The Four Master Tropes in Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Bob Dylan - 1965


Val Wilmer / Getty Images

In rhetoric, the master tropes are the four tropes (or figures of speech) that are regarded by some theorists as the basic rhetorical structures by which we make sense of experience: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony.

In an appendix to his book A Grammar of Motives (1945), rhetorician Kenneth Burke equates metaphor with perspective, metonymy with reduction, synecdoche with representation, and irony with dialectic. Burke says that his "primary concern" with these master tropes is "not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of 'the truth.'"

In A Map of Misreading (1975), literary critic Harold Bloom adds "two more tropes--hyperbole and metalepsis--to the class of master tropes that govern Post-Enlightenment poetry."

Examples and Observations

"Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) is usually credited with being the first to identify metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony as the four basic tropes (to which all others are reducible), although this distinction can be seen as having its roots in the Rhetorica of Peter Ramus (1515-72) (Vico 1744, 129-31). This reduction was popularized in the twentieth century by the American rhetorician Kenneth Burke (1897-1933), who referred to the four 'master tropes'. (Burke, 1969, 503-17)." (Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2007)
"The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner." (Cynthia Ozick, "Rosa")
"Detroit is still hard at work on an SUV that runs on rain forest trees and panda blood." (Conan O'Brien)
"At midnight I went on deck, and to my mate's great surprise put the ship round on the other tack. His terrible whiskers flitted round me in silent criticism." (Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer)
"But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side." (Bob Dylan, "With God on Our Side")

"Far less attention has been paid to metonymy and irony than to the master trope, metaphor. Yet there exists significant evidence that our ability to think metonymically and ironically motivates our using and easily understanding metonymic and ironic language. Metonymy constrains many kinds of reasoning and the inferences that establish coherence in discourse. Metonymy also underlies our use and understanding of other types of nonliteral language, such as indirect speech acts and tautological expressions. Irony is also a pervasive mode of thought that is evident not only in the way we speak but in the way we act in a variety of social/cultural situations. Hyperbole, understatement, and oxymora also reflect our conceptual ability to understand and speak about incongruous situations."
(Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

The Master Tropes in Nonfiction
"[Frank] D'Angelo reveals arrangement's central relationship to the four 'master' tropes--metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony--in nonfiction as well as fiction. His pivotal article 'Tropics of Arrangement: A Theory of Dispositio' (1990) delineates the use of the master tropes in nonfiction and examines the tropical theories of Aristotle, Giambattisto Vico, Kenneth Burke, Paul de Man, Roman Jakobson, and Hayden White et al. According to D'Angelo, 'all texts use tropes [figures of speech]' (103), and all figures of speech are 'subsumed' by the four master tropes. These tropes are embedded in both formal and informal essays; that is, they do not exclusively fall under the purview of formal arrangement. This concept broadens the arena of rhetorical usage to include the informal writing not traditionally associated with rhetoric. Such a stance allows rhetoric to interact as part of the changing canon of literature--and literacy--in modern academia." (Leslie Dupont, "Frank J. D'Angelo. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Taylor & Francis, 1996)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Four Master Tropes in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). The Four Master Tropes in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Four Master Tropes in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).