Friday, July 29, 2011

Zeugma: It Just Sounds Like the Title of a Woody Allen Movie

Alanis Morissette sang, “You held your breath and the door for me,” exquisitely capturing--in nine single-syllable words--how a suitor cherishes his beloved. Morissette also captures the art of zeugma in that lyric.

Zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word governs two that are not often associated with one another. In Morissette’s example, the verb held governs both breath and door to invent an effective image for how smitten both she and her lover are.

Internet sites use a quotation from the final lines of Lord of the Flies to illustrate zeugma: Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy. Golding’s word choices and word order are poignant and powerful; zeugma helps him accomplish these effects. The verb wept governs a series of prepositional phrases: 1) for the end of innocence, 2) [for] the darkness of man’s heart, and 3) [for] the fall through the air of . . . . Ralph weeps for two concepts and one very real, tangible event.

Writing Challenge:

Using Morissette and Golding, imitate their sentence patterns to invent entirely new and powerful sentences of your own. For example:

You took your clothes and my heart with you.


The farmer mourned the loss of verdant fields, of deep dark pools of water, of the life he’d built over fifty sun-burnt, calloused years.

Reading Challenge:

Read or re-read “The Things They Carried,” the titular story from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Note the uses of zeugma. Use them as patterns to invent more original passages of your own.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

Often, a zeugmatic construction is not grammatically tidy. Consider this illustration for zeugma from John Lyons: She arrived in a taxi and a flaming rage.

Technically, no one arrives in a rage. We may arrive with an attitude of rage, but we do not travel in a cloud of rage--except, of course, metaphorically. Thus, zeugma may be idiomatic, metaphorical, or figurative instead of grammatical.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Friday, July 22, 2011


People tell me that I’m funny, and I am funny occasionally. I am rarely punny, however. Some people have the gift for puns; that someone is not I. Nevertheless, puns are a valid writing choice, one you should know a bit about so today, this post will take up the matter of puns.

A pun is a play on words, specifically a joke that takes advantage of different meanings of a word. Two great examples can be found in the first words of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip coins.

ROS (raises his head at GUIL): Seventy-six love.(GUIL gets up but has nowhere to go. He spins another coin over his shoulder without looking at it, his attention being directed at his environment or lack of it.)Heads.

GUIL: A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability. (He slips a coin over his shoulder as he goes to look upstage.)

ROS: Heads.(GUIL, examining the confines of the stage, flips over two more coins, as he does so, one by one of course. ROS announces each of them as "heads".)

GUIL (musing): The law of probability, as it has been oddly asserted, is something to do with the proposition that if six monkeys (he has surprised himself)... if six monkeys were...

ROS: Game?

GUIL: Were they?

ROS: Are you?

GUIL (understanding): Game. (Flips a coin.) The law of averages, if I have got this right, means that if six monkeys were thrown up in the air for long enough they would land on their tails about as often as they would land on their -

ROS: Heads. (He picks up the coin.)

As you can see by reading the stage directions italicized inside parentheses, each time the coin lands heads up, Rosencrantz collects it. For most of the scene and in fact, all of Act 1, the coin lands heads up, making Rosencrantz richer than Guildenstern who becomes increasingly uncomfortable in a world where the Law of Probability does not appear to operate.

While developing this aspect of Guildenstern’s character, Stoppard engages the audience and signals that the play will be comedic with plays on the words game and heads. Game describes wild animals as well as competitions between humans and as a verb, the propensity to engage in a game or escapade. Here are sentences using the word game and each of three meanings.

• Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt traveled to Africa to hunt big game. They often hung the heads of their kill on their walls as trophies.
• Will you join me for a game of Scrabble?
• Are you game for a re-match so that I can try to win back some of my money?

In addition, Stoppard uses the word heads in a second pun. Heads refers to one side of a coin for most of the scene, but in the last line quoted above, heads refers to the portion of a monkey's body that protects the brain. In addition, the image of a monkey landing on its head to prove or disprove the Law of Probability is pretty funny.

Other examples of puns follow.

