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RHETORICAL DEVICES

A TOOL KIT
adapted from Potter, J 1996 Representing reality: Discourse, rhetoric and social construction, Sage, London
by D. Freesmith 2007

Competing metaphors for language

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COW

Language as mirror

Language as construction yard

The mirror metaphor sees language as simply


reflecting reality.

In the construction yard metaphor language is


used to construct versions of things, people,
ideas and events.
In this model, words are never simply neutral
reflections of reality. Rather they are understood
as influential choices that represent reality in
selective ways. Anything can be described using
a countless number of different possible
combinations of representational choices (ie
words). These choices constitute our knowledge
and understanding of the world. In this model
language is therefore seen as very powerful
indeed.
The rhetorical devices in this toolkit can be used
to deconstruct a persuasive text in order to
identify how it uses language to represent reality
in a particular way.

Tools for building a speakers credibility

Category entitlement
We accept that certain categories of people are entitled to make specific knowledge
claims, so we give special credence to their accounts. In the claim the psychologist told
me my child is gifted a parent presents this information as coming from a reliable source.
The psychologist belongs to the category of expert, and is thus is entitled to decide that
the child is gifted. Citing the psychologist builds the credibility of this parents claim.

Concession

Concessions are provided by speakers1 when they explicitly acknowledge potential


counter-claims. The position the speaker ultimately advocates will seem more reasonable
and robust since they appear to have considered each side before reaching their
conclusion. The speaker presents themselves as both balanced and informed. Their
opinion then appears to reflect an appraisal of available evidence rather than a personal
agenda
.
I see the importance of providing funding for children with learning disabilities we do
need to give those kids a fair chance. But, at the end of the day, spending money on the
gifted kids is simply more practical because theyre the ones who will move our society
forward.

Consensus
One way of transforming a description into a fact is to produce the agreement of
reliable witnesses. An account appears more believable if more than one person agrees
(we all knew he was nervous), and all witnesses provide the same account of events.
It wasn't just me and the United States. The world thought he [Saddam Hussein] was
dangerous and needed to be disarmed.
George W. Bush 8.2.2004 - defending the invasion of Iraq

The term speaker has been used in this document for simplicity, but most of the devices also apply to written texts.

Disclaimer
A disclaimer is an explicit disavowal of the very stance or opinion a speaker
subsequently advocates. A speaker may use this when they know that what they are about
to say may attract criticism. This way they deny the criticism before it can even be made.
Im not sexist, but I just think women belong in the kitchen because its natural.
Im not racist, but I just think black people cant be trusted.

Footing
When presenting information, a speaker can present themselves as the source of that
information, or relay it as someone elses message. A speaker can shift footing depending
on what suits their argument. Depending on your footing, you can limit or extend the
extent to which you can be held responsible for the account you are presenting.
He is innocent. vs His solicitor alleges that he is innocent.

Stake management
A version of events could be undermined if the speaker can be shown to have a vested
interest in the particular account they provide. For example, if a parent says my child is
gifted, they are open to the charge well, you would say that, wouldnt you, because all
parents think their children are smart. This means that the parent can be seen to have a
stake in the matter that undermines the objectivity of their account. To get around this,
a speaker can employ one of two tools: stake inoculation or stake confession.

Stake confession

Stake inoculation

Stake confession is where a speaker


acknowledges their vested interest. For
example:
I know Im his dad, and all dads are
proud, but he really put in a performance
like none other today.
This claim gives the impression that even
though this dad would say that his son
did well, the boy did such a good job that
this comment is more than simple
bragging and should be taken seriously.

Stake inoculation is where a speaker


rebuts the potential claim that they have a
stake even before they are challenged on
it. For example, someone selling a new
miracle cream in an infomercial may say:
At first, I was sceptical about the new
cream. It seemed too good to be true. But
after I tried it, I was convinced.
In this claim, the speaker heads off the
suggestion that they may just be praising
the product for profit by presenting
themselves as having been sceptical like
anyone else would be. This makes their
eventual endorsement of the product
more believable.

Tools for building the case


Active voicing
Active voicing is the use of a direct quote from another source. Presenting other peoples
words in a direct quote makes the reporting of their words seem more reliable, which in
turn builds the believability of the argument.
He said to me, I cant get over how much youve improved.

Categorisation
When a speaker offers a description, choices are available to them about how to name or
categorise their subject. These choices affect the audiences perception. For example, the
words terrorist and freedom fighter may both be accurately used to describe the same
person, but to very different effect.
terrorist / freedom fighter
refugee / asylum seeker / boat person / illegal immigrant
bushranger / legend / hero / criminal

Detail

Vagueness

Detail builds specificity and presents an


account as informed, reliable and
accurate.

Vagueness supports broad claims and is


difficult to pin down or undermine. It is
also useful if a speaker is trying to be
evasive. For example, to avoid
unfavourable statistics, non-numerical
quantifiers such as some or a majority
may be used.

I saw the thief exit the building at 6.13am


wearing a Sydney Swans beanie with a red
pom-pom.

The commission I set up is to obviously


analyze what went right or what went
wrong with the Iraqi intelligence. It was
kind of lessons learned. George W. Bush
8.2.2004 - defending the invasion of Iraq

Generalisation
Generalisation allows a speaker to stretch a particular interpretation across an indefinite
number of instances.
Girls used to fall for him and then he would just dump them.
When I spoke to her she would look at me with those eyes.
The use of would in these sentences may be seen to generalise the behaviour across
multiple occasions and/or to suggest that the behaviour is characteristic of the person.

Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering means offering a very selective description of something that includes
particular details as relevant, while omitting or ignoring other potential aspects, so as to
support a specific argument.
Gerrymandering is a favourite of politicians. For example:
Government politician: The economy is healthy just look at the high growth rate of
gross domestic product.
Opposition politician: The economy is unhealthy just look at the increasing number of
families below the poverty line.
These politicians do not disagree about the facts themselves they are both telling the
truth. The problem is that they have each selected different criteria for determining the
health of the economy. They selected these criteria according to which one helps to tell
the story about the economy they need to present to the electorate.
! The word gerrymandering has an interesting history which helps to explain its meaning.
Try researching it on the internet.

Intention-promoting verbs
Certain verbs can be chosen to make intention explicit. For example, James tripped, so
the team lost does not necessarily imply that James intended to lose, while James
helped the team lose implies intention.

Making evidence speak for itself


A speaker can increase the credibility of their evidence by presenting it as self-evident.
This downplays their role in collecting or interpreting the evidence. The speaker
personifies the evidence as though it is the evidence itself that makes the case, not their
subjective interpretation of it. This strategy obscures the speakers (or others) actions,
choices or judgments in the acquisition, selection or analysis of that data. This is often
used in science. (This device is also known as empiricist repertoire.)
The facts show
It is self-evident that
All the evidence points to
Obviously.
Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime
continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.
George W. Bush 17.3.2003 calling for the invasion of Iraq

Maximisation &
minimisation

Extreme case
formulation

Maximisation and minimisation are


commonly used for emphasis or deemphasis.
Maximisation can be used to establish
blame: She harassed Kate so much, so Im
not surprised she snapped.
Minimisation can be used to downplay
accountability: He only threw a tiny rock.

This is the extreme version of


maximisation and minimisation. A degree
of exaggeration is often involved.
Everyone who meets her likes her.
She never listens to me.

Nominalisation

Passive voice

Nominalisation is the changing of verbs


into nouns within a sentence. This may be
done to avoid mentioning those who
performed the action, and can enable the
speaker to avoid attributing responsibility.
For example the verb kill in police killed
rioters can be transformed into the noun
killing, as in the killing was regrettable.
The term killing avoids mentioning the
perpetrators, allowing the speaker to avoid
or even shift attributions of blame.

