Rhetorical devices

Here are some of the most important rhetorical devices used by George Saunders in his commencement address at a graduation ceremony at Syracuse Universit…

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Direct address

Saunders directly addresses his audience through the use of the personal pronoun “you”:

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time ‘dances,’ so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: ‘Looking back, what do you regret?’ And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested the…

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Humor and irony

Saunders uses humor and irony throughout the speech. This helps him become more approachable and easy to sympathize with, and adds a light-hearted note to the speech.

In the following example, self-irony is used to help the students relate to Saunders and his thoughtless behavior:

Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. 

In the next example, humor and self-irony are used to remind the students of their own…

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References

Saunders makes several direct references in his speech. For instance, he makes a direct reference to Charles Darwin, the evolutionary biologist, in the following example: “Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.” This example deals with Charles Darwin's concept of evolution. Darwin’s theories, chiefly laid out in his famous 1859 book On the Origin of Species, argue that animals have evolved to specific environments through adaptation and that only animals that have been able to adapt have survived. Saunders uses this theory to argue that evolutio…

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Rhetorical questions

Saunders uses several rhetorical questions in his speech, each with a specific purpose.

For example, when he asks “What do I regret?”, Saunders’s purpose is to remind the audience that although this is a common question to ask older people, it is still worth thinking about as a young person.

Then, when he asks “Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?”, Saunders does n…

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