• I think a job as a shoe salesmen would be your best fit. (Alexei Memorich)
• His brief Hollywood career came to an end, when he was arrested for armed robbery. He proved to be a shooting star. (Andreas, Athens, Greece)
• Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes Benz (lyric from “Hotel California,” sung by the Eagles, written by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey)
Tomorrow . . . you shall find me a grave man, said Mercutio as he lay dying in Romeo and Juliet (3. 1. 93-94).
At the electric company: We would be delighted if you send in your bill. However, if you don't, you will be [de-lighted—get it?].

Clever writers will add to their readers’ delight by making use of puns to jar imaginations and elicit a chortle or giggle.

Reading Challenge:

Read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard in print or on film. Try to count and record the many uses of puns.

Writing Challenge:

Visit and Try to write an original pun after reading the many, many examples at those sites, then submit your original pun so that you too can be read and studied by other writers and students.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

I have mentioned before that correct usage requires that you discuss and analyze literature using the present tense because the work itself lives on in the present moment, long after the writer has created it or after the writer’s death. Look back at this post and re-read the two paragraphs that follow the long, quoted passage from the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. These two paragraphs are written in the present tense.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Political speech is full of bombast; in other words, political speech, as practiced today, is full of impressive, important language that, taken together, adds up to very little. In fact, the best politicians (but perhaps not the ones most loved by the people) are those schooled in the art of circumlocution, also known as never answering the question or taking a clear, sure stand. Listen to news programs on any network or channel, and you will hear bombastic circumlocution. A edited example from Face the Nation, June 19, 2011, follows.

Bob Schieffer: Is there anything else that Republicans can do to put people back to work?

McConnell: They [Democrats] need to stop over-regulating . . . making it very difficult for businesses to operate.

Did McConnell answer the question asked? No. He used the question as an opportunity to send a message, to shape opinion, but he did not say what Republicans can or will do to put people back to work. He obfuscated (in other words, he obscured perception), and later, when Senator Chuck Schumer was asked about McConnell’s answer, he said as much. He pointed out that McConnell did not say one word about a Republican plan to create jobs and put people to work.

Periphrasis is a synonym for circumlocution
, but is more often reserved for literary or stylistic analysis. However, periphrasis is generally considered to be a vice in style, not a virtue. Why? Periphrasis breaks one basic rule of good writing: never use several words when one will do. Here is an example of wordiness, taken to an extreme:

Please forgive me for reporting after the optimal time agreed upon for this collaborative meeting and exchange of information. I was temporarily delayed by an unexpected disturbance in my lower gastro-intestinal tract, necessitating a detour not mapped by the Global Positioning System installed in my vehicle and subsequently requiring unnecessary backtracking in order to establish my whereabouts and arrive at the correct juncture.

While the speaker may be shy about admitting to diarrhea in front of peers and/or supervisors, he has gone too far, using sixty-four words when fourteen will do:

I’m late. I’m sorry. Diarrhea hit, then I got lost searching for a bathroom.

Wordiness has infested business-speak, government jargon, and educators. I think you will recognize the following classic examples of wordiness that should be expunged:

• At the present time = Now
• In the near future = Soon
• In this day and age = Today or Now
• Due to the fact that = Because

We are like sponges; we hear and absorb these phrases, perpetuating them into perpetuity. Let’s stop it, okay?

Sometimes periphrasis may be artful. When the writer substitutes a descriptive word or phrase for a proper, more common noun, then periphrasis may become a valid writing choice. Shakespeare used periphrasis artfully when young Hamlet tries to convey how his mother’s behavior disgusts him. He avoids calling her names and choosing crude language for her actions while condemning her with periphrasis.

Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers’ oaths: O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven’s face doth glow:
Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
With tristful visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act. (3. 4. 40-51)

Hamlet’s answer to his mother’s question is wordy, but he has avoided the words incest and adulterer while vividly specifying how unholy and vile she is.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

Re-read Abraham Lincoln’s spare and beautiful Gettysburg Address. Appreciate his craft and style in fewer than 300 words. Then ruin that wonderful, inspiring speech by rewriting it with plenty of circumlocution and periphrasis.

