Guide to Literary Terms

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What are the differences between rhetorical and literary devices, and what are some examples of both of them?  

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The distinction is basically artificial. Historically, the notion of the "figures" originated in Graeco-Roman education. This educational system included "grammar" as the main part of the secondary curriculum. Ancient grammatical studies consisted of explication of the poets (what we now would call literary studies) and the art of correct speech (what we now would term grammar and introductory composition). Rhetoric was one possible path of tertiary education, and focused on the art of advanced prose composition.

Figures of speech or "literary devices" were studied in both grammatical and rhetorical contexts, and thus overlapped literary and rhetorical contexts to a great degree. The main difference between the two is that while all the devices learned in the grammatical classroom were also used by rhetoricians, some of the persuasive strategies used in speeches were not introduced until the rhetorical level of schooling. However, the term "rhetorical devices", meaning such elements as climax, isocolon, anacolouthon, metaphor, or alliteration, is normally applied to figures of speech and thought which are used in both literary and rhetorical works. Such persuasive techniques unique to rhetoric as the enthymeme or the epicheireme are forms of argument, but not necessarily "devices" in the sense of figures of speech. 

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Rhetorical devices are used to convey a particular meaning with the aim of persuasion or provoking an argument about a topic. These devices are mostly used in an argumentative or oratory environment were eloquence is necessary. Rhetorical devices are not strongly guided by grammatical mechanics but are mainly concerned with arrangement, style, delivery, memory and invention. These devices include sarcasm, metaphors and irony among other constructs. For instance a statement by Abraham Lincoln when he stated that his political rival "dived down deeper into the sea of knowledge and come up drier than any other man he knew” is well placed to show use of rhetorical devices. This statement uses both irony and a metaphor to persuade the audience that the rival did not benefit...

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