Rhetorical features facilitate prosodic processing while handicapping ease of semantic comprehension

Winfried Menninghaus, Isabel C. Bohrn, Christine A. Knoop, Sonja A. Kotz, Wolff Schlotz, Arthur M. Jacobs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Studies on rhetorical features of language have reported both enhancing and adverse effects on ease of processing. We hypothesized that two explanations may account for these inconclusive findings. First, the respective gains and losses in ease of processing may apply to different dimensions of language processing (specifically, prosodic and semantic processing) and different types of fluency (perceptual vs. conceptual) and may well allow for an integration into a more comprehensive framework. Second, the effects of rhetorical features may be sensitive to interactions with other rhetorical features; employing a feature separately or in combination with others may then predict starkly different effects. We designed a series of experiments in which we expected the same rhetorical features of the very same sentences to exert adverse effects on semantic (conceptual) fluency and enhancing effects on prosodic (perceptual) fluency. We focused on proverbs that each employ three rhetorical features: rhyme, meter, and brevitas (i.e., artful shortness). The presence of these target features decreased ease of conceptual fluency (semantic comprehension) while enhancing perceptual fluency as reflected in beauty and succinctness ratings that were mainly driven by prosodic features. The rhetorical features also predicted choices for persuasive purposes, yet only for the sentence versions featuring all three rhetorical features; the presence of only one or two rhetorical features had an adverse effect on the choices made. We suggest that the facilitating effects of a combination of rhyme, meter, and rhetorical brevitas on perceptual (prosodic) fluency overcompensated for their adverse effects on conceptual (semantic) fluency, thus resulting in a total net gain both in processing ease and in choices for persuasive purposes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)48-60
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2015


  • Beauty
  • Conceptual and perceptual fluency/disfluency
  • Persuasion
  • Rhetorical features
  • Succinctness


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