

Zeugma is the joining of two or more parts of a sentence with a single verb (or sometimes a noun). Depending upon the position of the verb (at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end), a zeugma is either a prozeugma, mesozeugma, or hypozeugma. Here is an example of a mesozeugma:


What a shame is this, that neither hope of reward, nor feare of reproach could any thing move him, neither the persuasion of his friends, nor the love of his country.

Syllepsis is a type of zeugma in which a single word agrees grammatically with two or more other words, but semantically with only one.

She lowered her standards by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes, and his hopes.

Hypozeuxis is the reverse of zeugma, wherein each subject is attached to its own verb. The following, from Churchill, is also an example of anaphora (see above):

We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender! 

5. Language games

Language games such as puns and deliberate mistakes can draw attention to a phrase or idea, or simply raise a smile, by creating new and often ridiculous images and associations. They can also give rise to a vivid image, create ambiguity, and suggest sincerity and even passion.

A pun (or paronomasia) is a play on words that sound alike, or on a word that has more than one meaning.

Do hotel managers get board with their jobs?

A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.

She is nice from far, but far from nice.

Catachresis is the intentional misuse of a word or turn of phrase, for example, using one word for another, or straining or mixing metaphors.

To take arms against a sea of troubles… 

‘Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse 

Antitimeria is the intentional misuse of a word as if it were a member of a different word class, typically a noun for a verb.

I’ll unhair thy head.

Enallage is the intentional and effective use of incorrect grammar.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine.

Love me tender, love me true 

6. Opposition and contradiction

The use of opposition or contradiction draws attention to itself, forces thought, can be humorous, and can suggest progression and completion.

An oxymoron is a juxtaposition of words which at first sight seems contradictory or incongruous. A paradox is similar to an oxymoron, but less compact.

Make haste slowly

What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.

Antiphrasis is the use of a word in a context in which it means its opposite.

A giant of five foot three inches

Antithesis is the use of a pair of opposites for contrasting effect. A series of antitheses is called a progression.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal… 

7. Circumlocution

Circumlocution works by painting a picture, or conjuring up a complex idea, with just a few well-chosen words.

Hendiadys is the juxtaposition of two words, and hendriatris of three.

Dieu et mon droit

Sexdrugs, and rock’n’roll

Lock, stock, and barrel

The last example is also a merism, which involves enumerating the parts to signify the whole. Here’s another merism:

For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…

8. Imagery

Obviously, imagery works by conjuring up a particular image.

Metonymy is the naming of a thing or concept by another thing that is closely associated with it.

Downing Street

The pen is mightier than the sword

Antonomasia, a type of metonymy, is the use of a word or phrase or epithet in place of a proper name.

The Divine Teacher (Plato)

The Master of Those Who Know (Aristotle)

The Subtle Doctor (Duns Scotus)

Synedoche, which is similar to metonymy, is the naming of a thing or concept by one of its parts.

A pair of hands


A few final words

With rhetoric, it is not the logic but the beauty and eloquence and vividness that does the persuading.

In Plato’s Lysis, Socrates says that beauty ‘is certainly a soft, smooth, slippery thing, and therefore of a nature which easily slips in and permeates our souls’.

You will, of course, have noticed the sensual sibilance of that phrase.


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