Friday, April 29, 2011

Yoda Speak

Connye Griffin writes for My Writing and Editing Coach

Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship. —Yoda

Besides being a wizened, gnome-like creature that seems to be one with the clay of this earth or any other planet, for that matter, Yoda is memorable because of his pattern of speech. Quite often, he lapses into anastrophe, a rhetorical pattern in which the an author intentionally alters the normal word order for emphasis. President John F. Kennedy’s memorable inaugural words are another illustration of anastrophe:

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country

Indeed many great writers and speakers have employed anastrophe to excellent effect.

• Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.—Yoda
• Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”
• The man and his skiff were silhouettes against the sun so bright that everything seemed to be a negative of itself.—Me

In each of the example above, the altered word order enriches and emphasizes the message. In the first, Yoda begins with emotions related to death and loss. Mourn and miss and attachment and shadow are all words with at least one negative connotation in usage. They are words associated with death, but with short, simple sentences (so powerful), Yoda cuts them down to size, saying mourn . . . not, miss . . . not, attach. . . not for attachment may lead to covetousness or greed. His statements take on the weight of proverbs, of truths, of axioms, and the use of anastrophe helps Yoda accomplish this.

Poe creates a similar effect in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He enhances the horror of the narrator’s confession by pulling upfront the reasons or motives traditionally used to explain murder. We tell ourselves that there must have been an objective or heated passions or a love of gold. Poe makes sure that we understand that none of these was a factor; Poe’s narrator was simply, inexplicably driven mad by an eye.

In the third bulleted example, written by this blog author, I focused attention upon the sun’s blinding heat by placing the adjective “bright” after the noun, “sun.” Doing so allowed me to add one more alliterative word, “so,” and complete the image of a vista in black and white.

The post for April 8, 2011, entitled “From Humble It is . . . to Beauty,” provides more examples of anastrophe. In that post, I invited you to imitate the patterns of Bill Bryson and Faulkner, each of whom wrote vivid descriptions in which the adjectives were clustered at the end of the sentence. In fact, placing the adjective in front of the noun is the normal order so placing the adjective after the noun, clustered or not, is another form of anastrophe. Here are those examples again:

• Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face . . . (Faulkner)
• It is a truly astounding sight when every tree along the hillside becomes small, when the dizzying summit and brushed peak are suddenly and willingly subdued by every fanciful cloud that the sky can host—brilliant white, sun-packed gold, delicate rose, lush lavender. (Bryson)

Reading Challenge

Read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” You will find the example of anastrophe in the first lines of the story, but you will enjoy the mood that Poe creates while letting a madman try to explain the inexplicable.

Writing Challenge:

Search through your own writing for examples of anastrophe, accidental or intentional. If you do not find examples of anastrophe, then revise sentences to add the rhetorical strategy in order to add to your writing bag of tricks.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM):

I like the word which; Microsoft's Spell and Grammar Check feature likes the word that. In fact, Microsoft's grammar feature constantly and quite consistently underscores my uses of which so that I must pay heed. Word
annoys me, especially because Word is often quite correct to admonish me.

Formally and technically, writers should choose that when the next clause contains information that is absolutely necessary to qualify or clarify the message.
For example:

Do not carry onboard devices that require batteries or electrical cords
to operate. These items include hair dryers, cell phones, . . . .

If the TSA were forced to prohibit all electronic devices, the dependent clause above, the one that begins with that, would clarify the type of devices being prohibited without the need to also provide a comprehensive list. Writers may choose which when the clause could be omitted. For example:

While most electronic devices cannot be placed in purses, pockets or carry-on luggage, they can still be packed and enjoyed when you travel. Electronic devices are legal if placed in checked luggage for which you may bear an additional cost above the price of the airline ticket.

While explaining what a traveler may and may not carry onboard, the writer chose
to add in a reminder that checked luggage does not travel free. Such add-ins or add-
ons begin with which.

