To properly frame this question, I should note that I recently have been studying formal rhetoric according to the five canons (inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and actio), and paying attention to literary features that fall along the lines of elocutio (for oral delivery) or stylus (style, for written delivery), under which tropes and rhetorical devices (schemata) lie as part of the third canon. So, I would like to request some help from those who have studied English tropes or rhetorical devices.

I will further preface the question by saying I'm not completely sure whether it is a rhetorical device or if "technique" is a better word. However, I am hoping there is a way to formally classify this kind of writing for use in writing formal papers or articles as a convenient way of referencing it.

The Question

How would you identify or classify the optional device or technique employed by a narrator when they report what was not said, especially when they report what could have been said? Essentially when there is a denial that something was said (where the something is either summarized by the narrator or provided as a hypothetical quotation).

Formula: (he/she/it/they did not say/ask)|(no one said/asked)|(neither said/asked) + [summary of]|[hypothetical quotation of] what could have been said

A few examples:

1. Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” (Gospel of John 4:27; ESV)

2. The two of them stared at the descending sun but neither of them said to each other, "What has this day come to?"

3. He was very angry at what happened after practice, but did not ask "Why did you do that?" or, "What were you thinking?"

The device seems to be one of negation or denial of a hypothetical, which seems to be interesting enough to categorize with a name since what is reported actually didn't happen and is a non-entity (hypothetical/imaginary). It is also interesting because the hypothetical details could be nearly infinite in example, since one could report numerous other instances of what one did not say. Thus a narrator doing this is making a very deliberate selection (a technique?) of what examples they do provide of what was not said, and neglecting to suggest other examples of what could have been said.

Investigating known tropes, I looked at litotes and apophasis, which employ negation or denial, but I can't seem to fit this form of negation with those rhetorical devices.

Could it be a device or technique of suggestion: "They didn't say this, but were thinking it..."?

If I wanted to use a search engine or database to search for publications that discuss this kind of device/technique in say Melville's Moby Dick or any other literature, what kind of device/technique would I call this as a formal or common designation?

Can anyone point me in the right direction here?

  • Did you look at apodioxis?
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 23:00
  • Looks distantly similar, but involves dismissal due to a value judgment. One definition of apodioxis I found was: "Rejecting of someone or something (such as the adversary's argument) as being impertinent, needless, absurd, false, or wicked." Doesn't seem to fit. Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 23:14
  • 1
    I wonder if it could be shoehorned into apophasis, except that the examples provided aren't ironic (I don't think). According to Wikipedia apophasis "is a rhetorical device wherein the speaker or writer brings up a subject by either denying it, or denying that it should be brought up. Accordingly, it can be seen as a rhetorical relative of irony." Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 23:22
  • Could it be a form of dialogismus?
    – Apollonian
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 23:55
  • @SilverFace Good thought, but I don't think that fits either. See the definition on this page of that device (which is similar to prosopoeia it says): tinyurl.com/wyejxft Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 5:52

2 Answers 2


Preterition may fit. Here is the definition in Dupriez, Bernard Marie, and A. W. Halsall (translator). A Dictionary of Literary Devices : Gradus, A-Z. U of Toronto, 1991 (quote from p. 353.):

"A figure by which summary mention is made of a thing, in professing to omit it" (OED). See also Lanham, Lausberg, Littre, and Morier. Both Quinn (pp. 70-1) and Fontanier (p. 143) add that such a declaration of omission is in fact a way of emphasizing the allegedly omitted material.

In each of your examples is something quite similar - summary mention of a thing in professing that a speaker omitted it, in order to emphasize the allegedly omitted material. To use your first example:

  1. Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” (Gospel of John 4:27; ESV)

Stating the omitted questions has the effect of emphasizing them. No one may have said them, but it suggests that others in that situation would have asked, or that these questions were seen as reasonable if a wise man like Jesus talked with a woman. Similarly, the other two examples further qualify the response of the two men to the day and the response of the angry man.

The main oddness here is that examples of preterition are usually in first person rather than in third person. However, nothing in the definition forbids its application to third-person narration.

Possible synonyms include include paralipsis/paralepsis or occupatio, though note that at least one scholar has disputed that preterition should be called that (Kelly, H. A. “Occupatio as Negative Narration: A Mistake for ‘Occultatio/Praeteritio.’” Modern Philology, vol. 74, no. 3, 1977, pp. 311–315.):

Quite clearly, then, preterition [and not occupatio or occultatio] is the appropriate term for Chaucer's usual practice of negative narration [...] (p. 315)

  • Thank you for mentioning this. I was wracking my brains to recall this word, familiar from the age of 17. I don't think it fits the question perfectly, but it is not far. Praeteritio (the Latin term) involves actually saying what you have just said you would not mention. But it is worth an upvote.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 22:16
  • 1
    I think what I have identified is not a rhetorical device at all (unfortunately), and is more along the lines of my own answer below on linguistic features. However, for providing the most approximate solution for this question within rhetorical categories, I will award you the bounty. Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 16:31

Not a Rhetorical Device – A Linguistic Solution

I fielded this question to a Greek group as far as the construction used in John 4:27 introduced by οὐδεὶς μέντοι εἶπεν ("but no one said"), and Mike Aubrey of Koine-Greek.com gave this reply:

The direct speech that follows in the complement construction would be called irrealis. It's made irrealis by the use of the negated subject. It isn't really a figure of speech or rhetorical device, however.

