An Introduction to Amplification

Amplification consists in augmenting and vehemently enlarging that which was before said in few words, to elicit a stronger response from the hearers. In a broader sense amplification serves to raise the level of the style and to make what is described appear livelier and more important.

The ancient Greek theorist LonginusOpens in new window, in “On the Sublime”, described amplification as,

  • “the accumulation of all the small point and incidental topics bearing on the subject matter; it adds substance and strength to the argument by dwelling on it” (p. 117).

The specific techniques of amplification as ErasmusOpens in new window observes in De copia, consists in incremental increase, augmentation through circumstances, comparisonOpens in new window, reasoning, pretending not to be surprised, and the piling up of words and phrasesOpens in new window with the same meaning.

Amplification is often achieved by adding synonyms and using many figures of rhetoric concerned with repetition, restatement, aggregation, explanation, enumeration, elaborate description, magnification, etc. to emphasize a particular point. For sake of clarity, consider a relatively brief example underneath:

Notable Example
    The exordium of Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to Congress and the nation asking for a declaration of war against Japan was as follows:
  • “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Notice, first, the way in which RooseveltOpens in new window employed restatement (a subtler and more nuanced form of repetition) at the very beginning of the passage. The moment of attack was etched in the audience’s mind as Roosevelt moved from the first marker (“yesterday”) to the second marker (“December 7, 1941”) and finally closed with the third and most emphatic marker (“a date which will live in infamy”). Notice also, how Roosevelt’s syntax operated as a subtle form of amplification (or emphasis). Rather than employing the more common active voice (Japan attacked the United States), Roosevelt rendered the passage in the passive voice, placing the direct object or entity acted on (the United States) in the position of syntactical prominence. This syntactical positioning added emphasis to Roosevelt’s larger claim that the United States was a victim of an unwarranted assault.

Adapted from James Jasinki's Source Book on Rhetoric

Amplification has both a general and a specific meaning. Specifically, it is associtated with Aristotle in panegyric or epideictic oratory, treated under the heading of amplification and minimizationOpens in new window, to refer to the orator’s ability to magnify (amplify) or reduce (minimize) something, especially its goodness or evil. Magnification or amplification, for example, consists, when using words with different degrees of moral meaning to magnify intensity of evil and using downplaying words to reduce ones’ goodness—for example, calling a thief a “plunderer.”.

Further Readings:
Richard Lanham (1991), A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Longinus (1965). On the sublime. In T. S. Dorsch (Trasn.), Classical Literary Criticism. New York: Penguin.
James Jasinski, Sourcebook on Rhetoric. pp.13.
Erasmus, De copia (1988), pp. 218–20 (trans. Collected Works, xxiv, pp. 592–5).
Aphthonius, Progymnasmata, sigs. Y8v–Aa7v.
Erasmus, De conscribendis epistolis, pp. 231–5 (trans. Collected Works,
xxv, pp. 24–6)