Rhetorical Devices

This post is a follow-up of my previous post on clichés. The reason? I received several requests from readers asking me to clarify, or explain, the rhetorical devices further. There is confusion in the minds of some as to what is what. It is not possible to write everything on the subject in one post, so I’ll just restrict myself to the queries that I received. The rest will follow in future posts.

First off:

What is a rhetorical device? Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing. It is also described as the art of persuasion. Therefore, a rhetorical device is a means of, or a tool used to effectively speak or write. The main devices:

Figure of speech: This is a rhetorical device that uses words in distinctive ways to achieve special effects. Figures of speech are used to emphasize or bring freshness to expression. There are several different types of figures of speech – some being metaphor, simile, and personification.

Metaphor: A metaphor is a figure of speech, which compares two things without the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’. It is used to bring more force to the comparison. For example: a heart of stone, or food for thought.

Idiom: An idiom is a figure of speech – a phrase that means something other than its literal meaning. For example: get cold feet (meaning: become timid), or rat race (meaning= struggle for success).

Cliché: A cliché is a phrase that conveys a particular message, but has been so overused that it now sounds boring and irritating. For example: at the end of the day, or bottom line.

What are the similarities/differences between the above?

Difference between a metaphor and an idiom: A metaphor and an idiom are two different things. Whereas a metaphor compares a person or thing to something that possesses similar characteristics, an idiom is a phrase whose meaning as a unit differs from the meanings of words (of the phrase) taken separately. For example (taking the examples given above):

A heart of stone is comparing the heart with a stone – meaning the heart has no feeling, just like a stone doesn’t. (Meaning = the person has no feelings in his/her heart). Therefore, it is a metaphor.

Get cold feet – here there is no comparison. Instead, the whole phrase has an implied meaning, i.e. becoming timid. This implies meaning is very different from the literal meaning. Therefore, it is an idiom.

Difference between an idiom and a cliché: The idiom has been explained above. A cliché on the other hand, is a phrase that has become stale or boring due to its overuse. This phrase may be anything – a proverb, a metaphor, a simile (a comparison with the words like or as), an idiom, or even a single word. Hence, terms like metaphorical clichés (clichés that are metaphors).

So, what we see here is that an idiom can be a cliché, and a cliché can be an idiom… and yet, the two are different. Some ask – how can we tell whether a phrase is an idiom or a cliché? The deciding factor is its use – if the phrase is a common one and you hear it several times a day, then it’s a cliché, otherwise it’s an idiom.

There is so much that can be written on the topic, but I confined myself to the questions that were asked.

By the way, how would you tell the difference between an idiom and a cliché?

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