He mentioned that it wasn't really picked up for wide adoption or reference though (I presume in literature generally, or at least popular literature in particular).

Nonetheless, I ran with this reference to irrealis to search for any literature that used that terminology – and see if it would satisfy my query – and found that it is current in some literature, but mainly in the field of linguistics. And it applies to multiple languages, including English.

Linguistic Terminology: Not for the Faint Hearted

I found the following note by Stephen Wallace in "Tense-aspect: Between Semantics & Pragmatics" edited by Paul J. Hopper (pg. 218):

I use "eventive modality" to refer to what is asserted as actually happening or having happened (positive, certain assertion of an actual event), "non-eventive modality" to refer to the opposite (negative, potential, possible, hypothetical, contrafactual, dubious action). This contrast seems to be equivalent to that of "realis" and "irrealis" which is common in the current literature.

Thomas Givón in the same volume wrote in his essay Tense-Aspect-Modality in Creole while examining "four languages of widely different typological, genetic, and diachronic-historical characteristics", concerning English constructions of the type "(TENSE) (MODAL) (ANTERIOR) (NON-PUNCTUAL) V" (pg. 129):

A great number of modals occupy the 'irrealis' slot, marking future, ability, possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, etc. This sub-system is open and still evolving (Garcia, 1968).


   [García, Erica C. 1968. Auxiliaries and the criterion of simplicity. Language 43, 853-870]

And then speaking of Early Biblical Hebrew Givón mentions (pg. 129):

The 'imperative', 'jussive' and other morphological categories which carry the various irrealis functions.

Givón in a separate volume titled "Functionalism and Grammar" which he authored writes (pg. 170):

The distribution of the subjunctive, either as a language-specific or a universal typological category, is best understood within the context of a rich, communicatively-based theory of propositional modality, and within it of irrealis. Likewise, irrealis and the subjunctive are best understood within the context of a rich, functionally-informed theory of grammaticalization.

Realis vs. Irrealis

Further discussion can be found on Wikipedia in its entries on the Irrealis Mood and it's opposing pair the Realis Mood. This could be summarized by the opening paragraph of the latter page:

A realis mood (abbreviated real) is a grammatical mood which is used principally to indicate that something is a statement of fact; in other words, to express what the speaker considers to be a known state of affairs, as in declarative sentences. Most languages have a single realis mood called the indicative mood, although some languages have additional realis moods, for example to express different levels of certainty. By contrast, an irrealis mood is used to express something that is not known to be the case in reality.


This is a linguistic function or technique and not a formal rhetorical device.

  • In that case, I'm afraid I find your question very misleading. 'How would you identify or classify the optional device or technique employed by a narrator when they report what was not said?' And the subjunctive (if it exists in English) / irrealis moods have been covered here in depth before. Your examples don't fit. Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 16:17
  • Misleading by intent or design: No. Note also how I very carefully caveated from the outset that I was not sure it was a rhetorical device at all, and used an alternate suggested term 'technique' as a guess. Also a question asked out of lack of knowledge cannot by definition know the correct answer in advance. So it is what it is. I have only now encountered this alternate explanation. At least the claim is falsifiable: I think we can now safely say "No, there is no such rhetorical device according to all criteria available to us." And that's a discovery worth making. Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 16:23
  • It was a bit of a let down, however, since there is no formal rhetorical name I can give to it. If I do use irrealis in any references from now on, I will have to caveat it as a linguistic feature, with all its attending strictures. I will not have as much freedom as I had hoped in reference with such linguistic technicalities. Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 16:25
  • I agree that there may be no precise rhetorical fit for your question. That said, I have trouble associating this with irrealis. Take the definition you quote toward the end: "By contrast, an irrealis mood is used to express something that is not known to be the case in reality." Compare: not known to be the case and known not to be the case. The use of the negative conforms to the latter but not the former. We know it wasn't said. So negating something in an irrealis mood is itself irrealis (a negative imperative, i.e., a prohibitive); I'm not sure this is irrealis. Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 16:36
  • If you can clear that up, great. In any case, thank you for trying to answer - at the least, thinking in terms of mood wasn't a possibility I considered. Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 16:38

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