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Rhetorical Devices Explained For Critical Reading

Updated on October 7, 2012

Many years ago I aced a college class in Critical Thinking. I earned the highest score from my professor from among all class participants over many years. Before day one of that class, I read the text, and I made myself a quick reference chart of just under 50 Rhetorical Devices. After reading many hubs and hub comments, I decided that I should share my notes. Some of you already know these; but perhaps some of you are not familiar with them. I spent the better part of 3 hours tearing through my desk files full of unpublished writing in search of those class notes. As usual, it was in the last place I looked. Disability has changed my life significantly since that class. I have many days when my memory is not aces, and when organizing my pantry is a challenge. Even on those days, when I am reading an article full of manipulations, my spider senses go into full alarm because I learned these devices long ago.

The following is a listing of Rhetorical Devices used by the experts to sway your thinking. It is important to recognize them when reading commentary and news articles. Often their use is to fool you, but not always. Sometimes, these devices can add color to an author’s style of writing. When you recognize them, you become a better critical reader, thinker, and writer. These basic terms and definitions can be found in at least a dozen Critical Thinking college level textbooks. The examples of each device are my own. It is my intent to have very simple examples that aid in a quick understanding. Good writers take the use of Rhetorical Devices to much higher levels than my basic examples. Many of those writers, especially political commentators, easily use these devices to sway your thinking.


Replacing an offensive or bad statement with one more pleasing, or vague to the reader.

Example: Instead of using “dead civilians”, use “collateral damage,”

Example: Instead of saying “take 40% of your hard earned dollars, and give it to someone else, (who is often someone who is using the ‘system’ fraudulently)” Obama says, “share the wealth.”


Bad expression used to tone down the good.
Exact opposite of Euphemism. Sometimes you want to be as crass as need be for effect.

Down player:
Diminish importance of the claim being written about.
Instead of: “there will be no raises this year” you could down play the effect by saying, “even though the company is experiencing financial stress, there will be no salary cuts this year”

Horse Laugh:
Ridicule disguised as reasoning to reject claim.
Example: “You think extending the 12 year tax cuts, is an increase in government expenses? That is stupid!”

Huge over-statement.
“It’s so hot today; I could cook dinner on the sidewalk.”

Insinuation of something deprecatory.

Example: “Oh my goodness, if you eat another desert, you are going to look like a pig.”

Loaded Question:
Question that rests on one or more unwarranted or unjustified assumption.

Example: “Do these jeans make my butt look big?”

Proof Surrogate:
Expression in place of actual evidence or authority.
Example: “Everyone’s parents give at least twenty dollars a week allowance.”

Persuade instead of logical proof.

“Our school turns out brilliant children.” (LOL. Who’s definition of brilliant? They are counting on your belief that your child is capable of brilliance, but have not given you any reason why their claim is true.)

Rhetorical Comparison:
(Rhetorical Devices, Rhetorical Definition, and Rhetorical Explanation are basically the same thing.)
Influencing behavior or perception by using positive or negative emotions.

Example: “If you loved me, you would dance with me.”
Example: “All old people will be murdered by Obamacare.”

Oversimplified generalization about a person of a certain class.

Example: “Those Junior League ladies are all rich bitches.”

Expression used to protect claim from criticism by weakening it.

Example: “Almost everyone loves this product.” (In case you are the only one who doesn’t love this product.)


Wishful Thinking:
Accepting it because you want it to be true (or false).

Example: “If you take these pills, you will lose weight.”

Common Practice:
Justify or defend on grounds that everyone knows it or does it.

Example: “Most women breastfeed for the health of their baby, and I think you should too.” (Sad that we let others make our important decisions for us.)

Induce acceptance by arousing feelings of envy.

Example: “I just don’t like her; no one is that perfect.”

Using threat to support some conclusion.

Example: “If you don’t eat your peas, I will spank you.” (Never use empty threats. An empty threat only works once.)

Group Think:
Identifying with a group takes the place of reason and deliberation on an issue.

Example: “More doctors smoke Camel cigarettes.” (Actual 50’s advertisement.)

Guilt Trip:
Making someone feel guilty for not accepting claim.
Example: “Everyone else is contributing twenty dollars for Joe’s birthday present.”

Because of nationalism one may be led to blind endorsement of policy or claim.
Example: “All Americans should only buy American products.”

Invoking anger with inflammatory words followed by a conclusion.
Example: “You are stealing from poor children, when you refuse to vote for this tax!”

Peer Pressure:
Threatened by rejection if you don’t accept a claim.
Example: “You are such a baby; everyone smokes pot.”

Supporting claim by invoking pity rather than a legitimate argument.
Example: “I know I have already received a raise this year, but if I made only a thousand dollars a year more, I would be eligible for a mortgage on the home of my dreams.”

Convince of argument because all or most believe it.
Example: “Everyone I know has a tattoo, why can’t I have one?”

