Figures of speech part 4

rogersgeorge on April 25th, 2012

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Our DNA carries, hidden in its string of four simple letters, a historical document stretching back to the origin of life and the first self-replicating molecules, through our amoebic ancestors, and down to the present day.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

pleonasm: redundancy

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've seen versions of this used to explain mathematical proofs, too. Sorry, I don't know the source.

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Metaphor in technical writing

rogersgeorge on February 22nd, 2012

In the most general sense, a figure of speech is when you do something artistic with your writing. You’re probably familiar with alliteration and onomatopoeia, but how about synecdoche? (Look it up. You use it.)

I generally recommend a writing style that doesn’t call attention to the writing itself, so conspicuous figures of speech are generally not a good idea. The less technical your writing is, the more you can get away with using figures of speech. They add color and interest to the writing; make it a little more fun to read.

Metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two things by saying that one thing is the other. A post a while back contained a lot of metaphors. You learn about metaphor in grade school, usually with its cousin, the simile, which compares to things by saying that one thing is like the other. (“My love is like a red, red rose…”)

Normally you won’t find it a good idea to use metaphors in technical writing. You should stick to the literal truth, the plain facts. Metaphors can confuse the issue but bringing in extraneous concepts. Recently I read a book that was on a technical subject, but it was addressed to a lay readership, and the introduction was the perfect place for the author to use a couple of metaphors to make his description of his subject more vivid. The book is about anthrozoology, the study of how humans relate with animals. The title of the book is Some we Love, Some we Hate, and Some we Eat. It’s a pretty interesting read, and you can click the link to go to Amazon to get it. Here are the metaphors:

“How much money are you giving out?” I ask. Two and a half million dollars a year, she says. “Fantastic! This is just what the field needs,” I say. I am thinking that Layla is going to have a very full dance card for the next couple of days.

Anthrozoology is a big tent. It includes the study of nearly all aspects of out interactions with other species.

As academic disciplines go, anthrozoology is a small pond, but in the last two decades, we have come a long way.

Those quotes contain four metaphors. Can you find them all? The fourth one is so common you might not notice it.

I try to find an excuse to put up pictures, so here’s what the cover looks like:

Sorry about the arrow; Amazon will be Amazon.