Thursday, May 26, 2011


by Connye Griffin for My Writing and Editing Coach

A physical therapist has been teaching me how to strengthen my lower back. One of her little jokes is the directive to repeat an exercise “3 million times.” When she announced this impossible number, a fellow sufferer asked if I was going to take that lying down. I said, “Yes, I recognize hyperbole when I hear it.” So do you, but do you make intentional use of it for effect when writing?

Andrew Marvell does in his naughty poem, “To His Coy Mistress.”

. . I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

Here, the fella trying to seduce the lady swears that he would woo her as long as it takes, in fact as long as the period between ten years before Noah’s rainy days and the day when all Jews have converted to Christianity--if only he had that much time. Since he does not, he proposes that the lady forsake her silly virtue and enjoy her youth.

Hyperbole, then, as you may infer from the example, is the intentional use of exaggeration to emphasize words and/or ideas.

We exaggerate all the time. It adds flair to our mundane conversations. For example:

• I’ll die if my parents don’t give me a car on my sixteenth birthday!
• That car runs at the speed of light.
• I’m so hungry I could eat everything on the menu.
• I’ll never ask for another thing if you’ll buy that dress for me.
• I’ll never sin again if only You’ll save me this time.

Authors use hyperbole to make points and enrich passages. Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized the power of the democratic ideal when, in “The Concord Hymn,” he wrote:

Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The world did not actually “hear” the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord, but the actions there reverberated in Europe and shaped the future.

Another example of hyperbole comes from the story about Babe, the Blue Ox:

“Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”

The author conveys just how unimaginably cold that winter was by using exaggeration well. His hyperbolic examples are unusual and trigger our imaginations. That is the goal of hyperbole as William Safire explains very well:

"The trick to effective hyperbole is to give an original twist to obviously fanciful overstatement. 'I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles' would no longer impress Mammy, but Raymond Chandler's 'She was blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole through a stained-glass window' still has that crisp crunch of freshness" (How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar. W.W. Norton, 1990).

Reading Challenge:

Read “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, “As I Walked Out One Evening” and “Law Like Love” by W. H. Auden, “Babe the Blue Ox,” and Safire’s How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar. In each, you will find hyperbole used well.

Writing Challenge

Write a fresh, unusual hyperbole to describe heart break, hunger, love, and fear.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Hyperbole complements imagery, and readers often compliment writers when they use hyperbole.

The two words above in bold font sound the same, but they have very different meanings as the compound sentences above prove. Nevertheless, these are commonly confused so what follows is a brief review.

In elementary school, your art teacher (and I hope your school supports arts instruction!) taught you about complementary colors, opposites on the color wheel. Red and green are opposites and complementary. Used wisely, especially during the holiday season, they are pleasing. So one can deduce that complementary means two things that go together.

Complementary also means to complete. For example, many people believe that the most successful marriages endure because the individuals complement each other. If he is a procrastinator, she is an organizer. If he is an idealist, she is a realist. If one spends too much money, the other saves.

Many also believe that successful marriages endure because the partners compliment each other often. He notices if she changes her hair and compliments her, saying “I love the new style!” She praises his driving skills even when he refuses to ask for directions.

As you have probably guessed, compliment spelled with an I means to admire or praise.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Great Ends Make Good Beginnings, Too

Epistrophe is another effective rhetorical strategy, one that is opposite to anaphora whereby a writer opens a series of phrases or sentences with the same word. Writers who practice epistrophe use the same word at the end of a series of phrases or sentences. Both anaphora and epistrophe are strategies that effectively use repetition to emphasize and clarify.

A classic example of epistrophe, well known to most Americans, is from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: "...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” With epistrophe (the words people) at the end of three prepositional phrases, Lincoln focuses attention upon the remarkable system of government for which men fought and died: democracy, a government that empowers ordinary citizens to shape their present and future.

Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup on the stand in A Few Good Men emphasizes his importance and justifies his decision to issue the Code Red command with words that contain epistrophe: “You have the luxury of not knowing what I know -- that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives, and my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.” Clearly, Jessup believes the means to end one man’s life justifies an end that protects many lives.

John Steinbeck made powerful use of epistrophe in the final pages of his novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad as the voice and spirit of a downtrodden brotherhood, determined to fight for the right to thrive, says, "Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. . . . An' when our folk eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build--why, I'll be there." Joad’s message and his conviction have power because Steinbeck elected to use epistrophe.

Ralph Waldo Emerson combined anaphora and epistrophe to invent a remarkable, memorable declaration: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us." Emerson begins three phrases with the words “what lies” and closes the same three phrases with “us.”

Reading Challenge:

Read President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address (January 20, 2009) and Election Night Victory Speech (November 4, 2008) to discover many effective rhetorical strategies, including all those reviewed in recent posts: epistrophe, antithesis, and anaphora. You may read the full text of these speeches.

Writing Challenge:

Use the examples provided in this post to imitate the pattern and create passages that contain epistrophe. You may also wish to turn to your writing journals or essays to rewrite a passage, making it more effective and powerful with epistrophe.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM):

Select the passage spoken by Jack Nicholson in the film A Few Good Men. Follow the grammatical, syntactical patterns exactly in order to create your own message. Note the punctuation choices, the adverbial clauses (that begin with “while” and stand between the subject “death” and the verb “saves”), and the uses of anaphora as well as epistrophe. Post your attempts or as a comment on this blog.

Connye Griffin is the sole writer, editor, teacher, and coach for My Writing and Editing Coach.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Apostrophe: O, Sleep, Whither Have You Gone?

