Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Sound of Language

Read everything you write out loud for rhythm and sound: ‘Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.’ --William Zinsser

Music is sound speaking to sound. The trumpet sends a pattern into the air where it reverberates and resonates with its listeners. Written language isn’t different. Words send patterns into the infinite where they reverberate and resonate with listeners.

Writers need to recognize the sounds that words make in readers’ mind. They need to cultivate an ear for the music of language, for its pace, and they need to revise to enhance the rhythm and music of language.

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
The order of words and word choices make passages more and less musical. For example, President John F. Kennedy’s famous admonition is musical because of his use of effective repetition and rhetorical patterns known as chiasmus, antithesis, and parallelism.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In plainer, less artful language, Kennedy’s message could be rendered as:

Let’s not ask America to meet our needs; let’s ask how we can meet our own and the nation’s.

Other nations shouldn’t expect us to save and protect them; they should join America in advancing freedom.

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
Clearly, the order of words and word choices matter. Kennedy’s are memorable; they jarred the imaginations of his and future generations. The plainer version is less memorable.

Reading Challenge:

Read the posts linked in this article. They explain and illustrate rhetorical devices and the rhythm of language in detail.

Writing Challenge:

Use chiasmus, antithesis, or parallel structure in one of your own pieces of writing.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.