Scare Tactic:
Frightening scenario instead of facts to get someone to see it your way.
Example: “It is a fact, if you brush your teeth twice a day, you will need false teeth by the time you are thirty.”

Smoke Screen / Red Herring:
Irrelevant topic introduced to lead you away from original issue.
Example: “Obama did just awful in the debates last night. He flew in only four hours before the debate, from a lower elevation to a higher elevation.”

False pretext to satisfy our desires or interests.
Example: “I skipped lunch today, so it should be within my diet parameters to eat this desert.”

As assumption that is true for one person, yet not for another.
Example: “I ate cake every day this week, and did not gain a single pound. It should be okay or you to eat this cake too.”

Using tradition as the basis of a claim.
Example: “Son, I am a grocer. My father was a grocer. My great-grandfather opened this grocery store a hundred years ago. It is your turn to be a grocer.”

Error that two different cultures can believe different on a fact.
Example: “For Christians, it is proven that the longest marriage begin with two young people who have not been sexually active. However, many other religions do not believe the absence of sexual relations before marriage is relevant.”

2 Wrongs:
Two wrongs make a right.
Example: “Johnny, since Joey broke your favorite toy, you may break his favorite toy.”

Placing the blame on a person or group in error because they are an easy target.
Example: “Mr. Obama is claiming ‘executive privilege’ for himself and Mr. Holder. He will not release any record of the emails that you have requested. They were not aware of gun running, in any way. The blame will be found in local agents who were involved.”

Ad Hominem:
Argument against claim based on who made the claim instead of against the actual claim.
Example: “Of course Bill is guilty of spreading the rumor; everyone knows he lies all the time.”

False Dilemma:
Fallacious reasoning: x and y can both be false, or both true, but the argument says that x is false because y is true.
Example: “People hate pie, because everyone loves cake.”

Personal Attack / Ad Hominem:
Refusing claim because we don’t like, or disapprove of the person making it.
Example: “It is no secret that I think Obama is a lousy president. Obamacare is just as lousy as he is.” (It is lousy, but not because Obama is a lousy president.)

Appeal to Ignorance:
Lack of evidence against a claim doesn’t mean any points for claim.
Example: “Global warming is true because this winter is colder than any we can remember, and there were more hurricanes this year.”

Genetic Fallacy:
Rejecting a claim on the basis of its origin or history.
Example: “Most WWII Nazi’s came from good Christian homes.”

Poisoning the Well:
Discrediting claim in advance because we don’t like the person.
Example: “Mom, my English Composition teacher doesn’t like me. I know she is going to give me a bad grade on my final report just because she doesn’t like me.”

Begging the Question:
Argument whose conclusion restates the argument.
Example: “Chocolate is everyone’s favorite, because everyone’s clear favorite is chocolate.”

Inconsistency Ad-Hominem:
You can’t make that claim due to prior opposing stance (or opposing actions).
Example: WELL, we all know what a flip-flopper is!!!! When John Kerry, in 2004,
voted against a military appropriation of $87 billion, he was accused of flip-flopping on the vote. He replied to his accusers, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” Since then, the “Inconsistency Ad-Hominem” (flip-flopping), is a favorite form of playing political finesse. Listen to any ten speeches made by Hillary Clinton around 2007, and you will find a wealth of flip-flopping, depending on whom her audience was.

Misplaced Burden of Proof:

Case where burden of proof is on the wrong side.
Example: When the media accuses someone of a crime, tries them, and convicts them, putting the accused in the position of having to prove they are not guilty without the extensive voice that the media has it is extremely unfair to the accused. Our American Justice System is constructed the other way around. When we are formally accused of a crime, we are innocent until the prosecution does its best job to prove us guilty, and a jury of our peers either votes us innocent or guilty. When the media convicts us unfairly, it is very hard to find jurors who have not already convicted the accused in their opinion.

Line Drawing Fallacy:
Insisting that a line be drawn at X, when it could be drawn at y or z.
Example: When someone says, “everything in moderation,” and I reject that notion because I want to know exactly how many donuts I may eat, I am drawing a line. Everything doesn’t have to be exact.

Slippery Slope:
Arguing that because x will happen, then y and z will also happen.
Example: My favorite slippery slope is the one where cigarette smoking is banned in all restaurants. If you allow the government to tell the restaurant owner that he cannot have a restaurant that allows smoking in certain areas, next the government will be telling restaurants what foods they are not allowed to serve, and soon after they will be telling restaurants what foods they have to serve.

Perfectionist Fallacy:
Concluding that claim is not perfect because its conclusion is not perfect.
Example: “We don’t have enough money to build a house and a garage, so I don’t want to build only a house.”

I saved the best for last . . . this one is used often . . .

