December 11, 2017

Rhetorical Device of the Month: Paralipsis

Public Speaking , Seen|Read|Heard , Faculty , Rhetorical Devices

Even when we’re not aware of it, we’re using many of the same rhetorical techniques  Aristotle, Cicero, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other greats have employed in public speaking. Each month, our Buckley School resident students of classical rhetoric explain a rhetorical device that can improve your public speaking.


"I've never seen anyone in public life use paralipsis the way he does."

– A political discourse expert on the paralipsing of U.S. President Donald Trump

Paralipsis--a rhetorical ploy also called apophasis, praeteritio and preteritio--is when a speaker talks about a subject by denying that he or she is talking about it.

In his book Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs calls it the "not-to-mention figure." He writes:

As in, “Not to mention the fact that you snore like a buzz saw…” it makes you sound fairer than you are.

If that sounds confusing, look no further than the current president of the United States on any given day to see how it’s done.

Speaking about presidential primary opponent Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump said:

“I promised I would not say that she ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground, that she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. I said I will not say it, so I will not say it.”

Speaking at a rally, of primary opponent Marco Rubio he said this:

"I will not call him a lightweight, because I think that's a derogatory term. So I will not call him a lightweight. Is that OK with you people? I refuse to say that he's a lightweight."

Regarding North Korea’s leader, he famously tweeted:

Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?"

A Texas A&M University expert on political discourse, Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, shared with CNN her observations on Trump’s use of paralipsis:

"I've never seen anyone in public life use paralipsis the way he does. It allows him to recirculate information without being held accountable for it."

So, the next time you hear yourself saying:

“I’m not saying you never take the trash out. I’m not saying I’m the only one around here who does laundry.”

I’m just saying….

That’s paralipsis.

In the video below, zip ahead to Tip #2 to see Trump using paralipsis in his public speaking, with commentary by Dr. Mercieca:

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