[Note: To my knowledge, the TSA has no plans to prohibit electronic devices on
board airplanes. I simply made up an example. I have no inside track on the whims
and requirements of the TSA.]

Essential, limiting information uses “that” and no commas; nonessential, descriptive information uses “which,” with commas, and functions as if “by the way” were inserted after it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Irony May Be a Lost Art

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Irony is a particular type of humor that relies upon incongruity. You will recognize an author’s use of irony by his choice of words to communicate something different from or even opposite to the words’ literal or most widely understood meanings. In other words, an author deliberately juxtaposes a word(s) against its usual meaning. For example, Flannery O’Connor declared that, “There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Here, several words create an unexpected message.

We expect “good teachers” to cultivate, coach, and nurture writers to fame or best-seller status. We also expect a “bestseller” to be an example of good writing taught by “good teachers.” O’Connor turns those expectations 180°. She suggests that bestsellers are not examples of good writing or products of good teaching; in fact, she suggests the opposite, offering that a good teacher would have “red-inked” a bestseller out of existence.

Consider the statement that follows: “Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other” (Oscar Ameringer). Is it an ironic statement? Does it “spin” our expectations of politics and public officials in such a way that we see both in new ways? Is the new vision incongruous? In other words, does Ameringer’s comment contrast sharply with our vision of a united America?

Irony is also the contrast between what we expect and what actually happens. This definition includes two sub-categories of irony: situational and dramatic.

Situational irony is the type of irony about which Alanis Morissette sang in “Ironic” because the entire song could be entitled “Rotten Luck” or “This Ain’t My Day,” two phrases that describe situational irony. “Ironic” begins with the following lines:

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late
And isn't it ironic... don't you think

Winning the lottery is definitely unexpected at any age (the odds of winning
are one in several million), but winning and dying without being able to enjoy any of
the windfall is the lousiest of lousy luck. Having a black fly plop in the middle of a refreshing white wine such as Chardonnay is not something any one of us would choose, but it’s just a minor inconvenience when compared to the man executed only two minutes before a pardon comes through. That’s tragic as is the ironic and tragic poem by Thomas Hardy, “The Man He Killed:”

"Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him and he at me,
And killed him in his place.

"I shot him dead because –
Because he was my foe,
Just so – my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

"He thought he'd 'list perhaps,
Off-hand like – just as I –
Was out of work – had sold his traps –
No other reason why.

"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown."

Hardy describes the situational irony of war, suggesting that it is unnatural. Two men who could have and probably would have been friendly acquaintances became enemies because they needed work and their nations had declared war.

The second sub-category of irony is dramatic irony wherein readers or viewers have information that the characters lack so readers and viewers appreciate the action on entirely different levels. For example, Oedipus, the titular character in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, condemns himself when he promises to exile the former King Laius’ murderer. Oedipus’ fate becomes poignant when he vows to rid Thebes of its curse and stain because the audience knows that the toxic man is Oedipus himself, full of both good intentions and guilt.

Similarly, when little Cathy of Wuthering Heights falls under the spell of Linton Heathcliff, readers want to warn her not to be so naïve and foolish. Readers know that Heathcliff means her harm and will use Linton to accomplish his ends.

Some of the best exploiters of dramatic irony—indeed, users of every type of irony—are the writers and stars of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Recently (March 23, 2011), Wyatt Cenac, a Daily Show correspondent, interviewed a Jewish resident of Long Island where an Orthodox group sought permission to erect an Eruv, represented by fishing line strung well above the heads of passersby below. The area inside the Eruv boundary would then be an exception to the prohibition against any type of work on the Sabbath. An Eruv would allow Orthodox Jews to participate in the community by shopping or pushing strollers on holy days, but some non-Orthodox Jews object. They believe that the Eruv should be disallowed in spite of their conviction that “the Hamptons should be open to everyone.” The speaker was unconsciously hypocritical. Apparently, only Mr. Cenac and viewers could discern between the speaker’s desire to “close” the Hamptons to Orthodox Jews seeking an Eruv while maintaining that the Hamptons should be “open” for all.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” the short Funny or Die film, “The Landlord.” Pearl is a great example of situational irony. (

Read Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. How does dramatic irony develop the comedy?

