Thursday, June 23, 2011

Oxymoron: It's Not an Oxygen-powered Cleanser for Morons!

Connye Griffin writes for My Writing and Editing Coach.

The student-teacher ordered the jumbo shrimp. Two examples of seemingly contradictory terms, also known as oxymoron. If a person is a teacher, how is he or she also a student, and if the food is shrimp, a term describing small shellfish or a small person, then isn’t jumbo inappropriate?

Here are other examples of oxymorons:

• Peacekeeping armed forces
• Hard water
• Unbiased opinion
• Hell’s Angels
• Same difference
• Liquid gas
• Pretty ugly
• Modern Classic

Many more await you at

Writers create oxymorons in literature in order to highlight a paradoxical condition. For example, I Corinthians 13:12 describes the human condition as seeing through a glass darkly in order to underscore the living human’s ability to see and understand imperfectly whereas the soul, after death, will see clearly.

Shakespeare made extensive use of oxymorons in a passage from Romeo and Juliet:

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health! (Romeo, 1.1)

Consider the use of oxymoron in the wonderful poem below:

Poetry Of Departures by Philip Larkin

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It’s specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

The two oxymoronic phrases in bold font above capture the apparent contradiction. With the first, specially-chosen junk, the poet alludes to those items that we treasure but which have very little value to anyone else. Indeed, our junk may be carefully selected by us, but easily tossed aside as junk by everyone else.

In the second example, we rarely think of a perfect item, person, or idea as being reprehensible. Yet, that is the spirit of the poem. We may toy with the idea of walking away from our lives wherein we feel rooted, even imprisoned, but if we think as the speaker thinks, we would only walk away in order to recreate the same sense of belonging elsewhere, a perfect new life that we would come to despise.

Writing Challenge:

For each of the following words, add another before or after in order to create an oxymoron: home, war, peace, love and hate.

Reading Challenge:

Read the classic novel, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Make note of the oxymorons in use.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

In the first example for oxymoron, the term student-teacher is a hyphenated word made from two other words while jumbo shrimp needs no hyphen. Why?

Student teacher
could be confusing if it were not hyphenated. For example, the student teacher handed in the essays. One might have to re-read to make sense of that sentence, or he might wonder if the writer just failed to edit his text thoroughly. On the other hand, the student-teacher handed in the essays is clearer. No second thoughts or guessing is necessary. So hyphenate compound terms or coined terms to clarify.

On the other hand, jumbo functions as any adjective would; e.g., tiny shrimp, Gulf shrimp, or tasty shrimp. Jumbo describes the type of shrimp; thus, the two words do not create a new compounded term and no hyphen is necessary.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Metonymy and Synecdoche: Two More Closely Related Figures of Speech

While learning to navigate the Intercoastal Waterway from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami, Florida, the captain seemed unusually concerned about the local sheriff’s deputies and Homeland Security assigned to patrol the waters, especially evident through Port Everglades. The captain cried, “Heat. That’s the heat. Check your wake. It’s a no-wake zone.” The wake was fine; he was just exceedingly nervous.

When he referred to law enforcement as the heat, he was using a trope, also known as figurative language. The heat is an example of metonymy whereby the writer or speaker substitutes a word closely associated with an idea, office, or person, in this case heat substituted for police or the law.

Police can certainly bring the heat to miscreants, law-breakers, and folks under the influence. In other words, law enforcers apply pressure by their very presence or their abilities to disrupt a citizen’s poor choices, and applying pressure is bringing the heat. I suspect that captain had had more than one run-in with the heat, and they had disrupted his less than stellar behavior while in port.

Other examples of metonymy include:

• Top brass » High-ranking military officers
• White House » President of the U. S.
• Detroit » Auto industry
• Red-letter day » Holidays and Festivals (usually noted on calendars with red fonts)
• Redneck » Working class, ranchers, farmers (men whose necks burn red, then brown because they work outdoors; also associated with political and social behaviors that may include pickup trucks, firearms, reenactment groups, chewing tobacco, and beer)
• A man of the cloth » A reverend, preacher, priest, or minister
• Paparazzi » A type of journalist who stalks his celebrity prey and works for newspapers and magazines that journalism schools try to ignore

Synecdoche is similar to metonymy and often mistaken for metonymy. Whereas metonymy refers to an idea, person, or thing by substituting a word commonly associated with the idea, person or thing, synecdoche uses a part of the idea, person, or thing to suggest the whole. For example, when my husband and I were onboard a trawler, learning to navigate the Intercoastal Waterway, the captain could have referred to us as hands as in deckhands or all hands on deck. In this phrase, hands refers to the whole person functioning as the crew, the helpers, or the labor force.

