Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Words Matter, The Power of Redundancy and Understatement

Alabama Cotton, the State where Bragg grew to
manhood and the crop his mother picked to help
him on his way. This photo is from a blog:
http://www.kevinandamanda.com/alabama-cotton

This is not an important book. It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeasten Alabama, …. Anyone could tell it, anyone with a daddy who let his finer nature slip away from him during an icebound war in Korea,…. Anyone could tell it, anyone who had a momma who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes, …. Anyone could tell it, and that’s the shame of it. --Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin’. New York: Vintage, 1997. xi-xii.

This masterful passage has been excerpted, and I’m sorry about that. Every word of the passage matters, and every word is art. Still, for the sake of the techniques reviewed herein, I have abbreviated the paragraphs.

What should be apparent immediately is the use of understatement to open the passage. The book is, without doubt, an important book as is any honest, true memoir that refuses to gloss the past, but consider what the book is about: a strong woman who sacrificed for her three sons hemmed in by circumstance and a tortured man who lost his finer nature during war. With those brief descriptions, Bragg evokes the epic struggles of heroes and villains, knowns and unknowns, of people who confront the dark hearts of men and engage in epic battles between love and loss, envy and charity, good and evil.

Bragg also employs redundant phrasing, repeating Anyone could tell it, anyone . . . , but if we are as honest as the author, we must admit we couldn’t tell it. Many of us rose from privileged circumstances; many more of us simply can’t recount a story so persuasively and effectively.

Redundancy is not a fault, but one more powerful rhetorical device known as parallelism, used for emphasis. In Bragg’s case, parallelism serves to underscore or facilitate understatement, suggesting Bragg’s story is both universal and exceptional as well as important.

Reading Challenge:

Read more about understatement and parallelism by using the links for each word. You may also review earlier posts to My Writing and Editing Coach from February 28, 2010, April 1, 2011, and March 30, 2016.

Writing Challenge:

Use understatement and parallelism in a passage about your family’s history.


Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach