What Does the Literary Term “rhetorical Shift” Mean?

The literary term “rhetorical shift” refers to a change in mood or attitude that is typically accompanied by a corresponding change in the focus and language of a literary scene, passage or theme. The change indicates either an epiphany or a desire to inform the reader of an opposing viewpoint. The shift is usually indicated by single word conjunctions such as “however,” “therefore,” “although” or “but.”

A rhetorical shift is used in several ways through literature and speech. One common use of the shift as a literary device is to set up a differing opinion or thought process. An example of this is when a character in a piece of fiction is struggling with a moral dilemma, and the author wishes to present both viewpoints in order to help the reader understand the nuances involved. The character carries out a thought process either in her mind or in conversation with another character, and then lays out the conflict in the storyline by using a rhetorical shift to present the opposing moral viewpoint. In spoken words, a rhetorical shift occurs often in political speeches. A common viewpoint or opinion is presented, but then the speaker uses a rhetorical shift to prove why the beginning viewpoint is either wrong or insufficient to solve a pressing and relevant problem.