Other examples of synecdoche include:

• G.I. Joe » toy soldiers
• West Wing » White House and/or President
• Hearth » Heart of the Home
• Plastic » Credit Card
• The Badge » Police Officer
• Cupid’s Arrow » Love
• Sawbones » Surgeon

As other tropes do, metonymy and synecdoche enliven and enrich text. They provide figures of speech to prick the imaginations of readers, helping them experience the words rather than just read them.

Reading Challenge:

Shakespeare made great use of both metonymy and synecdoche. Film also makes extensive use of these concepts. For example, a director may film a city park gone to ruin, the swings no longer suspended but lying on the ground, a slide with missing ladder rungs. With such a scene, the director suggests that the city has decayed and/or people who live nearby are impoverished.

Read or re-read Shakespeare with an eye to metonymy and synecdoche. Write down Shakespeare’s uses of these tropes in your writing journal.

Or watch a favorite movie, studying the background scenes. What ideas, people or larger wholes do the scenes suggest?

Writing Challenge:

Create a metonymic trope for a political party. Now write a synecdoche for the same party.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): More Commonly Confused Words

A recent commercial plays upon the ages old debate about which came first, the chicken or the egg. The voices of John Goodman and Steve Buscemi are perfect matches for the self-assured chicken and the confident egg as each one asserts that his existence preceded the other. And that brings me to this week’s commonly confused words: precede and proceed.

Precede, as used in the second sentence above, means to come before. For example: careful revision and proofreading precede the final draft of essays that earn the highest scores.

Proceed, on the other hand, means to go forward. For example: after revising your essay, you may proceed to the next step, proofreading. Or, after paying the admission price, you may proceed into the theater.

Connye Griffin writes about literature and writing for My Writing and Editing Coach 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Another Trope: Metaphor and its First Cousin, Simile

Connye Griffin is the writer, editor, thinker, and critic for My Writing and Editing Coach.

One of my favorite books by Dr. Seuss is The Butter Battle about the Yooks who cannot tolerate the Zooks because Zooks butter their slices of bread on the wrong side. This difference of opinion escalates into separation, then war. A wall to prevent one side from crossing the border between nations grows taller and taller. Weapons escalate with each side trying to invent a final solution, a weapon of mass destruction.

Like many of Seuss’ books, The Butter Battle, is a sustained metaphor, this one satirizing the reasons that nations divide and wage war. Using symbols such as butter on bread, Seuss suggests that those differences that divide us may be superficial and insignificant.

Jonathan Swift used symbolic actions to mock British politics in an earlier age. In Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver washes ashore on the island home of the Lilliputians who are tiny in size but gigantic in ego. They compete for titles and rank by performing ridiculous circus-like stunts, allowing Swift to suggest that British dukes and lords were not worthy leaders but performers currying favor from their king.

Metaphors and similes are not always sustained as in Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Often they are isolated phrases or sentences, but in either case, the author intends to suggest another level of meaning, the figurative level. Children can read both Seuss and Swift, and they can enjoy the tale. Adults with more discernment recognize the political satire underway.

Simply defined, a metaphor compares something unknown to something known. A simile does the same but the comparison is less direct. The words like or as signal the comparison and declare that Love does not equal a cuddly puppy; love is merely like a cuddly puppy.

Here is a list of unknowns made known or understandable to readers through comparison:
• My beloved ... (you don’t know him, right? So he's unknown to you): My beloved is a safe harbor in a storm (He isn’t really a body of water, of course; he makes me feel safe and secure).
• My Labrador Retriever: Macduff is an old soul, sensitive to my griefs and patient beyond measure.
• My definition of anger: Anger is a sharp axe above a bared neck.

People and things and ideas with which readers are unfamiliar become understandable when compared to other people, things or ideas with which readers are familiar. That's how metaphors and similes work.

