Rhetorical devices, ranked

Sometimes you stumble across knowledge so useful it feels like you’ve been handed cheat codes for the universe.

I felt that way when reading Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence, which is a wonderfully witty romp through popular rhetorical devices found in the English language.

I’ve gathered my favourite ones in this post for easy reference. They’re a reminder that in our brave new world of AI language models, there are time-honoured formulas and patterns you can use in the grand tradition of Shakespeare, Byron, Austen, and Taylor Swift (all of the greats, basically) to empower you to outsmart the machines.



Latin. Addition of a letter.


Starting several syllables in a sentence using the same letter. Simple.


Bright as a button

Cool as a cucumber

Dead as a doornail

Power to the people

Full fathom five thy father lies — The Tempest

Voila! In view humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the “vox populi” now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin, van guarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honour to meet you and you may call me V — V for Vendetta



Greek. Opposition, or set against.


When a thing is compared to its polar opposite for dramatic effect.


To be or not to be, that is the question — Hamlet

‘Cause you’re hot then you’re cold
You’re yes then you’re no
You’re in then you’re out
You’re up then you’re down
You’re wrong when it’s right
It’s black and it’s white — Katy Perry



Greek. To be made double.


When you start a line using the last word of the previous line.


The love of wicked men converts to fear; that fear to hate, and hate turns one or both, to worthy danger and deserved death — Richard II

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering — Yoda



Greek. Cut in two.


Repetition of a word, but broken up by a word or two in the middle.


To be or not to be — Hamlet

Food, glorious food! — Oliver!

Bond. James Bond. — You know who



Greek. Fastening together.


Repeating something over and over (and over and over and over and over) for extra oomph.


Location location location

O horror, horror, horror — Macbeth

Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl! – King Lear

We are never ever, ever, ever getting back together. Like, ever

‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
Shake it off, I shake it off – Taylor Swift

The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You. Don’t. Talk. About. Fight club – Fight Club



Greek. One thing by two.


Take an adjective and turn it into a noun. Voila. Instantly deep, indecipherable verse.


The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune — Hamlet

Full of sound and fury – Macbeth

She walks in beauty, like the night — Byron

Nice and warm



Latin. Transposed or inverted.


Intentionally writing words in the wrong order for poetic effect.


Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown — Henry IV

One swallow does not a summer make

Off you two f*** – The Thick of It

Literally everything Yoda says



Latin. Divide or partition.


Two (or more) contrasting parts of a whole.


Hook, line and sinker

From A to Z

Every nook and cranny

From nose to tail

Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes — The Tempest



Latin. The time during which something runs its course.


When you bury the active verb under a whole pile of poetic fluff to build tension.

AKA period, periode, periodos, periodic sentences.

Examples of periodus

The cloud-capp’d towers,
The gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples,
The great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve — The Tempest

Every breath you take,
Every move you make,
Every bond you break,
Every step you take,
I’ll be watching you — Sting and The Police



Latin. Many cases.


Using a word’s multiple meanings in one sentence.


Is this a dagger that I see before me,
The handle towards my hand? — Macbeth

Please please me — The Beatles

I dreamed a dream — Les Miserables (and Susan Boyle)



Greek. Three clauses.


The immortal, the eternal, the unbeatable rule of 3s. Three really is the magic number.


The good, the bad, and the ugly

Truth, justice, and the American way

Ready. Set. Go.

Eat, drink and be merry

We few. We happy few. We band of brothers — Henry V

I came. I saw. I conquered — Julius Caesar