Next, exercise your brain in the opposite direction. Re-read Hamlet’s speech and reduce it to the fewest number of words. You may find it wise not to share the rewrite with others.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM

Today’s post is a lesson in usage: better usage. Make a longer list of wordy clichés like the four bulleted above. Practice avoiding them, using their one or two words counterparts instead.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, July 8, 2011

To and or not to and; that is a writer's question.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

. . . We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

I hope, as a follower of this blog, you can now identify why Lincoln’s words are especially powerful and alive. One reason is his use of anaphora to begin three successive clauses with identical language: we cannot. A second reason is parallel construction (See posts for February 28, 2010; September 10, 2010; March 18, 2011; and April 1, 2011): We cannot verb, we cannot verb, we cannot verb.

One other writing option that Lincoln employs is asyndeton, the omission of conjunctions between clauses, phrases, or words. By omitting the conjunction and between consecrate and we, Lincoln de-emphasizes his three clauses as items in a list and emphasizes the gravitas of Gettysburg itself and the sacrifices that men made there.

President John F. Kennedy achieved a similar effect with his own use of asyndeton:

We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. J. F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

Each sacrifice that Kennedy calls for has equal, solemn weight. The phrases are not items in a list; they are an escalating set of steps that may lead to war itself in order to preserve freedom. Kennedy has also made excellent use of parallel construction by repeating the pattern: verb- the adjective any-direct object.

Lest you believe that asyndeton is only for the presidents and serious occasions, here is another, lighter example of its use:

This is of course the big event of show business and the atmosphere here is pure electricity. But as a television show, it does tend to go slightly ‘off the boil,’ particularly as we drift into the third and fourth hour. What can we do about it? Firstly, winners, when you make your speech, it's a good tip to remember the three Gs: Be gracious, be grateful, get off. Paul Hogan, Remarks at the 59th Annual Academy Awards.

The opposite of asyndeton is polysyndeton, the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses. For example, from Ernest Hemingway:

I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said, ‘I don't know who killed him but he's dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Bay and she was all right only she was full of water. Hemingway, “After the Storm”

Why would Hemingway choose such a jumble of words strung together with the conjunction and? What effect does he achieve by doing so? Hemingway re-creates the confusion of simultaneous action by choosing polysyndeton. Using clauses and phrases strung together underscores the confusion caused by catastrophes, in this case, the trauma of a dead man and a terrible storm.

Genesis 1: 24-25 of the King James Version employs polysyndeton with a somewhat different effect:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (

The use of polysyndeton in this Biblical passage underscores the simultaneous creation of animals, reptiles, and other living creature in a moment.

Writing Challenge:

Make purposeful use of asyndeton and polysyndeton. You may wish to imitate any of the examples offered, using entirely different words to create your own message while following the word order of the original authors. Or you may choose to create two identical passages except for the use of polysyndeton in the second version. Note the difference in overall effect between the two. For example:

Students should carefully consider what to pack when preparing to leave home for college. A laptop computer, cell phone, iPad, iPod, the tattered, worn teddy bear are worthy, even essential, items.

Students should carefully consider what to pack when preparing to leave home for college. A laptop computer and a cell phone and an iPad and an iPod and the tattered and worn teddy bear are worthy and even essential items.

Which one of the sentence pairs above has the greater emotional impact? What figure(s) of speech lead to that outcome?

Reading Challenge:

Read a book I have often mentioned in these posts: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Note the use of asyndeton and polysyndeton, especially in the first story in the collection, “The Things They Carried.”

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

Hemingway’s character, in the quoted passage above, has made a grisly discovery: the body of a man. With any luck, the man was not killed by a grizzly. Had the man been gnawed and gnashed on by a grizzly bear, it’s unlikely that anyone could have recognized him and quite likely that someone would have coughed his cookies at his feet after such a grisly or gruesome and revolting sight.

