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ET CETERA : Rhetorical Flowers Brighten Speech

March 31, 1994|STEVE TICE

When belligerent bus driver Ralph Kramden snarls "Why, I oughta . . . !" he has something in common with celebrated speakers from Aristotle to Abraham Lincoln to Barbara Jordan.

He is using a rhetorical figure known as aposiopesis, a Greek term meaning "to be silent."

Kramden breaks off his sentence, compelling the listener to supply the conclusion. He has decided he cannot, should not, or need not complete the thought.

The orators of ancient Greece identified and studied more than 30 figures of speech. These "flowers of rhetoric," used as artistic flourishes in speeches and prose, add vividness and can create a strong impression.

When John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," he used antithesis , the choice and arrangement of words to emphasize a contrast.

In a message sent to the Roman senate after a battlefield victory, Julius Caesar wrote, "I came, I saw, I conquered." This device is anaphora , repetition of a word or phrase for effect.

Some other techniques:

* Litotes, or use of understatement;

* Hypercorisma, or use of diminutives, endearments and "pet names";

* Paronomasia, or punning;

* And suppressio veri , or suppressing the truth--often represented by the phrase "no comment."

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