Read Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the Loss of the Titanic” and examine it for Hardy’s use of irony.

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls -- grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'...

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her -- so gaily great --
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said 'Now!' And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Writing Challenge:

Explain the irony in “Convergence of the Twain” by Thomas Hardy. Be sure to distinguish between verbal, situational, and dramatic ironies as you do.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

This is a minor matter, but a mistake that countless people make. The cheer squad and/or dance team at your high school or college use pompons, not pompoms. Due to widespread misunderstanding, the word pompom is becoming an accepted term to describe those colorful, hand-held spirit inducements.

Similarly, once upon a time, there was no such place as a safety deposit box; there was only the safe deposit box. Because the word safe was followed closely by de, hearers heard safe + de and translated the sounds into safety. Now we are beset with safe + ty + de + posit boxes. Technically, the correct phrase is safe deposit box, but no one will laugh you out of the bank if you ask for a safety deposit box.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Chiasmus: Word Order Energy


Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge crafted a clever retort, didn’t he? Its power and pleasure exist in Coleridge’s use of chiasmus, a rhetorical structure named after the Greek letter chi (x), indicating a "criss-cross" arrangement of terms. Chiasmus is a figure of speech for which a writer carefully orders words in two parallel passages.

In the quatrain quoted above, Coleridge has simply used the same words and “crossed them” (placed them) in different positions in two clauses. In the first (line 2 above), Coleridge reports that someone said “every poet is a fool;” in the parallel clause (line 4), “fool” instead of “poet” is the subject of the clause, and thus, the speaker declares that “every fool is not a poet.”

The poet Byron also used chiasmus when he wrote, "Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure" (from the poem Don Juan). And so did Bill Bryson, while reflecting upon the dread associated with Y2K, when he wrote, “…a computer is a stupid machine with the ability to do incredibly smart things, while computer programmers are smart people with the ability to do incredibly stupid things” (from “Lost in Cyberland” in I’m A Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away).

Another type of chiasmus does not employ the same words. Instead writers create a reversal between two corresponding pairs of ideas as Sir Walter Raleigh does in his poem, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” Lines 11 and 12 of this poem read:

A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall

Sweet words or a honeyed tongue, so common as relationships spring to life, are indeed words that later gall us as relationships fade and die. Raleigh juxtaposes “honey” and “gall;” “spring” and “fall;” and “fancy” and “sorrow” to suggest, chiastically, that a “honey tongue” leads directly to a “fall” and that a “heart” full of “gall” is but a fantasy in the “spring.”

Examples of chiasmus are abundant online. It is a rhetorical structure that brings ideas to life more sharply and memorably. Again, parallelism and repetition used effectively and purposefully are the reasons.

Reading Challenge:

Pick up a copy of Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You: Chiasmus and a World of Quotations That Say What They Mean and Mean What They Say by Mardy Groethe and enjoy.

Writing Challenge:

Write a chiastic pattern, using the words student/teach and teacher/study. If these fail to inspire you, choose words of your own and imitate the patterns of Coleridge, Byron, or Bryson.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Comment upon the difference that a tiny piece of punctuation makes, first noted by
Richard Lederer in his syndicated column “On Language.”

A clever dog knows its master.

A clever dog knows it’s master.

What a huge difference an apostrophe makes! For the first review of “its” and “it’s,”
see the blog post for March 21, 2010

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, April 8, 2011

From the Humble "It is . . ." to Beauty

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach.

Almost a decade ago, I read a Bill Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods. It satisfied a personal unmet goal, one that I had not found the time or will to meet on my own, and that goal is to walk every inch of the more than 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. I even bought hiking boots 30 years ago and only gave them away to charity last month.