Friday, July 1, 2011

In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Anachronism

Recently, my husband and I saw Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s latest film. The opening scenes of Paris are well worth the price of admission, especially for people like us, people who have only experienced Paris on film. Allen seems to love the boulevards and bridges, the open-air cafés, even the bumper-to-bumper traffic knit together by head and tail lights and reflecting in the rich, gold adornments from glorious ages long past.

One of the charms of this film is its use of anachronism. Owen Wilson in the role of insecure writer and displaced person slips in and out of the 21st century, and in doing so he is an anachronism: a person, event or thing existing in a historical era in which it could not have occurred because the person, thing, or event belongs to another time.

Wilson’s character usually travels to the Paris that existed in the 1920s. This post-World War I and pre-World War II era was anything but peaceful. Ideas and art forms exploded in the hands of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, and Dali, and the film’s protagonist longs to be among such icons, to be nurtured and critiqued by them, to be inspired by them.

Owen Wilson's character learns, of course, that the past informs the present, but is neither better nor worse than the present. As Annie Dillard has written:

People look at the sky and at the other animals. They make beautiful objects, beautiful sounds, beautiful motions of their bodies beating drums in lines. They pray; they toss people in peat bogs; they help the sick and injured; they pierce their lips, their noses, ears; they make the same mistakes despite religion, written language, philosophy, and science; they build, they kill, they preserve, they count and figure, they boil the pot, they keep the embers alive; they tell their stories and gird themselves. (from “This is the Life” by Annie Dillard, Fall issue, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, published by the Center for Religious Humanism at Seattle Pacific University, reprinted with permission.)

What Dillard means, of course, is that cultural norms and standards may shift and change, but human nature remains. The artistic explosion of the 1920s and the Golden Age of invention and optimism in the first decades of the 20th century are kindred spirits because it is human nature that drives them, the same human nature alive in the 21st century. We cannot lose ourselves in a fondness for the past; we must live now to make beautiful objects now, create beautiful sounds now, and undulate our beautiful bodies now.

By slipping between the past and present, Allen makes this point. In fact, Wilson’s character lets go of a toxic relationship, opens himself to a promising one, and without looking back, decides to become a 21st century ex-pat alive and creative in Paris. Thus, anachronism serves Allen well as he introduces big ideas and weaves them into a love song to Paris.

Another film-maker who has made good use of anachronism is Mel Brooks. In Robin Hood, Men in Tights, he goes for the laugh by hanging a sign on the rear of a horse, advertising the horse for rent as one might rent a car today. Monty Python’s classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail features chain mail, shield shapes, and castles that were not in use in the 900s (see Colin G. Hoch’s commentary). One other anachronism is the use of coconuts to mimic the sound of horses’ hooves on firm ground. Coconuts are tropical, not readily available in Medieval England, but they are present nevertheless. Funny stuff to have the guys believe they are on horses while one of their company makes the sound of horses.

So anachronisms may be employed to make serious big themes come alive, or they may be present to amuse us. Regardless, anachronisms are another effective tool in the writer’s tool belt.

Reading Challenge:

Read Midnight in Paris; Robin Hood, Men in Tights; Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Take note of anachronism as you analyze and enjoy.

Writing Challenge:

Search your own fiction as I recently searched my own. I had placed a bean bag chair in a room from the year 1959. Bean bag chairs were a décor item dating from the late 60s. My anachronism was accidental—an error, and I repaired my mistake. Describe a place, but use anachronism purposefully for contrast or humor.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

You may have observed that I usually use an italicized font for the titles of books and movies instead of underlining them as was once required. According to the online writing guide at Purdue University:

Italics and underlining are generally used interchangeably. When you write, you can choose to either italicize or underline, but make sure you are consistent in which you use throughout the essay. When handwriting an essay like the GED Essay, obviously, you’ll have to use underlining.

Italicize the titles of magazines, books, newspapers, academic journals, films, television shows, long poems, plays, operas, musical albums, works of art, websites.

MLA (the Modern Language Association) no longer recommends underlining where italics could be used, but quotation marks are still required for the titles of short stories, essays, and poems not of epic length.

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