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Thanks for your interest in the University of Waterloo’s Inkpot Rhetorical Figure Ontology! Our research team seeks to combine linguistic and rhetorical theories with discourse analysis and machine learning to develop formal models of computational rhetoric that may be usefully applied in real-world Computational Linguistics systems. The Rhetorical Figure Ontology Project is under the joint direction of Randy Harris (University of Waterloo, English) and Chrysanne Dimarco (University of Waterloo, Computer Science).

Please contact Randy Harris or Chrysanne DiMarco for collaboration or participation inquiries.

What is the project?

The long-term goal of this project is to create a comprehensive database of rhetorical figures, their history, their individualizing characteristics, and their relations to each other, both in terms of their traditional taxonomies and in terms of their cognitive affinities. Each entry provides a definition of the rhetorical figure, with one or more examples. Work on the database began in August 2009 and continues today.

What information is provided?

Currently, for each figure the database contains a primary entry and synonyms (which redirect to the primary entry). Typically the primary entry for each figure is under the original Greek or Latin name for the figure. Primary figure entries include the definition, examples, and assorted other information as it is available (etymology, synonyms, relationships, ...). What sets this information apart from other sources?

Many sources of rhetorical figures already include information such as definitions, synonyms, and etymologies. In this database, we have classified the linguistic domain a figure primarily operates within (phonological, morphological, etc.), some of the strategies the figure uses (series, omission, etc.), and are developing both conceptual and formal specifications for the database. The highest-level distinction among the figures is a trisection, into schemes, tropes, and chroma. Schemes are figures whose most salient features are formal—such as rhyme (“quick flick”), where the sound calls attention to the word) and antimetabole (“I said what I meant, I meant what I said”), where the symmetrical inversion calls attention to the syntax).

Tropes are figures whose most salient features are conceptual—such as metaphor (“my love is a red, red rose”), where the literal falsity draws attention to conceptual similarities between two terms, and synecdoche (“all hands on deck”), where a representative part is conceptually equivalent to the whole.

Chroma are figures whose most salient features are intentional—such as erotema (rhetorical question; “Do you think I’m an idiot?”), where the question is intended to suggest a proposition not solicit an answer, and apostrophe (addressing someone/something which is not part of the audience; “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth [Mark Antony to Caesar’s corpse in, in order to rouse the mob]”), where the remarks are intended not to move the addressee but the ‘overhearing’ audience (This example, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, also contains a metaphor, representing the corpse as a piece of earth.).

The end goals of this ontology are to support researchers in rhetoric, poetics, cognitive science, human-languages technologies, and any of the other field (and subfields) for which rhetorical figures have either been traditionally important or in which rhetorical figures are more recently becoming important.

How can I be involved?

If you're interested in working on the Rhetorical Figure Ontology Project we are looking for undergraduate and graduate students to assist in the following areas:

  1. Compiling and refining the current collection of rhetorical figures
  2. Developing and refining increasingly-sophisticated categories of classification
  3. Developing formal specifications for the ontology
  4. Developing conceptual specifications


  • Robert Clapperton (Research Prime)
  • Ashley R. Kelly (Research Prime, September 2009 - August 2010)
  • Allan McDougall (Research Prime, January 2009 – August 2009)
  • Garret Kelly (its first software engineer and database creator)
  • Nike Abbott
  • Mark Carter
  • Nayoung Hong
  • Ioanna Malton
  • Jacqueline Mok
  • Ashwini Navasivayam
  • Samantha Price
  • Carlos Recalde
  • Claus Strommer


We wish to thank Silva Rhetoricae (that is, its mastermind, Gideon O. Burton), which not only served as the inspiration for this database, but as the primary source for its phase-one population, and as an invaluable training tool for its contributors).

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