Mark Twain is famous for comparing the right and almost right words to lightning and a lightning bug. Here’s a comic that makes the same point. Hubert is Abby s pet mammal of some kind, Abby works in a hospital, not that it matters. Hubert’s inanity drives me up a wall sometimes.
Here’s a link to the strip. Hubert and Abby.
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Here’s a nice passage from the preface to The Journey of Man by Spencer Wells.
Our DNA carries, hidden in its string of four simple letters, a historical document stretching back to the origin of life and the first self-replicating molecules, through our amoebic ancestors, and down to the present day.
Here we have some nice examples of figurative language in what amounts to a scientific document. It’s in the preface, so the figures are appropriate, I think. Let’s take them out, and you’ll see what I mean.
Human DNA contains, in its string of billions of copies of four nucleotides, information that describes life from the time of its origin until now.
Not nearly as interesting, is it?
The original sentence contains examples of personification (ancestors), pleonasm (“present day” instead of “now”), metonymy (“letters” instead of “nucleotides”), synecdoche (“four” instead of “string of billions of copies of four”), hysteron-proteron (putting “self-replicating molecules” ahead of “the origin of life”), metaphor (“document” instead of “information”), and anabasis (adding “amoebic ancestors” between “molecules” and “present day.”) There; I think I got them all. You might include catachresis, or incongruity, since we generally consider the movement from self-replicating chemicals to humans as moving upward, but he describes the passage of time as downward (“down to the present…”). He also starts describing time as going back to the origin, and ends by coming down to the present. Adding physical directions to the passage of time is a figure of speech, too, but whatcha gonna do?
personification: attributing human characteristics to something
metonymy: substituting one noun for another
synecdoche: saying a part of something, but meaning the whole thing
hysteron-proteron: putting the second thing first
metaphor: giving something another name
anabasis: going slowly upward
catachresis: being self-contradictory
Your reaction is probably surprise. To which I say, figures of speech are pretty common, aren’t they?
If you prefer, here’s a simpler approach:
I recently recovered a book I bought more than 30 years ago. I had lended it to a friend, who, judging from the penciled-in notes, made good use of it. I am pleased. This book has a 28-page table of contents listing nothing but figures of speech. And they all have Greek or Latin names, often both. I can’t resist the temptation to share a few of these obscure words with you. I think you will discover that not only do we use a lot of these figures of speech, but you will be impressed that someone actually went to the effort of noticing and naming them. The book, by the way, is Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, by E. W. Bullinger. The Bible is an important part of our literary heritage, so even if you don’t particularly like Christian theology and all that, it won’t hurt you to be exposed to this piece of literature. And Bullinger’s tome is certainly full of good examples of these literary devices. That said, I’ll generally try to find examples elsewhere, too. (If you click that link and buy the book, by the way, Amazon says they will pay me a commission. If you do, drop me a line and I’ll send you the commission by way of PayPal or something. Call it a discount. Be prepared for a lot of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. In the original alphabets.)
First figure of the day
Epizeuxis (pronounced “epeezoiksis”) I used this figure myself when, on (ahem) the other social site, I plugged a recent post about mistakes. The post quoted some porn (chastely, of course), but I started my comment about the post with “Scandal scandal scandal!” Epizeuxis is when you repeat a word for emphasis with nothing between the words. I can quote myself, can’t I?
Scandal scandal scandal! I mention porn in the current Writing Rag. Even quote some! Of course I also mention (and quote) John Dryden. It’s all about the importance of mistakes. Val laughed out loud when I read the post to her.
Zeugma is when you use one verb for two words or phrases or clauses, especially if the left-out verb would be different. (It’s pronounced “zoigma.”) The idea is to call attention to the verb you use. For instance, you might say “They saw lots of thunder and lightening.” (On Mt. Sinai, for instance.) Take out the zeugma and you have the rather pedantic “They heard lots of thunder and saw lots of lightning.” Bleah.
Synezeugmenon. (soonehzoigmenon) This is the mouthful I’ve been waiting to get to. It’s a variant of zeugma, but it applies when the verb applies to more than two words, phrases, or clauses. Our example is the wonderfully witty song Have Some Madeira, M’Dear sung by at least The Limelighters, and written by I don’t know whom, and I’m too lazy to look it up. I quote a little more than the first verse:
She was young, she was pure, she was new, she was nice
She was fair, she was sweet seventeen.
He was old, he was vile, and no stranger to vice
He was base, he was bad, he was mean.
He had slyly inveigled her up to his flat
To view his collection of stamps,
And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,
The wine, his cigar and the lamps:
Have some madeira, m’dear. You really have nothing to fear.
We’ll skip over the examples of symploce (simplahtchay) in the first half of the verse (She was…, she was…, she was…, etc) and go straight to what he hastened to put out: The cat, the wine, his cigar, and the lamps. Clever not only because they require the same literal verb, but because each needs a different meaning of the word. And the song leaves out all the verbs except the first one: Synezeugmenon! The song has a couple more examples of synezeugmanon; I invite you to follow the Limelighters link and enjoy them.
I included the first line of the second verse because it completes the thought so I don’t leave you hanging, and because it also contains a figure of speech. We call it a lie.
Here are three more opportunities to make your writing transparent and readable. The rule here is when you have a choice, use the shorter word. Even if you have all sorts of intellect and can handle big words.
Utilize is pretentious; use is plain. Why force your readers to slog through three syllables when one will do? Someone suggested that “utilize” means to use something for an unintended purpose, such as using a wrench for a hammer. Even then, “utilize” is unnecessary. He utilized a wrench as a hammer. He used a wrench as a hammer. Same difference. Go with “use.”
Upon is so old fashioned. On does the job nicely. Don’t use “upon” unless you’re deliberately trying to suggest age (for example, “Once upon a time…”). If your goal is to convey the facts, “on” is better. Less distracting. He hit upon an idea, or he hit on a better way. He climbed up upon the chair. Give me a break. He climbed up on the chair. “He climbed onto the chair” is also good.
Using an adverb as an adjective is pretentious. The -ly ending changes many words into adverbs, but don’t do it unless you need an adverb. I got this one from a large corporate newsletter. What better place to find pretentiousness?
Even more importantly, we remain committed to providing a superior customer experience with a focus on delivering what our customers value most.
“Importantly” means in an important manner. But their commitment is actually important (presumably), not merely done in an important manner. So that sentence should start with “Even more important, we remain committed…”
Your goal is to transfer your ideas to your readers. Don’t distract them with pretentiousisms.
The comic XKCD doesn’t often have a thread—more than one comic on the same theme (though it does have some recurring characters, such as a bad guy, who wears a black hat). Wouldn’t you know, one of those rare threads fits this blog, so I pretty much have to post this one, too. Be sure to go to the site and get the RSS feed. Even when it’s not about language, it’s a pretty good site. This comic is number 1012, by the way.
“Entomon” means, literally, “in sections.” We have a descendant of this word in “tome,” meaning a large book. Originally it meant one of a set of books, such as part of an encyclopedia.