Aphorisms: A Guide to this Rhetorical Device
  • 3-minute read
  • 13th April 2022

Aphorisms: A Guide to this Rhetorical Device

Aphorisms are statements or catchphrases that contain a truth or opinion expressed in a concise (and sometimes witty) manner. This rhetorical device is used by authors to reveal truths that are relevant to human experiences through metaphors and communicate messages that are easily remembered.

Many unattributed aphorisms that were developed over time have become such an integral part of our language that they’ve been accepted as universal truths. Here are a few:

  “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

  “A watched pot never boils.”

  “The early bird gets the worm.”

  “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

  “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

You may have used or heard these in your everyday life without realizing that these popular catchphrases are called aphorisms! Read on below for more examples.

Aphorisms in Literature

Aphorisms are perhaps most commonly used in literature, but many have broken free from their origins and are now relevant on their own.

1. Alexander Pope, an 18th century English writer, used aphorism in An Essay on Criticism to reveal the importance of forgiveness, as mistakes are an inevitable part of the human experience:

“To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

  Pope coined many other aphorisms in his writing, such as:

“Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.” The Rape of the Lock

“What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.” An Essay on Man

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2. William Shakespeare, an English writer and playwright, both used and coined aphorisms in his writing:

“Having nothing, nothing can he lose.” Henry VI

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste death but once.” Julius Caesar

In these examples, Shakespeare emphasized the value of risk-taking and bravery.

3. Harper Lee also used aphorism in her well-known novel, To Kill a Mockingbird:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch explained to his daughter how judgement should be withheld when you can’t experience another person’s perspective—a sentiment that is universally true.

4. Often considered one of the greatest novels ever written, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes provided many examples of aphorisms in literature:

“He who’s down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed, that is.”

“There is no book so bad…that it does not have something good in it.”

These examples indicate that hope and optimism are always present, a truth similar to the one revealed by the popular aphorism mentioned earlier: “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

Aphorisms are a great tool for connecting with your readers by evoking emotion or making an argument. However, writing original aphorisms can be difficult to master (e.g., avoiding cliches), and they shouldn’t be used in all types of writing (e.g., formal writing). We have expert editors who can help make sure you’re using this rhetorical device correctly! Upload a free trial document today to learn more.

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