Figures of Speech

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Today I’m looking at Arthur Quinn’s great book Figures of Speech: 60 ways to turn a phrase. It’s a very short book about style, about the different ways to play with words and when to do them. More importantly, it’s a pretty comprehensive glossary of terms, so that I know that when I spell something wrong intentionally, what I’m doing is called ennallage (5), and when I repeat the same word in different grammatical schemes, it’s called isocolon (77) and if I repeat a word or phrase immediately, that’s epizeuxis (80).

Quinn writes his book with his tongue firmly pressed against his cheek, moving very cleverly through all 60 of these figures of speech by talking about them, around them, and providing copious examples of them, drawing from the Bible, Shakespeare, Euripides, Twain, Marlowe; he shows us these figures at work in language throughout our cultural history.

It’s a dangerous thing to look at style this way, Quinn tells us. As he writes “Style, someone said, is like a frog; you can dissect the thing, but it somehow dies in the process” (5). When we try to theorize style, we run the risk of killing it. Style is such a slippery thing; I’ve seen book after book approach it from all kinds of angles, and most of what I’ve come away with can be summed up by “You either have style or you don’t.” Everyone knows what it is, but no one knows how to do it.

So with that warning firmly in hand, we begin investigating figures. And what are those? “The simplest definition of a figure out speech is ‘an intended deviation from ordinary usage.’ (An intended deviation from ordinary grammatical issue is the specific figure of speech, enallage)” (6). So any time we deviate from ordinary usage, we’re using a figure of speech. At least, we are if it was intentional. So when students say that their paper isn’t wrong, it’s just figures of speech, we can congratulate them on their cleverness, but point out that it wasn’t intentional, and so it doesn’t count.

It really is the intention that matters. As Quinn says, “we must always remember to ask of our figures the most important question of all – not how, not where, not what, but why. Why does an author or speaker choose to turn a phrase in a particular way?” (23, italics in original). Figures of speech aren’t used willy nilly. They serve a purpose, they create a style. So, to really understand them, we need to understand why, in any given case, they are used.

All in all, though, this is not a theoretical text. It’s more of a glossary, a tool with a whole lot of examples of all the figures of speech. There are even examples of Praecisio, which is when “all words are omitted in order to express contentment, or contempt, or catatonia” (36). Reminds me of the end of Tractatus, where Wittgenstein says “OF what we cannot speak we must be silent” (49).

All in all, this book is a great tool to have, something worth reading and then putting next to your desk, so you can see what figures you’re using, or how other figures might be used, or just what those fancy names are.

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