Rhetorical Devices and Literary Techniques
Rhetorical devices and literary techniques are
closely related to tone and style. In fact, an author’s style partly
consists of selecting and using certain devices; an author’s tone
is partially determined by the type of techniques an author uses.
Many SAT books will list lots of Greek terms
you don’t need to know, such as synecdoche and anaphora.
But the Critical Reading section won’t require that you know the names of
rhetorical devices or literary techniques.
Rather than bombard you with dozens of unfamiliar terms,
we’ll categorize and clump the most common types of devices and
techniques below and provide some examples and commentary. As we
said, you won’t be specifically tested on these concepts, but they
do lurk beneath the surface in the passages. Having a solid understanding
of these devices and techniques will improve your ability
to handle RPs. Focus on absorbing the similarities and differences
between and among them. As you read through the list, note the one
key feature all of these techniques and devices share: they allow
words and sentences to carry more than only their literal meaning.
Here is a list of the most important devices and techniques.
We’ve included examples along with commentary on each one:
I’m as hungry as a
Hyperbole is a synonym for exaggeration.
Clearly, the speaker is not really as hungry as
a starving lion. A hyperbole is just a figure of speech we use to
emphasize a point. The opposite device is understatement: I’m
a little tired is a purposeful understatement if the speaker
has been up for 48 hours.
Duty does not trump
honesty. Duty does not trump common sense. And duty, my friends,
does not trump morality.
Repetition is the conscious and purposeful
replication of words or phrases in order to make a point. In this
example, it’s clear that the limits of duty are being sketched out.
The speaker is trying to show that duty is not the only or even
the most important virtue.
Imagery and Figurative Language
Her eyes were like
Her eyes are literally human eyes. Figuratively, they
are being compared to stars, meaning, most likely, that they are
bright and shiny and cause wonderment. This is an example of a simile.
Similes use like and as to make
explicit comparisons between unlike things, such as eyes and stars.
Her eyes were pools
of liquid light.
Again, her eyes are literally human eyes. Figuratively,
they are being compared to pools of liquid light. However, the comparison
is implied, not stated. This is an example of a metaphor.
Unlike similes, metaphors compare unlike things without explicitly
stating the comparison with “like” or “as.”
Her eyes followed me
up the stairs.
Can eyes follow someone up the stairs? Not literally,
but in this case an eye—which is not a person—is given a person’s
abilities, namely, following someone else up the stairs. This is
an example of personification.
Her eyes looked but
did not see. All was dark.
Literally speaking, eyes either see (healthy
eyes) or they don’t see (blind eyes). An eye that looks but
does not see is blind in a figurative sense. Very often,
vision and light are symbols for understanding and enlightenment.
In this example, the woman is most likely unaware of—or “in the
dark”—about something. This is an example of symbolism.
Her eyes were rippling
pools of liquid light in which I splashed playfully.
This metaphor also uses sound patterns to underscore its
meaning. Note that the letters l and p repeat: rippling pools
of liquid light…splashed playfully. The
author may have repeated “l” and “p” sounds to evoke the sound of
water (like in the word splash itself) or simply
to link together the words that make up the metaphor—or both. There
are many types of sound-pattern devices, each with its own difficult
Greek name that you certainly won’t need to know.
Can poverty ever be
Rhetorical questions are not meant to be
answered. A rhetorical question is used to present what’s taken
to be an unanswerable question, such as these questions:
Can a repeat offender
ever be trusted not to commit another crime?
Can a person ever have too much love?
A rhetorical question can also be one in which the author’s
answer is clearly intended to be “no” or “yes.” In these two examples,
the author’s answer is clearly intended to be “no” (whether you
agree with those answers or not).
Idioms and Clichés
That’ll cost you an
arm and a leg.
Idioms are inherited quirks of language that
native speakers understand without question but which cause nonnative
speakers endless trouble. Only a native speaker knows that if something
costs an arm and a leg that means it’s expensive,
not that you actually need to lose your limbs to purchase it. Many
overused idioms and symbols are clichés, and clichés themselves
can be used ironically (see irony below).
[Said to a mean boss]: “You’ve
been so kind to me.”
The SAT loves irony. A statement
is ironic if it expresses something different from
or opposite to the literal meaning of the words. This example is
called verbal irony or sarcasm, which
can be thought of as “heavy-handed irony”:
The overuse of antibiotics
has led to the rise of resistant strains of many diseases.
A statement or situation can be ironic or paradoxical when
the words accurately report events that seem to be contradictory
but which have actually occurred, as in this example:
A soldier has returned
from a war. He crashes his motorcycle and dies. His war experiences
are told in flashback. Whenever he thinks about death, a motorcycle
A specific literary use of irony is called dramatic irony.
In the example above, the audience knows that the soldier will die
in a motorcycle crash. The soldier himself, of course, doesn’t know
how he will die. (A flashback, by the way, is another
literary device made popular by the movies. Flashbacks jump back
in the story’s chronology to give background information. For example,
the opening scene of the film Lord of the Rings: Return of
the King shows Gollum before he found the ring.)
A soldier goes to war.
He survives many brutal battles, just barely missing being killed
several times. The soldier becomes obsessed with his “good luck”—why
does he survive when so many others die? Every time the soldier
has a brush with death, the author makes some subtle mention of
a black motorcycle. Eventually, the soldier’s best friend is killed
in a motorcycle crash the day after the war has ended. The soldier
himself comes home and not too long afterward, he dies by crashing
In this example, the audience and character are equally
ignorant about the outcome of the story. However, by using foreshadowing,
the author begins to clue in his audience. The character’s fate
is slowly revealed to the audience but not necessarily to the character
Note that the ending to this story is doubly ironic—was
the soldier “meant” to die in a motorcycle crash or did he bring
it about through his own guilt about surviving while others perished?
The theme of free will versus predetermination underlies this little
The motorcycle in the
last two examples.
A motif is a symbol that is carried through
an entire work of fiction. The motorcycle symbolized death throughout
both stories. In the Lord of the Rings, the One
Ring is a motif for the corrupting nature of power.
Now that you have all these concepts under your
belt, it’s time to learn the most efficient way to use your knowledge
on testlike items and sets.