Aphoria, Brachylogia, Chriea: It Sounds Greek to me!
Ever since Aristotle, humans have been using rhetorical devices to strengthen their communication. Shakespeare used them. Modern movies use them. And, sneaky science writers use them, too!
Rhetoric is an art. Most frequently we think of rhetoric as speaking or writing for persuasive purposes, but it can also be used to inform. Rhetoric includes logic, motivation, and speaking techniques, plus it includes figures of rhetoric. Figures that fiddle with the structure of sentences. Figures that string words together in a striking way. Figures that focus the attention of the reader.
Nonfiction writers can use some of that.
Rhetorical figures or devices provide formulas that have been tested and tried since the time of the Ancient Greeks. There’s an entire alphabet of effective rhetorical devices out there. Today, we don’t have time to work our way all the way to Zeugma, but we can peak into this world of word wisdom by starting with “A.”
the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of words that are in close proximity
When Shakespeare wrote The Tragedie of Anthonie and Cleopatra, he borrowed a paragraph almost word-for-word from Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Note that word “almost.” What change did the great bard make to this history that might have sounded a wee bit stodgy?
“The barge she sat in like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sales and so perfumed that. . .”
I bet you spotted all those b’s and a few p’s. Now, let’s look at how a modern book, We Are All Greta: Be Inspired by Greta Thunberg to Save the World by Valentina Gianella and illustrated by Manuela Marazzi, puts alliteration to work:
“My daughter’s school chat room has been buzzing since dawn: dozens of colorful cartoons have appeared, with slogans sent out by #FridaysForFuture sites. Today is the day of the great global student strike organized by Greta Thunberg. . .”
Try this: Replace every other alliterative word with a synonym. Re-read the passage. How did those changes affect the reading? Practice yourself by selecting a stodgy sentence from this blog and give it some bounce by adding alliteration.
the repetition of entire words or phrases at the beginning of successive clauses
Anaphora adds rhythm. Anaphora adds cadence. Anaphora adds emotional pull to key content. The result is emphasis on a particular piece of text, often making it memorable. Is that something you’d like to do with your writing?
A tip for using this rhetorical device: use active sentences and use anaphora when you wish to emphasize the subject of the sentence.
Try this: Put your hand on the closest book to you. Select a line from that book, a subject in that book, or a character within that book as the starting place, and write something short using anaphora for emphasis.
an expression of doubt or uncertainty
Adding uncertainty to your writing couldn’t be useful to science writers, could it? Aphoria provides the reader an opportunity to evaluate, analyze, or judge the situation for themselves. The doubt
expressed may be genuine, sincere, or feigned. If feigned, the effect may be to guide the reader towards a specific point. If sincere, the effect may be to convey humility. If genuine, the effect may be to encourage critical thinking in the reader’s mind.
Here’s an example of aphoria from Diet for a Changing Climate, by Christy Mihaly and Sue Heavenrich.
“Pulling weeds and invasive kudzu vines from the garden and . . . eating them?”
Try this: Decide if this doubt is genuine or feigned. What effect might this use of aphoria have on a reader? Can you think of more than one?
the repetition of internal vowel sounds
Can you ascertain the assonance in this passage from Jodi Wheeler-Toppen’s Recycled Science: Bring Out Your work Science Genius? Bonus points if you find alliteration as well.
“Test out a physics fact, and have a blast at the same time!”
Assonance can be put to good use creating a mood and rhythm within prose. Writers who pay attention to the sounds of letters can maximize the impact of a rhetorical device such as assonance. Consider how assonance affects the mood of “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Try this: Search for assonance in another book and ferret out the effect on the mood of the text.
26 More Letters to Go!
One list of rhetorical figures includes 108 that begin with “A!” We will stop here, but you can dive into the rest of the alphabet with resources at the end of this post.
Figures of rhetoric can infuse your writing with passion and power. Now that you have easy-peazy formulas, you can just toss in some words and have a masterpiece, right? Maybe not. A gifted writer selects devices purposefully.
Try this: Flip through several books, and flag the use of rhetorical devices. Work your way through the book a second time, making note of the frequency per page or absence of these tools. Do you see any trends? When might it be wise to avoid using a rhetorical device?
When you’re ready to level up to the next challenge, compare the figures from several books. Try a textbook, a nonfiction book from a series, and a trade book on the same topic. What differences do you notice?
O.O.L.F. (Out of Left Field)
Resources in Rhetoric
The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase, Mark Forsyth
Literary Devices, a list of commonly used rhetorical devices with in-depth explanation and examples, https://literarydevices.net/
The Forest of Rhetoric, a more complete list of rhetorical devices with brief definitions, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/
Rhyme Zone, for help with alliteration, plug a word into the synonym search and then sort alphabetically, https://www.rhymezone.com/
Heather L. Montgomery enjoys finding a fun turn of phrase while writing about wild and wacky wildlife. You might even spot a few rhetorical devices in her recent nonfiction: Who Gives a Poop? Surprising Science from One End to the Other.