Straw Man:
Ignores actual position and argues a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented position.
Example: The whole Voter I.D. argument from the left is a straw man argument. They claim it is difficult for poor people to get an I.D., and that it is too expensive. In fact they are stating that poll taxes are illegal, and the expense of a picture I.D. to vote is therefore a poll tax.
The whole argument is ridiculous. People buy the argument on an emotional level, not a logical one. A picture identification is required to do so many activities in our society, that most poor people already have a picture I.D.
One cannot open a bank account, obtain vehicle insurance, obtain welfare such as food stamps and section 8 housing, be admitted to the hospital, rent an apartment, and purchase a home without a picture I.D. States such as Texas will issue a voter I.D. for free.

These tools can be used in persuasive writing for style and positive effect, but they can also be used to trick people into believing a lie, or a distortion. It becomes important to the reader to understand these tools, so they will recognize them when they are being used to sway your beliefs dishonestly. When you are reading articles, you could keep this list handy in order to help you to understand if the writer is being honest or dishonest. After you have used these critical thinking skills for a while, recognizing them becomes easier.


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    • OdysseusMakridis profile image

      Odysseus Makridis 

      5 years ago from Netcong, NJ

      Examples of fallacies are not restricted to any one political ideology. But, sure, the CT devotee would rather turn out to be aloof, even contemptuous, of ideological sloganeering from any political side. The best example from classical antiquity is Socrates - yet, we can't say that Plato's work, where Socrates is a protagonist, has no political orientation.

      There is a big difference between theory and ideology, by the way. CT ought to be allergic to ideology as such but not necessarily to political philosophy as such.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      What's with the whole right-wing political tone to this? Not what I expected from a CTer. If you really did as good as you said you did in your CT class and yet have been swayed that much towards a particular politcal ideology, then what's the point in learning CT?

    • OdysseusMakridis profile image

      Odysseus Makridis 

      5 years ago from Netcong, NJ

      Thank you for posting. Best luck!

      I teach Critical Thinking at a university in NJ. (

      Given this proliferation of fallacy types you were given in your course, you might like to know that there seem to be some overarching big categories even in the kind of fallacy known as "informal." These are fallacies that are defects of inductive (as distinguished from deductive) arguments. Your examples are all from the inductive class.

      One has the burden of showing that a fallacy has been committed. In theory, we could keep going, coining a term each time we spot and analytically establish that there is a fallacy. These types - many of which you cite - have been known for a while: they also have Greek and Latin name.

      Yet ther are overarching categories under which all these fallacy types fit.

      1. Lack of relevance (no relevant connection between premises and conclusion - e.g appeal to force fits here since it is not relevant to persuasive argumentation that force is threatened.)

      2. Ambiguity or Equivocation (words or phrases used with different meanings in different lines of the argument.)

      3. Weak induction (drawing conclusions that extrapolate or generalize from an inadequate sample, hast generalization, etc..)

      4. Causal fallacies.

      5. Presumption (insertion of unwarranted premises.)

      6. Suppression (omission of crucial premises.)

      7. Vagueness (manipulation of the fact that certain attributes can be had to a degree - e.g. someone who us 5:7 is not talk but tallish...)

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      7 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this excellent article. It is quite interesting and well written. Well done!

      James :)

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 

      7 years ago

      You mean like blaming altitude, George Bush, global warming, etc.?

    • TexasLadyJuanita profile imageAUTHOR

      Juanita Holloway-Walters 

      7 years ago from Kemah, TX

      If I can add my 2 cents. I have noticed that those who are not employing common sense in their daily lives are living in a "me, me, me" world. They feel very comfortable having an excuse for everything they do wrong, and an endless list of other people to blame for whatever goes wrong.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 

      7 years ago

      Frog, if we can teach and learn critical thinking, why can't we teach common sense?

    • TexasLadyJuanita profile imageAUTHOR

      Juanita Holloway-Walters 

      7 years ago from Kemah, TX

      My daughter recently earned a business degree. To get through 4 years of college, she had to take at least 4 classes that were basically "tolerance" classes, promoting multi-culturalism. To ace them she had to write papers that she did not believe in. The topics to choose from were all left leaning. GRRRRRR These were the only classes that provided a list of topics to choose from. It makes my brain explode when I hear that. It seems to me that is brainwashing.

    • The Frog Prince profile image

      The Frog Prince 

      7 years ago from Arlington, TX

      Two things I notice quite often is that critical thinking seems to be lacking in certain segments of our population. And logic seems to often be missing when people want to advance an argument.

      Very nicely laid out and critical thinking is an art form. It is also learned.

      The Frog

    • TexasLadyJuanita profile imageAUTHOR

      Juanita Holloway-Walters 

      7 years ago from Kemah, TX

      Thanks a million Old Poolman :)

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 

      7 years ago

      TexasLady - This is an awesome hub. I have printed this out and now have it handy on my desk. I actually pulled up several of the political type hubs and could readily see many of these in play. You have provided a tool I will be using from now on. Thanks for doing this.


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