Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The 5 Best (and Sometimes Hard to Pronounce) Rhetorical Devices for Winning Arguments

by Rachel Carey

Who here can say that they don’t enjoy (probably a little too much) winning an argument? It doesn’t matter what the argument is about — although I will say that one of my shining argumentative moments occurred when I successfully convinced a classmate that all of Holden Caulfield’s bad attributes are washed away at the end of Catcher in the Rye. You know the part when he tells us about how his only aspiration in life is to save all the kids that are playing in the rye field of his imagination? For me, that was a moment of, “Oh, well Holden might actually be an okay person … maybe,” after a whole novel of, “Jeeze, Holden needs to get a grip.”

Random side stories aside, it really does feel great to win an argument. Through the usage of rhetorical devices, students can learn how to (cue dramatic music) stand by their viewpoints and make rational and intellectual arguments that have the ability to sway and convince others. The following are just a few useful, fun-to-use rhetorical devices (some of which are included in Prestwick House’s Rhetorical Devices: A Handbook and Activities for Student Writers) that teachers can introduce (or reemphasize) to students when they want to put a fresh spin on persuasive writing:

1. Antanagoge

This device is not only fun to say, but fun to use. For the eternal optimists among us, this is how to use positive musings to win over the crowd. Basically, what this technique entails is the usage of a positive comment as a contradictory response to a negative comment. For example, in Holden Caulfield’s case, I could use the following to reinforce my argument:
“Holden Caulfield seems like he has something bad to say about everyone, but at least he cares about the kids.”
As you can see, the negative comment — that Holden Caulfield has something bad to say about everyone — originally makes Holden out to be a lackluster person. But, when that statement is counteracted with the fact that Holden actually cares about kids, the original statement is thrown for a loop. Thus, the argument that Holden is a bad person because he hates everyone is made weaker and the argument that Holden is a good person because he cares about kids is made stronger.

2. Catachresis

This device is a fun one because it is nearly impossible to define in one simple way. Catachresis is, in direct translation from its Greek roots, defined as the “misuse of a word.” But it is more than that. Catachresis is a figure of speech that represents something completely impossible; Catachresis connects two opposing ideas to create a completely mind-blowing figure of speech that draws lots of attention. Let me give a powerful literary example of a Catachresis from Milton’s poem “Lycidas”:
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman's art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw …
(lines 119-124)
In this excerpt from Milton, the example of Catachresis occurs in line 119, when the remaining shepherds are referred to as “blind mouths” — the rest of this passage is just given for context. This phrase is interesting, and an example of this rhetorical device, because a mouth cannot be blind; mouths cannot regularly see, and so the description of mouths as being unable to see seems a little off (at first anyways).

But, if we take the rest of the given passage into account — as well as the meaning of the rest of the poem — this description of these mouths seems like it fits (right?). How does it fit when it reflects an idea that is impossible in the real world? Well, in my opinion, these shepherds seem to be described as incapable throughout the poem (e.g., they are described as “scarce themselves know how to hold/ A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least” in this passage). It seems as though the speaker of this eulogy is bitter because Lycidas died and the people that he describes as having “blind mouths” are still alive. The phrase “blind mouths” here is powerful because it shows just how aimless and meaningless the words that these shepherds speak are — and this meaninglessness seems to flood over into the other areas of their lives as well.

3. Analogy

Akin to the simile and the metaphor, analogies work to compare two things. Analogies seem to be used less often than their more common comparing cousins (the simile and the metaphor), but their usage can often prove to be less superfluous and more relatable for the reader. Essentially, the best characteristic of the analogy is the fact that it can make a (sometimes confusing) concept easier to understand by likening it to something simpler that the reader can easily relate to or imagine.

For the sake of winning arguments, an analogy allows the writer to give a simpler argument alongside a more complex one, so that the reader can understand the underlying theme of what the writer is trying to get across before he or she has to make sense of the more complex argument. Then, once the theme is understood, the reader can confront the more complex argument with the simpler argument’s purpose in mind, and make sense of the argument as a whole. As said in Rhetorical Devices: A Handbook and Activities for Student Writers,
“Once you have an agreement about the simple argument, it becomes much easier for [students] to see and accept the more complex form” (63).
Essentially, an analogy fixes the problem of a possible misunderstanding of the argument at hand. Without complete understanding, there cannot be complete agreement (and thus, there would be no winning of said argument). Take the following analogy as an example:

Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you also can’t say you know a person when all you know is based solely on their actions. As seen in the above example, including the clichéd, well known clause, “Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover,” gives the reader a theme (one of being unable to correctly judge things and people based only on what is on the outside) with which to go into the second part of the sentence. Seeing as the second part of the sentence is a little more complex in its meaning than the first part, it is important that that first part be in there so that the simple can act as a bridge to understanding the complex.

4. Exemplum

Exemplum is purely defined as the act of “providing your reader with an example to illustrate your point” (94). The usage of this tactic is crucial, especially when it comes to relaying information that students have researched, because it gives the reader something concrete to link the argued point to in the real world. Whether exemplum takes the form of reinforcement through quotations provided by a trusted authority or a more specific example provided by the writer, all points can be made stronger through this rhetorical device. In fact, it is difficult to make concrete arguments that attract the reader to the writer’s cause without using exemplum.

For example, take this point into consideration: Holden Caulfield is not a good person. Without exemplum, this point would be left alone, to fend for itself in a world that consists of some readers who will disagree, and be allowed to disagree, without so much as one example to reinforce it and prove the disagreeing readers wrong. Now, with exemplum, specific examples from the novel can be added to this argument to make it more convincing (there are many examples to choose from — everything excluding the end where he talks about saving the children works)!

5. Hyperbole

The hyperbole is the celebrity of rhetorical devices. Most of us use hyperboles, or exaggerations, in everyday speech. However, in writing it is important to ensure that the hyperbole comes across as an intentional exaggeration to the reader and not just as a misstated fact. The following are two examples of sentences that are intended to be hyperbolic:
A. “The drive to Nebraska took us fourteen days.”
B. “I think I could have walked to Nebraska faster than we drove.”
Even though it doesn’t seem plausible that it would take fourteen days to drive to Nebraska, Example A lacks the language that makes certain that the reader is privy to the fact that the drive didn’t actually take fourteen days. On the other hand, the exaggerative point is relayed well in Example B because driving is a well-known mode of transportation that is much faster than walking. Obviously, the speaker couldn’t walk to Nebraska faster than he drove — it’s common knowledge that that is impossible — which makes Example B’s hyperbole less confusing and more useful than the one in Example A.

Perhaps one of the most effective characteristics of hyperbole is the fact that it makes arguments memorable. Think about it: saying that walking would have been faster than driving to Nebraska is a part of the above argument that could stick with the reader for a while. Without the hyperbole, if all that was said was that “the drive took a really long time,” this idea would have lacked the something-special it needed to really convince its audience; it would have seemed too common. In conclusion, hyperboles work well to reinforce (with boldface, exclamation points and a couple underlines) common points.

Of course, these are just five of the many rhetorical devices that could be used in the classroom to help breathe new life into writing exercises. Can you think of a device that you think should have been included or that you enjoy fostering the usage of in the classroom? If so, leave it in a comment below!

Rachel Carey is a summer intern at Prestwick House. She is also a senior at the University of Delaware, where she studies English with a concentration in Creative Writing. During the school year, she is an active editor and writer for Caesura and The Main Street Journal, both of which are prominent literary magazines on campus, as well as Vice President of The Blue Pen Society writing club.

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