My copy of Figures of Speech Used in the Bible is packed away; I’m preparing to leave Annapolis, MD and return home to Newark, DE. One of my hangouts while I was here is a nice independent book store called Back Creek Books, Rock Toews, prop. If you ever visit the place, tell him hi for me.

Anyway, I ran into a book with the catchy title Orthometry the Art of Versification and Technicalities of Poetry by a Brit named R. F. Brewer, B.A. (I wonder what figure of speech it is when you call attention to something by saying the opposite of what you mean. Sarcasm?) I like books on this topic, so I bought it, and the book isn’t too bad. The book has plenty of examples from English poetry, and he discusses quantity as well as stress accents, not to mention other interesting things about how to put meter into a poem. Perhaps the greatest weakness is that he completely ignores the existence of four-syllable metrical feet.

Now that you’re curious, it’s called the paeonic foot. Remember the Indian tom-toms in the old Westerns when you were a kid? Boom-boom-boom-boom. That’s paeonic. Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha is written in paeonic, with the stress on the third syllable. My thanks to 2719 Hyperion for this picture:

Wrong Hiawatha, right meter

All that to say that the book has a nice section about figures of speech, some of which I’ll share. These three are common figures that you ought to know about.

Ellipsis. When you leave something out that’s grammatically necessary, but you can figure out the meaning without it. Did you ever hear your parent end a sentence with “…or else!”? The grammar asks “or else what?” The meaning is presumably stronger if Mom doesn’t specify the doom in store for you, leaving it to your imagination. Suppose your son reports that he finished mowing the lawn, and you respond “Including the trimming?” No subject or verb; ellipsis.

Pleonasm. Extra, technically unnecessary, words to strengthen an idea. I call this fluff when someone does this improperly. The rule in expository writing is if you can leave out a word, you should. But in a descriptive, poetic passage, where you want something beautiful for its own sake, or you need something to make the meter work, go ahead and add to the description. In my recent fish poem, I call the fish a great big fish. “Great” and “big” mean the same thing, but this pleonasm makes the meter work, and conveys the colloquial tone that I was going for. Think of “tiny little” and Burns’ famous poem about the mouse, a “wee small cow’ring beastie.” The next time you hear someone using rather too much enthusiasm describing something, you can suggest that they be less pleonastic. I have a pleonasm in the next paragraph. See if you can find it.

Tmesis. Sigh. I see this one a lot in coarse writing. It’s when you add a word between the parts of a normal compound. In the New Testament someplace is the expression “to-us-ward” instead of “toward us.” Descending to the absolute utter bottom of the literary ladder, you might have heard your slightly sloshed beer-drinking buddy wax eloquent about his favorite team “Duh, they are abso-blanketyblank-lutely the greatest!!!” My delicate sensibilities prevent me from supplying the word you have no doubt heard.

Never knew an inebriated sports fan would be so literary, did you?


Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

Don’t be an amateur

rogersgeorge on June 3rd, 2012

Many people think that because English is their native spoken language, they can write their English any way they want and it’ll be correct. Descriptivism notwithstanding, I don’t quite agree. How you write says things about you that go beyond what you write about. You might be a fine person, and it’s certainly correct to wear both trousers and a shirt, but wearing two kinds of plaid tells the ladies that you have no taste. Or that you’re a normal guy, but you get my point. (I learned the mismatched plaid thing from my wife.)

Amateurisms in writing show that you don’t know how to put words together correctly, and they label you as someone a bit lacking in the language department, and hence where else you might be lacking?

I’d cause needless anxiety if I didn’t give a few examples. If you’re not guilty of any of these, you can be confident that you’re at least on the level of the guy who knows enough to match his socks.

Rest assured. It’s not “be rest assured.” This expression is a perfectly normal metaphor for safety. You can go to bed without needing to worry about something.  I found several good comics with “rest assured” in the caption, but I chose this picture because my colleagues think I look and act like this guy. I see we both wear our watches on our right wrists!

Neither of us argue politics, either

You, not “yous” or “youse.” (How do you spell a word that’s always wrong?) In high school one of the ladies in the cafeteria was friendly, and she would converse with us, but she said things like “I’m glad youse are such good kids.” Nobody ever said anything, but we all marked her as someone who would never advance beyond being a table cleaner in a school cafeteria.

All of a sudden. Don’t say “All of the sudden.” I don’t know why, but the “the” is incorrect, and it marks you like the cafeteria lady.

All, not “alls.” All you have to do is never say “alls.” It’s like pronouncing the “t” in often. Don’t do it.

Yeah, not yea. “Yea” (yea is pronounced yay) is an old word for “yes,” and now we use it only in voting. Yeah, admittedly pretty  casual, is spelled with the “h” at the end.

I mentioned two others in a recent post, irregardless and preventative. Don’t write those words, either.


Another grammar comic

rogersgeorge on June 1st, 2012

It never ceases to amaze me how careful comic artists (and writers) are about getting their English correct. (I suppose it shouldn’t amaze me. After all, they are writers too.) Here’s a masterful example of getting it right, in the funny and off-the-wall Ballard Street by Jerry Van Amerongen.

We use “among” to describe being within a group of three or more, and “between” for groups of two. And “within” for groups of one. Seems to me I mentioned the distinction between between and among in an earlier post, but I can’t find it.