The idea is laughable really, and you too would laugh if you could see me. I am indeed by no means undergrown (Chaucer). I would huff, and I would puff. I would ache and quake.

Still, I fancied the idea of bearing witness to the changing landscape, to the illusion of Nature isolate and mighty, its nemesis—civilization—distant. I wasn’t sure that I could bear the chill nights, damp earth, and stinging flies, but I wanted to measure my worth and discover if I possess the right stuff. Apparently, I do not. I settled for Bryson’s delightful account of his own foray along the Trail. Traveling with him, I learned to mourn the loss of the American chestnut and laughed loudly at Katz's antics.

Lately, I’ve been reading a 1999 collection of Bryson’s columns, entitled I'm a Stranger Here Myself and first printed in Night & Day magazine, a supplement of the Mail on Sunday newspaper. The essays are brief, manageable snippets that tell of child-rearing, home-owning, and living in New Hampshire after twenty years in England. They are informative, fun, and well-written. One sentence in particular caught my attention yesterday:

It is a truly astounding sight when every tree in a landscape becomes individual, when each winding back highway and plump hillside is suddenly and infinitely splashed with every sharp shade that nature can bestow—flaming scarlet, lustrous gold, throbbing vermilion, fiery orange.

This is a nice sentence, and one that many of us would rewrite. After all, didn’t your English teachers advise you not to rely upon “it is?” It, I can hear her say, is so vague and general, and is is like a red penny among silver dollars—common, of little value, seen everywhere, even on the ground. I say to her: Mr. Bill Bryson begins sentences with “it is,” and I can, too!

Bryson’s sentence has another fatal flaw, at least according to colleagues and that same old English teacher. He uses the verboten passive voice: is . . . splashed. Gasp!

But I barely noticed its presence. In fact, I would have read on, untroubled by passive voice, if I had not decided to stop, analyze, and use this sentence as a model for us to imitate. Only then did the verb form force itself upon me.

What I noticed more than “it is” and “is . . . splashed” are the two parallel clauses beginning with “when” and adjectives, including “flaming scarlet,” “lustrous gold,” “throbbing vermilion,” and “fiery orange” clustered at the end of the sentence. These add specificity, of course, but they also seem to serve as drum beats, emphatically closing a sentence rich in description.

Not only that but the verbs take a back seat to the nouns and adjectives. The trees, its vibrant, dying leaves, roadways, and “plump” hills are and should be center-stage. They are the beauty of Autumn in New England.

Try your hand at Mr. Bryson’s pattern, choosing some season or object in nature. For example:

It is a truly astounding sight when every tree along the hillside becomes small, when the dizzying summit and brushed peak are suddenly and willingly subdued by every fanciful cloud that the sky can host—brilliant white, sun-packed gold, delicate rose, lush lavender.

It is always tough to follow the word choices of another, but the effort leads to new insights about putting words together. Often, the effort leads to sentences that please.

Reading Challenge:

Read one of Bryson’s books. I can recommend A Walk in the Woods and I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to American After Twenty Years Away. I plan to read more Bryson, too.

Writing Challenge:

Today’s post is a writing challenge. Here is one more:

In the same essay, “Fall in New England,” from which I took the single sentence above, Bryson quotes Donald Culross Peattie, author of Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North American, to emphasize the beauty of the trees in New England when the leaves turn. Peattie describes the brilliant sugar maple with the following similes:

like the shout of a great army
• like tongues of flame
• like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea, and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra

Using Peattie for inspiration, invent at least one simile for one of your favorite trees or flowers. Try to be as elaborate as Peattie in the third simile above.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Consider the masterful use and placement of adjectives in William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily:”

They rose when she entered--a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand.