O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hush'd with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfum'd chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull'd with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leav'st the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common 'larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge,
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them
With deafing clamour in the slippery clouds,
That with the hurly death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

From Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare

In this, another fine example of Shakespeare’s insights, King Henry laments his inability to sleep before concluding that his humble subjects receive the gift of sleep while he, who must bear the heavy burdens of leadership and royal duty, receives no rest. Readers can trace Henry’s shifting moods by paying close attention to the apostrophes, the rhetorical strategy featured in this post.

An apostrophe is a direct address to an abstraction such as a divine being or something or someone not present. For example, one of my witty Facebook pals often addresses a day of the week or an event as if it were one of the Fates or a personified force. One of his posts might read: Okay, Friday, get along now; I’m quite done feeling frustrated and unloved.

In Shakespeare’s speech for Henry, the first apostrophe to Sleep is gentle sleep who is then compared to Nature’s soft nurse. Both in word choice and image, the speaker suggests that he admires sleep and that he understands her function in the human experiences. She binds all our wounds and woes while we sleep.

The second apostrophe reveals Henry’s irritation at being unable to sleep. His subjects lie down to sleep in the worst conditions: they lie in smoky cribs and sleep while buzzing flies annoy them. Henry has perfumed chambers and sweet melodies to soothe him, yet Sleep lies with commoners and not kings. Now, Sleep is a dull god, unaware, undiscerning.

Sleep even visits the ship’s boy, granting him restful sleep while a storm rages wildly, rocking the boy’s bed. Henry concludes that if sleep visits commoners on land and at sea, yet passes by the king, then Sleep is partial and plays favorites. Thus, in the third apostrophe, Henry has surrendered to Sleep’s whims, concluding as I noted at the outset, that kings cannot rest as easily as commoners for the safety and survival of the entire kingdom is the king’s burden.

Like the short, emphatic sentence, apostrophes, used effectively will emphasize messages and unify passages.

Writing Challenge:

Try your hand at using the apostrophe to unify a passage and reveal several aspects of some abstraction. Here’s how:

Imitate Henry’s soliloquy line for line, using an entirely different subject. For example:

Oh, Red Velvet Cheesecake, my rich, gooey friend,
the Factory’s fiend, how I have longed to taste thee,
That no more will my taste buds aspire to your fatty swirls. . .

Choose any object or abstraction and follow Shakespeare’s lead from first line to last. You can even make soliloquies or monologues a semi-regular writing exercise, and in doing so, you will become more conscious of and adept at using the apostrophe.

Reading Challenge:

Read Henry IV, Part II or Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. In each one of these, you will find apostrophes. You will also find epic action and adventure in Homer.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

King Henry laments his inability to sleep, concluding that his humble subjects receive the gift of sleep while he, who must bear the heavy burdens of leadership and royal duty, receives no rest.

The sentence above, taken from the first paragraph in this post, illustrates the use of commas to set off non-restrictive clauses that separate nouns (in this case, a pronoun: he) and verbs (receives). The relative pronoun clause beginning with “who” and ending with “duty” could be plucked from the entire passage without damaging the message. If that is the case, writers must wrap the “unnecessary” clause with commas.

Of course, when I added those words, I did not do so just to take up space. I wanted to offer a reason that kings cannot sleep as well as their subjects, the same reason that Henry realizes by the end of his speech. Nevertheless, in spite of the usefulness of the clause, I could dispense with it altogether without wrecking the message. I could choose to make the same point about a king’s burdens somewhere else, perhaps in a sentence all by itself. I did not need that clause right there in order to show the contrast between subjects and king, and because I did not need that clause right there, I must wrap it in commas. It’s an add-in; thus, it must be set apart.

This week’s GUM lesson relates to others that have appeared previously. If you wish a more thorough review of punctuating complex sentences, also read posts from August 13, 2010; August 20, 2010; and January 28, 2011.

Connye Griffin writes for My Writing and Editing Coach.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Antithesis: Another Effective Writing Pattern

Connye Griffin writes for My Writing and Editing Coach

A few weeks ago, on March 18, 2011, I posted an essay about the Yin and Yang of sentences and language. Today’s post is the same rhetorical strategy, this time given its proper name: antithesis, defined as the use of contrasting words, phrases, sentences, or ideas, most often used in parallel grammatical structures, for emphasis. Charles Dickens used antithesis for the oft-quoted opening lines of his novel A Tale of Two Cities, hereafter formatted using bullet points and a bold font so that you can easily see contrasting words and phrases juxtaposed.

• It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
• it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
• it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
• it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
• it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
• we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
• we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .
• for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Eight times, Dickens juxtaposes word pairs or phrases in a series of parallel clauses. For many of them, Dickens also uses the humble “it is,” a two-word beginning celebrated on April 8, 2011.

In fact, this paragraph brings together many of the syntactical lessons I have reviewed recently:

1. short, emphatic statements and clauses
2. parallel constructions
3. anastrophe
4. antithesis

Is it any wonder that Dickens’ opening lines are so memorable?

Reading Challenge:

Read or re-read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Writing Challenge:

Beginning with “it is,” as Dickens does, characterize your own age, using entirely different words to describe the times in which you live and your perception of them.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM):

Here is another example of antithesis, this one from President George W. Bush:

"Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities."

Following Bush’s grammatical structure exactly, create your own message, one that includes antithesis.

Here’s one: Children in tow are not burdens, they are opportunities, not setbacks, but growth.