Do you know your apophasis from your paralipsis? And does it matter?

The nomenclature of rhetoric can be baffling to the newcomer and the seasoned pro alike. The first pothole on the road to understanding is crammed with a hotchpotch of long Greek words that are devilishly difficult to pronounce, and even more difficult to remember. And the road gets bumpier still when closer study reveals that the same rhetorical device often operates under a variety of confusing aliases, each slightly different, or even identical, in meaning to the others.


So, why bother making the effort to learn what these knotty rhetorical tropes and schemes are all about?

Let’s take a closer look at an exchange between Conservative MP David Davis and Labour Shadow Minister for Care and Older People, Liz Kendall. It took place during a recent edition of BBC television’s current affairs panel discussion programme, Question Time; significantly, the first one of this a general election year.

A member of the audience asked who was to blame for the crisis in Accident & Emergency department waiting times? Was it the government, the NHS, or the general public?

This is how David Davis began his response to the question:

“Well, I can understand the request for blame. If I’d been kept waiting for four hours in an A&E, I would want to blame somebody too. But actually you don’t solve this problem by a political spat. I could sit here and tell you – well, after the ridiculously badly negotiated GP contract of 2004, the use of A&E went up from 15 million a year to 22 million, which is what happened. But that doesn’t solve the problem…”

See what he did there?

He opens with a flourish, planting his flag firmly on the moral high ground. He brings the audience onside by expressing sympathy with the questioner’s desire to find a scapegoat; but goes on to assume a more statesmanlike pose, reminding us that this problem will only be solved if politicians, like himself, are prepared to rise above petty party political point-scoring. So far, so impressive…

But then comes an abrupt shift of linguistic gear, marked by his use of the modal verb could.

Modal verb?!”

Yes, could is a modal verb: so called because it can express both impossiblity:

‘I couldn’t run a mile in under three minutes’,

and possibility:

‘I could set fire to your moustache’.

In less than the time it takes a humming bird to flap its wings, David Davis the statesman miraculously mutates into David Davis the petty political point-scorer, and back again.

Here are the bare bones of his rhetorical sleight of hand:

It would be unfair, but I could do x

“But actually you don’t solve this problem by a political spat. I could sit here and tell you…”

I do x

“well, after the ridiculously badly negotiated GP contract of 2004, the use of A&E went up from 15 million a year to 22 million, which is what happened.”

I’m not going to do x

“But that doesn’t solve the problem…”

Its impudence is breathtaking, and goes by the name of apophasis. Apophasis is a rhetorical device in which a speaker talks about something either by denying they are going to talk about it:

“I’m not going to bring up my opponent’s conviction for fraud”;

“I could bring up my opponent’s conviction for fraud, but I’m not going to”;

or by stating that what they are about to tell you is something that shouldn’t be brought up in the circumstances:

“It would be unfair of me to bring up my opponent’s conviction for fraud.”

Think of it as the rhetorical equivalent of having your cake and eating it. The speaker gets to sling mud without getting his hands dirty. He gets to call into question his opponent’s reputation while, at the same time, safeguarding his own.

In The Mysterie of Rhetoric Unvail’d, published in 1657, John Smith perfectly encapsulates apophasis when he describes it as “a kind of irony, whereby we deny that we say or doe that which we especially say or doe.”

Its etymology derives from denial and it can be used to deny claims entirely while actually making them:

“I’m sure my opponent has read the legislation from cover to cover, but her apparent inability to understand it might lead you to think otherwise.”

If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, you could argue that apophasis is the lowest form of irony. Because if it’s going to cast its spell, the only person who can be in on the joke is the speaker himself. Everyone else must remain in the dark.

Apophasis does, of course, crop up under a variety of aliases – paralipsis, praeterito, occultatio, to name but three – but don’t let that put you off its scent when you come across it in the wild.

During the course of this general election year, politicians of all colours will resort to the use of apophasis as they try to get one over on their adversaries and the general public. So watch out for the warning signs: the modal verbs, the self-contradictory denials, and the personal attack disguised as an innocent remark.

The easy charms of apophasis are seductive; the only effective inoculation against them is knowledge.



  1. Lovely article, but did you answer the question that you posed in the title? I’m. I’m not sure you did.

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