In most of the sentences, Faulkner’s adjective use and placement are quite traditional: an adjective or two precedes a noun or, as in sentence two, completes the sentence as predicate adjectives following the verb, “was.” The first sentence is where Faulkner clusters adjectives at the end of a short, complex sentence. He provides specific detail for the very general pronoun, “she.” She is a woman, small and fat, leaning on a black cane, the head of which is tarnished from wear, and wearing a black dress whereon a thin gold chain around her neck descends all the way to her waist and vanishes into her belt. Faulkner, of course, packs all of this information more deftly and rhythmically into his cluster. Try imitating his pattern with a “she” of your own, and by doing so, become more aware of your options as a writer: you may save your adjectives for the end of the sentence, be it simple or complex.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Remembering Memphis

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

On April 4, 1968, forty-three years ago, an embittered racist took the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, TN. The gunman could not stop the human rights movement begun by the Memphis sanitation workers, and he did not kill the powerful vessel for good that was Martin Luther King, Jr. A bullet could not silence the message: I Am a Man.

That was the simple sentence that sanitation workers adopted as their cause. They asked for a wage sufficient to provide a home and food for a family in exchange for lifting full barrels of garbage and carrying it from the backyard, across the front yard and to the city trucks. The city, without organized labor and rights to contractual negotiation, offered one penny pay raises every few years; thus, Memphis sanitation workers struck, communicating their need for change into four simple words: I am a man—not a boy, a child, working for pin money, but a man laboring to make a life for himself and his children, a man who should not need food stamps or other public support if he works a full-time job.

Those four words called to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He traveled to Memphis in order to march shoulder to shoulder with the sanitation workers. There, on the night before his death, April 3, 1968, in a speech now known as "A Testament of Hope," King spoke other words that continue to call to the future. Seven times he said, “I wouldn’t stop there” when considering the ages of man in answer to a question about the age in which King would like to live. This repetition functions as a bridge, linking each age and leading to King’s conclusion: he would like to live in the second half of the twentieth century because, even though “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around . . . . I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

Like the slogan for the sanitation workers, these are short, simple sentences:

• The nation is sick (4 words).
• Trouble is in the land (5).
• Confusion all around (3 and not a complete sentence).
• But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars (16).

Twelve words in three short statements precede the longer sentence, the one that contains a metaphor, the one wherein King delivers a message of hope. The total of 28 words, organized as they are, is effective rhetoric at work, and King is a masterful user of rhetoric.

King goes on in this speech to say, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness” and “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

Parallel structure, anaphora, and word economy (each taken up in earlier posts, including February 28, 2010; March 28, 2010; and February 11, 2011) ignite these sentences. They catch fire, setting the listener’s imagination aflame. They inspire.

On April 3, 1968, King declared that he had been to the mountaintop and peeked over to see a new America on the other side. He prophetically announced that he might not get to that new place, but he believed others would. His simple, powerful sentences have helped to insure that his vision never dies.

Reading Challenge:

Read a transcript of King’s speech or better yet, visit the National Museum of Civil Rights located on the grounds of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. Be sure to begin your tour with the film that describes the last hours in Memphis, especially the night of April 3, 1968.

Writing Challenge:

Write an essay about a subject that sets your heart and mind aflame. Use very short sentences, anaphora, parallel structure, and word economy to emphasize key ideas. Try to build at least one passage like the one quoted above, then broken apart into bullet points.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Today, as I post this, I recall that this day on the calendar is known as April Fool’s Day—or is it April Fools’ Day? Well, it depends upon how many fools come forward. If you stage a hoax and only one guy falls for it, then for you, April 1 is April Fool’s Day. On the other hand, if you stage a hoax and the entire population of a small city falls for it, then for you, April 1 is April Fools’ Day. The apostrophe placed before the final “s” signifies the possessive form for a single fool; the apostrophe placed after the final “s” signifies the possessive form for many fools.

By the way, the origins of April Fool’s Day are interesting. If the origin intrigues you, take a look at this site.