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Rhetorical language

This unit has been prepared by Pauline M. Byrne, M.A. Dip. Ed.

The uses of rhetoric
When do we need to use rhetorical language?
Rhetorical structures
Some text structure options
Activity 1
Structure in paragraphs and sentences
Rhetorical devices
Devices dependent on meaning
Activity 2

The uses of rhetoric

What is rhetorical language? It is language, originally oral language, used to persuade the hearer by using certain techniques to do so. For thousands of years rhetoric was the basis of education in Greece and Rome, and in the civilisations of Europe that inherited their view of what an educated person should be. Rhetoric is defined as:

the art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order to achieve effective or eloquent expression.

New Shorter Oxford Dictionary

The great Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, said rhetoric was:

the art of speaking not merely with propriety but with art and elegance.

By propriety he meant correctness and appropriateness to the situation.

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When do we need to use rhetorical language?

Whenever effective speakers compose a speech, they turn instinctively to the conventions of rhetorical language. The twelve distinguished speakers chosen for the Speeches Elective in Module B in the HSC English Advanced course, for example, have all made use of carefully composed rhetoric to persuade their responders. Their use of rhetorical language and structures also makes it easier for their line of thought to be followed.

In the HSC examination or in school-based assessments, students may be asked to write a speech for a particular occasion, or to produce a publicity brochure; some students elect to compose a series of speeches for the English Extension 2 course. In these, and many other creative responses, an understanding of rhetorical language, its structures and devices, can help students in their composing.

Rhetorical language is also often found in texts composed to be read. Students analysing the language used-the how of the writing-need to be able to recognise the rhetorical structures and devices the composer has used in a particular text, and to appreciate their effectiveness. In the Area of Study, some questions may ask students to compare the ways particular texts communicate with responders. Understanding the various ways that rhetorical language works can help provide answers to such how questions.

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Rhetorical structures

The scaffolding, or structuring, of sentences, paragraphs and whole texts is the most fundamental way in which composers affect the responses of their listeners or readers. A number of techniques are used to make it simpler for the responder to follow the flow of the text, and to understand the inter-relationships of the various parts.

Please note: no use of rhetorical structures and devices, however brilliant, will compensate for a lack of material. The words rhetoric (especially with the adjective empty before it) and rhetorical are sometimes used in a derogatory way, to suggest insincerity or artificiality. Such usage implies the speaker or writer is simply going through the motions, but is all form and no substance. Some HSC students may write speeches, extended responses and other texts in this way. They use language competently, but the facade hides a lack of information and purpose. So the first advice to any composer must be: have something worthwhile to say before you begin, preferably something you believe in. When you are the responder, identify the overall purpose and message first, then consider the rhetorical elements the composer has used.

We look at a graphic text at a glance, and take in its overall shape at once. Texts composed to be heard or read, on the other hand, are like plays or films, revealing themselves to the responder over time. The structure may appear to be random and casual, as in some novels. But it will be the result of deliberate choice.

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Some text structure options

Activity 1

Find three different types of texts, for example, short story, feature article, humorous column, news story, newspaper editorial, speech transcript.

Analyse the overall structure of each example, make a diagram to illustrate it.

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Structure in paragraphs and sentences

In structuring sentences and paragraphs, composers can also use such methods as chronological development, a ladder of ascending importance leading to a climax, an oblique or surprising opening, or contrast.

A number of important devices, however, can be used to link one paragraph or sentence to another, to give coherence, to reinforce a point, or to smooth the responder's path through the text.

Repetition of key words, phrases or thoughts is one of the most important of these. It would be difficult to find a successful speech which did not use repetition. Highly effective orators rely heavily on repetition. Other composers of speeches use it less, but still help their hearers take in the message by subtly underlining it. Consider how greatly the effectiveness of this excerpt from the famous Blood, sweat and tears speech by Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime leader in 1940, depends on his masterly use of repetition:

I say to the House as I said to Ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - victory in spite of all error - victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

Enumeration is a commonly used structure within and between paragraphs. A speaker can connect and, at the same time, separate the points in the message by using words such as firstly, secondly, thirdly. Phrases such as: In the first place, To begin with, To start with can be followed in the next sentence or paragraph by: In the second place, After that, Then, Another point, Also. The user of such links can then end with Finally, To conclude, Lastly, To sum up, or A final point.

