Monday, December 22, 2008

A Little Wordplay Today

I have two favorite things about writing. First, by means of making squiggly lines on a surface, one can tell a story or convey information to another. I will never tire of the fascination in that. Second is the words themselves, how they sound, create rhythms, connote and denote, carry greater or lesser power according to their arrangement in a sentence or phrase. Because of this word-love, I love language devices for two reasons: they bring to life a piece of writing, and they are themselves called by such fascinating names, the use of which is fun for the tongue and makes us sound intellectual in the bargain. :)

Most of us learned about metaphor, simile, and personification in junior high. Alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds, is also a pretty familiar concept. But do you know about anaphora (a-NAF-er-a)? This is repetition of initial words in a series of phrases or sentences. A prime example occurs in The Beatitutes in the biblical book of Matthew. Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted; Blessed are the meek . . ." And so on. With this construction, we can't fail to notice that all of the people mentioned are blessed, blessed, blessed.

Then there's the opposite: epistrophe (ee-PIS-tro-fee). Here the repetition of words is at the end of the phrases or sentences. Again, the Bible gives a well known example: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." The result is that the reader grasps the important concept that love overcomes all things.

Now here's a cool word -- epizeuxis (eh-pi-ZOOK-sis). This is simply the repetition of one word for emphasis, which means it's not that hard to be able to claim, "Look, I've used epizeuxis!" For example: "Alone, alone, all all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

A less highbrow use that comes to mind is the real estate industry's "Location, location, location."

Finally, let's look at antimetabole (an-tee-meh-TAH-bo-lee), which repeats the words in a given phrase in reverse order. "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." "We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing" (Benjamin Franklin). I really like the "food for thought" quality of this device. Antimetabole seeks to show just how often our thinking is the opposite of what is sensible, helpful and true. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (John F. Kennedy). "You can take the boy out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the boy."

These four devices dealing with the effects of repetition are only the tip of the rhetorical iceberg. For writers, there's such richness in both story-craft and word-craft. The funny thing is, inadvertent repetition can sound clunky and boring, but purposeful, crafted repetition sounds strong, clarifies meaning, and gives our readers that resonance we want them to take away from our work. Do you have any favorite rhetorical devices?


Gottawrite Girl said...

Excellent post! I love playing with these toys... I love making sure the lyrical quality is in tact, and strategic - if possible! And these are great ways to play with it. Keeping phrases short with a bit of repitition can be so powerful... sometimes I wonder if speach-writers are also aware of these tools...

: )

Thanks, Marcia!

Candace Ryan said...

Hey Marcia,

Fun and informative post!

I'm fascinated by antimetaboles, probably because I'm crazy for symmetry. I'd love to see a published collection of them!

Marcia said...

GWG -- I love them too. I do think speechwriters use them a lot. Many of the examples come from people like Winston Churchill, JFK, and so forth.

Candace -- I agree that the antimetaboles especially attract me. It's that "food for thought" thing, and I too adore symmetry. So -- is a pallindrome a highly compressed antimetabole? :) Thanks for visiting.

PJ Hoover said...

What a great and interesting post! It's so much fun! And you quoted my second favorite poem (only behind Kubla Khan).

C.R. Evers said...

I love playing around with words too! Words: my favorite toys.

Great post!

Marcia said...

Thanks, PJ and Christy.

I remember John Gardner writing about how writers see words in a way other people don't, and getting a thrill when he gave this example, "Like realizing 'discover' means 'take the cover off of.'" I'd had that very thought myself!