Note that weekly blog posts from December 10 through January 28, 2010 are about symbols. You may wish to read those to review or study further figurative levels of meaning.

Writing Challenge:

Enjoy trying to write metaphors and/or similes. In fact, create a “Me” poem (originally published by Margerite LaPota, now deceased), consisting of nothing but metaphors or similes. For example:

Looking around the world
I see
Many things that remind me
Of me. . .

I am a goldfish in the open sea,
A turtle climbing Mt. Everest.
I am Pad Thai, tangled and spicy;
And I am the sunflower, my face aloft,
Filled with hope, warmed by the sun.

Choose fish, reptiles, animals, movie titles, cars, foods, flowers, and seasons to create a fun poem about yourself. It does not have to rhyme, but each line needs to be a metaphor or a simile.

Reading Challenge:

Enjoy a Raymond Chandler story or a John D. McDonald novel. Read for pleasure but notice the metaphors and similes. Record them in your writing journals to treasure and inform you about figurative language.

Or read and delight in the metaphors (or similes) that Robinson Jeffers employs in “Carmel Point.”

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler had come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Or "read" the film What Dreams May Come. Write metaphorical statements for Heaven, Hell, grief, love, and eternity, using images from the film.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Two more commonly confused words.

I grew weary of correcting the spellings for the verb lose and the adjective loose. Many of my students spelled the adjective when they needed the verb and vice versa.

Lose, the verb, means to misplace something or fail to win. For example:

• I always lose when my husband and I play Scrabble.
• I’m a loser; I never finish first!

Note that by adding an “r,” the verb lose becomes a noun, loser. Both are pronounced as if the “s” is a “z.”

Loose, on the other hand, is an adjective that describes knots or clothing or morals. For example:

• Tie a loose knot; the tide will pull it tighter as the water level drops.
• That waistband is too loose; you’ll lose your drawers and win big on America's Funniest Videos.
• That politician’s ethics are too loose; I can’t vote for him.

Finally, enjoy a poem about losing: One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Litote: Hyperbole's Yang

Standing before a brilliant sunset, the onlooker says, “It’s the most beautiful sunset in the history of the world!” Her companion says, smiling, “It’s okay, I guess.”

The companion’s begrudging admission that he stands before a scene of sublime beauty is an example of litote, a rhetorical strategy and the subject of this week’s post. Litote simply means that a writer or speaker deliberately understates the case in order to emphasize a point.

For example, if a laid-off, ex-CEO with 20 years experience running a Fortune 500 company said, during an interview for a new position, “I can safely say that I know a little about building a company,” then that ex-CEO has just used litote to focus the interviewer’s attention upon the experience that a CEO could bring to the job.

Sometimes, litote travels as sarcasm as in the following scenario: a young woman passes by a couple standing so close together that no one can be sure which jacket belongs to which person; the woman might say to her companion, “Looks like they like each other” deliberately understating the public display of affection (PDA).

At other times, litote seems like a back-handed compliment or a positive turned into an insult, something that Andrew Marvel does in “To His Coy Mistress” as the suitor applies pressure to the lady who would prefer to retain her virtue. He pulls out the big guns in his argument and says, with litote, that she ought to use her youth because all that awaits is rotting in a grave: The grave’s a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace.

President Ronald Reagan praised his own tenure as president but downplayed it with litote so that he appeared more humble than he might otherwise have seemed, saying: We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all. (Farewell Address to the Nation, January 20, 1989)

Writing Challenge:

Use litote to draw attention to a point you wish to make while seeming to be humble rather than proud or matter-of-fact rather than judgmental.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Juno, a 1997 film that makes use of litote.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): More Commonly Confused Words

One pair of words that my students often confused and abused is the verb quote and the noun quotation. I must confess and warn you that the grammatical distinctions between these two words is becoming fainter and fainter as more and more people in the media use quote and quotes instead of quotations. For example:

Incorrect: You should quote an expert in the subject to lend credibility to your own argument. Search for quotes online or carefully write down word-for-word what those experts think as you complete your research.

Correct: You should quote an expert in the subject to lend credibility to your own argument. Search for quotations online or carefully write down word-for-word what those experts think as you complete your research.

When you write or speak the words of another, you quote those words. When you refer to those words that you quote, you refer to them as a quotation.

My Writing and Editing Coach is written by Connye Griffin.