Cumulation is the structural device of adding one word or phrase to another of the same type or structure, to build a cumulative effect: "blood, toil, tears and sweat". Here Churchill uses the pounding effect of four one-syllable nouns piled one on the other to hammer home his message about the sufferings and strains of war.

Allusion is referring to some text, person or event outside the present situation. The effect is to enrich the text by inviting the responder to consider more information than can be dealt with in detail. Biblical, political, philosophical, scientific and literary allusions are common, and in texts such as magazine and newspaper columns, allusions to popular culture are frequent.

Rhetorical questions are questions which expect no answer, but assume the responder's agreement with the position of the questioner: "Want to win a million dollars?" or "Do you want to have to repeat Year 12?" are responded to as calls to action, not debatable propositions. They are structured in this way for effect.

Inclusive language can refer to gender-inclusive language, such as using "the person" instead of "the man" and "he" or "she" instead of just the masculine pronoun. But it can also refer to a speaker's use of "we", "our", "us", and similar words, to make the audience feel at one with the speaker, joined in the same group and therefore having a positive reaction.

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Rhetorical devices

Devices based on sound patterns are commonly used in poetry, but may be found wherever a composer wishes to influence the emotive responses of the audience, such as in a speech or an advertisement.

These include:

alliteration: the repetition of the first consonant sound of a word or syllable in an adjacent word or syllable, such as in this newspaper headline, about news broadcasts in Italian on SBS:

Ah, bellissimo; belligerent bella donnas bearing news

The Sydney Morning Herald, 8/3/02

Sports headlines are a likely source of examples of this device, but it is used by many speakers, writers and advertisers whenever they want to reinforce their message, and have it resonate in the hearer's head.

assonance: the use of similar vowel sounds in words in close proximity in a sentence, often in the final syllable. This means the effect is of a rhyme without the final consonant agreeing. [The word is occasionally used to include alliteration]. In the example above, there is assonance between the first syllables in bearing and bella. In assonance, the spelling may differ; it is the sound that matters.

onomatopoeia: words whose sound derive from or suggest their meaning. Words like woof for a dog's bark or miaow for a cat's sound are a direct imitation of the sound; other words, such as hiss, are more suggestive. Often a speaker will use harsh consonants, such as d, k, t to emphasise a sharp or harsh meaning; and soft sh or s sounds for soft, sleepy meanings. The choice of words will sometimes be made according to their sound, for rhetorical effect.

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Devices dependent on meaning

Metaphor includes a whole family of related devices based on the implied comparison of one field of meaning with another. We can say a school is a hive of activity or a swimmer is atorpedo. Martin Luther King uses an extended metaphor from the banking system in his famous I have a dream speech. He tells his vast audience they have come to Washington "to cash a check" (the Australian spelling is cheque). By this he means that just as a cheque is in fact a "promise to pay on demand", so the black minority in the USA had been promised emancipation at the end of the Civil War, but one hundred years later still did not have civic rights, let alone equality. He declared:

…America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds". But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check-a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

What Martin Luther King has done here is to extend his comparison, using many phrases and sentences that are all variations on the original comparison he implied in the words "to cash a check".

He does not say "America is like a banker who refuses to honour a check". That would be a simile.The simile makes the comparison direct and explicit; for this reason it is a device preferred by some writers, such as the poet Robert Gray. Shakespeare uses both simile and metaphor in one powerful sentence in Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth counsels her husband:

…look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't.

Analogy may be used to mean any figure of speech based on comparison between two, unlike, objects or actions or processes, such as a comparison of the workings of the heart to a mechanical pump. The word is often used for extended comparisons.

Activity 2

Produce your own poster with excellent examples of as many of these rhetorical devices you can find. Choose examples from your texts but also from current newspapers and magazines.

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