Definition and Examples of Praeteritio (Preteritio) in Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In Ben Jonson's play Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), Sylla's Ghost employs praeteritio when addressing Catiline in the opening scene. (Getty Images)


Praeteritio is a rhetorical term for the argumentative strategy of calling attention to a point by seeming to disregard it. Also spelled preteritio.

Praeteritio, also known as occultatio ("gossip's trope"), is virtually identical to apophasis and paralepsis.

Heinrich Lausberg defines praeteritio as "the announcement of the intention to leave certain things out. . . . [This] announcement and the fact that the items are mentioned in the enumeration lend irony to praeteritio" (Handbook of Literary Rhetoric, 1973; trans, 1998).

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:


From the Latin, "omission, passing over."

Examples and Observations

  • "For patriotic reasons, I won't mention the awful, overpriced food and drink stands at the BT London Live venue in Hyde Park."
    (Jim Armitage, "Gold for UK PLC, but No Podium for Sponsors." The Independent, August 12, 2012)
  • "I won't bore you with descriptions of the DELICIOUS food, except to say that it included daily supplies of fresh lobsters, grouse, roast lamb and chicken, home-made bread, in all 4 square meals a day."
    (Jessica Mitford, letter to Doris Brin Walker and Mason Roberson, September 11, 1955. Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, ed. by Peter Y. Sussman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)
  • "Far be it from me to take issue with the most decorated Olympian of all time, but Michael Phelps can currently be seen on TV washing his hair BEFORE he takes to the pool. One assumes he then has to wash it again after his swim to get rid of the chlorine which would mean, if he follows the manufacturers' questionable advice to rinse and repeat, washing his hair four times in a very short space of time. Admittedly Phelps has now retired, but surely he doesn't have that much time on his hands."
    (Martin Kelner, "Attempts to Cash in on Olympic Feelgood Factor Reach Hair-Raising Levels." The Guardian, August 19, 2012)
  • "I heard a fine conversation between John Hume and a Unionist spokesman the other day in which Hume said, 'It is time to forget the past and move forward,' and the Unionist made some grouse. And Hume said, 'We could not mention, of course, who shot Constable X.' . . . His definition of forgetting the past was an Irish one."
    (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, quoted by Guinn Batten in "Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Work of Witness." A Companion to Irish Literature, ed. by Julia M. Wright. John Wiley & Sons, 2011)
  • "It is not for me to say by what means or by what degrees, some wives manage to keep down some husbands as they do, although I may have my private opinion on the subject, and may think that no Member of Parliament ought to be married, inasmuch as three married members out of every four, must vote according to their wives' consciences (if there be such things), and not according to their own."
    (Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1838-1839)
  • "I submit that that unguarded remark of Philip Lynch convicts him of having been privy in advance to Mr. Winters' intentions whatever they may have been, or at least to his meaning to make an assault upon me, but I leave to others to determine how much censure an editor deserves for inveigling a weak, non-combatant man, also a publisher, to a pen of his own to be horsewhipped, if no worse, for the simple printing of what is verbally in the mouth of nine out of ten men, and women too, upon the street."
    (Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872)
  • "[I]t is of greater advantage to create a suspicion by Paralipsis [praeteritio] than to insist directly on a statement that is refutable."
    (Rhetorica ad Herennium, c. 90 BC)
  • Advantages of Employing Praeteritio in an Argument
    "[U]sing praeteritio when putting forward arguments in defense of a standpoint can contribute to the arguers' rhetorical aim of making their case seem as strong as possible. When the argument is weak, presenting it by means of a praeteritio can be a way of protecting oneself against criticism, since it then becomes more difficult for an opponent to hold the arguer accountable for any flaws in the argument. If the argument is strong, the pretended sacrifice of the argument may make the remaining arguments seem even stronger. Apart from this effect, especially if the sacrifice supposedly concerns refraining from being critical about someone else's position, the arguer may give the impression of being benevolent or morally superior to his opponent. At the same time, the praeteritio allows him to let his criticisms of the other party reach the audience."
    (A. Francisca Snoeck Henkemans, "The Contribution of Praeteritio to Arguers' Strategic Maneuvering in the Argumentation Stage of a Discussion." Bending Opinion: Essays on Persuasion in the Public Domain, ed. by Ton Van Haaften, Henrike Jansen, Jaap De Jong, and Willem De Koetsenruijter. Leiden University Press, 2011)
  • Purposes Served by Praeteritio
    "The usual purposes that [praeteritio] serves include these:
    a. To gain credit—though not too much—for discretion or propriety while still setting loose an indiscretion or impropriety. . . .
    b. To leave the substance of a sentiment, or a piece of it, to the listener's imagination, and so enhance its force. . . .
    c. To limit debate over a controversial utterance by offering it as only half-said; when the speaker denies fully saying it, he hopes to make a rebuttal seem uncalled for . . ..
    d. Amusement. The paradox inherent in a good use of praeteritio can be a source of humor and charm, at least when it does not take itself too seriously." (Ward Farnsworth, Farnworth's Classical English Rhetoric. David R. Godine, 2011)

Pronunciation: pry-te-REET-see-oh

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Praeteritio (Preteritio) in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Praeteritio (Preteritio) in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Praeteritio (Preteritio) in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).