When the writer establishes similar patterns of grammatical structure and length. For instance, “King Alfred tried to make the law clear, precise, and equitable.” The previous sentence has parallel structure in use of adjectives. However, the following sentence does not use parallelism: “King Alfred tried to make clear laws that had precision and were equitable.”
If the writer uses two parallel structures, the result is isocolon parallelism: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
If there are three structures, it is tricolon parallelism: “That government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Or, as one student wrote, “Her purpose was to impress the ignorant, to perplex the dubious, and to startle the complacent.” Shakespeare used this device to good effect in Richard II when King Richard laments his unfortunate position:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood . . . . (3.3.170-73).
See also hypallage, below under hyperbaton.
Antithesis (plural antitheses) — contrary ideas expressed in a balanced sentence. It can be a contrast of opposites: “Evil men fear authority; good men cherish it.” Or it can be a contrast of degree: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for all mankind.”
Antimetabole — (also called Epanados) repetition in reverse order: “One should eat to live, not live to eat.” Or, “You like it; it likes you.” The witches in that Scottish play chant, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” Antimetabole often overlaps with chiasmus, below.
Chiasmus (from Greek, “cross” or “x”): A literary scheme involving a specific inversion of word order. It involves taking parallelism and deliberately turning it inside out, creating a “crisscross” pattern. For example,, consider the chiasmus that follows: “By day the frolic, and the dance by night.” If we draw the words as a chart, the words form an “x” (hence the word’s Greek etymology):
The sequence is typically a b b a. Examples: “I lead the life I love; I love the life I lead.” “Naked I rose from the earth; to the grave I fall clothed.” Chiasmus often overlaps with antimetabole.
Alliosis — presenting alternatives: “You can eat well or you can sleep well.” While such a structure often results in the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy or the either/or fallacy, it can create a cleverly balanced and artistic sentence.
Ellipsis — omitting a word implied by the previous clause: “The European soldiers killed six of the remaining villagers, the American soldiers, eight.”
Asyndeton — using no conjunctions to create an effect of speed or simplicity: Veni. Vidi. Vici. “I came. I saw. I conquered.” (As opposed to “I came, and then I saw, and then I conquered.”) Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt.
Polysyndeton — using many conjunctions to achieve an overwhelming effect: “This term, I am taking biology and English and history and math and music and physics and sociology.” All those ands make the student sound like she is completely overwhelmed! For a literary example of polysyndeton, click here.
Climax (also called Auxesis and “Crescendo“) — arrangement in order of increasing importance: “Let a man acknowledge his obligations to himself, his family, his country, and his God.”
The opposite is called bathos (not to be confused with pathos or emotional appeal). Bathos is usually used humorously. Here, the least important item appears anticlimactically in a place where the reader expects something grand or dramatic. For instance, “I am making a stand in this workplace for human decency, professional integrity, and free doughnuts at lunch-break.”
The examples on this page come from multiple sources. The first is an informal compilation given to me by Dr. Jerri Williams of West Texas State University. The second source is a wonderful collection: Figures of Speech by Arthur Quinn (I highly recommend acquiring a copy if you are serious about becoming a master rhetor). A few other examples originate in my students’ past papers. For extended examples and discussion, see Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase, or J. A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, or Richard A. Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd edition.