What Does “rhetorical Shift” Mean?

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A rhetorical shift is a change in linguistic tone that can be signalled by a transition word like “but,” “however,” or “then.” Rhetorical shifts can be used as a literary device, but the term can be applied more broadly, such as when a discussion of someone or something changes tone — for example media perception of a politician turning from positive to negative.

The word “rhetorical” is an adjective referring to the act of formal speech or writing that is often intended to be persuasive. A rhetorical shift can be a change in story, tone, idea or concept. The changing ways public figures are discussed in popular media often constitute rhetorical shifts. For example, in a 2012 article in the journal “Feminist Formations,” scholars discussed the rhetorical shift in tone when newspapers went from discussing the social activist Jane Addams as “Saint Jane” and instead labelled her “the most dangerous woman in America.” This is a dramatic shift in tone and shows that the rhetoric, or discussion, of Addams changed completely.