Like nominalisation, use of the passive


voice is a way to avoid mentioning the
subject of the verb. For example police
killed rioters can be transformed into the
passive form the rioters were killed,
thereby avoiding mention of the killers
themselves. As with nominalisation, this
can allow the speaker to avoid or even
shift attributions of blame.

Pronoun selection
Pronouns are words that stand in the place of nouns, including: I, me, my, we, us, our,
you, your, he, she, him, her, his, it, its, they, them, their.
Careful selection of pronouns can be a convenient way for speakers to include or exclude
themselves and/or others, according to the requirements of the argument.
For example, by calling Aboriginal people them a speaker separates these individuals
from white Australians (us/your audience) and potentially presents them as all the
same.

Rhetorically self-sufficient arguments


These are common-sense arguments that are acceptable to a listener without further
justification. These arguments are safe ground for a speaker because the audience will
usually agree. They are also difficult for opponents to criticise. Speakers often tie their
case to a familiar rhetorically self-sufficient argument that they know their audience will
feel comfortable to accept.
Different problems require different solutions.
You cant please everyone all the time.
Ten rhetorically self-sufficient arguments in liberal democratic societies2:
1. Resources should be used productively and in a cost-effective manner.
2. Nobody should be compelled.
3. Everybody should be treated equally.
4. You cannot turn the clock backwards.
5. Present generations cannot be blamed for the mistakes of past generations.
6. Injustices should be righted.
7. Everybody can succeed if they try hard enough.
8. Minority opinion should not carry more weight than majority opinion.
9. We have to live in the twentieth century.
10. You have to be practical.
Each of these arguments is deeply familiar to and trusted by members of liberal
democratic cultures such as contemporary Australian culture. Politicians in particular
draw on these arguments according to the needs of their case. The arguments may not be
inherently or logically self-sufficient. Indeed some of them may contradict others when
applied to particular situations. For example, John Howard drew on number 5 when
refusing to make a formal apology to the Stolen Generations, but drew on number 6
when accepting the need for an apology from Japan for war crimes towards Australian
soldiers.

Statistics
Using numerical representations is not a neutral process. Rather, statistics may be
selected so as to support particular arguments. For example, a speaker can choose
percentages, fractions, absolute figures or non-numerical representations (a vast
majority) according to the needs of a particular case.
In the last year in Australia 284,000 new jobs were created. - Peter Costello 13.7.07
The Treasurers presentation of the number 284,000 in this case has greater impact than a
percentage (2.5% increase in jobs) or a vague term like many.

Wetherell, M and Potter, J 1992 Mapping the Language of Racism: Discourse and the Legitimation of Exploitation,
Columbia University Press.

Tools for rousing audience emotion


These tools are used particularly in oral texts to rouse the audiences emotion and attract
their sentiment towards the argument proposed.

Repetition
This can be used effectively to emphasise and to evoke emotion.
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!
Martin Luther King 23.8.1963
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the
fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
Winston Churchill 4.6.1940
Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with the
ability to make weapons. He was a dangerous man in the dangerous part of the world.
George W. Bush 8.2.2004 - defending the invasion of Iraq

Rhetorical questions
What is a rhetorical question? They are questions that are not really asking the listener
for a response. They can be used either:
- to make a point which is so obvious it does not require an answer (these are often
sarcastic); or
- to raise an issue which the speaker will answer themselves; or
- to encourage the listener to reflect on the question in their own mind.
The fundamental question is, do you deal with a threat once you see it?
George W. Bush 8.2.2004 - defending the invasion of Iraq
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Shylock in Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice

Three-part list
Lists of three sound particularly complete, satisfying and convincing.
Ein volk, ein reich, ein fuhrer! (One people, one empire, one leader!)

Adolf Hitler

Libert, galit, fraternit! (Freedom, equality, brotherhood!)


rallying cry of the French Revolution
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
Antony in Shakespeares Julius Caesar