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"[B]ooks are like bicycles: You travel under your own power and proceed at your own pace, your riding is silent and will not pollute, no one is endangered by your journey--not frightened, maimed, or killed--and the exercise is good for you." (William H. Gass)

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Grammar & Composition Spotlight10

A Birthday Special: Shakespeare's Figures of Speech

Wednesday April 23, 2014

William Shakespeare's birthday is traditionally celebrated on Saint George's Day, April 23, which also happens to be the day of Shakespeare's death. We're marking the event(s) with a baker's dozen of Shakespearean figures of speech. Like the passages themselves, some of the figures are more familiar than others. (For definitions and additional examples, click on the highlighted rhetorical terms.)

  1. Chiasmus (Antimetabole)
    Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
    (The Witches in Act One of Macbeth)

  2. Epanorthosis (Metanoia or Repair)
    [A] good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or, rather, the sun, and not the moon; for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly.
    (King Henry in Act Five of Henry V)

  3. Epiphora (Epistrophe)
    Bassanio: Sweet Portia,
    If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
    And would conceive for what I gave the ring
    And how unwillingly I left the ring,
    When nought would be accepted but the ring,
    You would abate the strength of your displeasure.
    Portia: If you had known the virtue of the ring,
    Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
    Or your own honour to contain the ring,
    You would not then have parted with the ring.
    (Act Five of The Merchant of Venice)

  4. Gradatio (Anadiplosis)
    My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
    And every tongue brings in a several tale,
    And every tale condemns me for a villain.
    (King Richard in Act Five of King Richard III)

  5. Hypallage (Transferred Epithet)
    Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch'd
    With rainy marching in the painful field. . . .
    (King Henry in Act Four of Henry V))

  6. Metaphor
    A man may break a word with you, sir: and words are but wind;
    Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.
    (Dromio of Ephesus in Act Three of The Comedy of Errors)

  7. Onomatopoeia
    Hark, hark!
    The watch-dogs bark:
    Hark, hark! I hear
    The strain of strutting chanticleer
    Cry, cock-a-diddle-dow!
    (Ariel in Act One of The Tempest)

  8. Oxymoron
    Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
    O anything, of nothing first create! O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
    Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
    Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
    Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
    This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
    (Romeo in Act One of Romeo and Juliet)

  9. Personification
    Do villainy, do, since you protest to do't,
    Like workmen. I'll example you with thievery.
    The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
    Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
    And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
    The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
    The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
    That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
    From general excrement: each thing's a thief.
    (Timon in Act Four of Timon of Athens)

  10. Ploce (Paronomasia)
    Maria: By my troth, Sir Toby, you must come in earlier o' nights. Your cousin, my lady, takes great exceptions to your ill hours.
    Sir Toby Belch: Why, let her except, before excepted.
    Maria: Ay, but you must confine yourself within the modest limits of order.
    Sir Toby Belch: Confine? I'll confine myself no finer than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in, and so be these boots too. An they be not, let them hang themselves in their own straps.
    (Act One of Twelfth Night)

  11. Polyptoton
    . . . Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove. . . .
    (Sonnet 116)

  12. Syllepsis (Zeugma)
    A husband and a son thou owest to me;
    And thou a kingdom; all of you allegiance. . . .
    (Queen Margaret in Act One of King Richard III)

  13. Synecdoche
    Macbeth: What soldiers, wheyface?
    Servant: The English force, so please you.
    Macbeth: Take thy face hence.
    (Act Five of Macbeth)

To learn much more about Shakespeare and his works, visit About.com Shakespeare, guided by Lee Jamieson.

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Image: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

10 Pros on Prose

Monday April 21, 2014

For advice on how to improve your writing skills and sharpen your prose, visit with these 10 authors from our series Writers on Writing: Advice From the Pros.

  • Practical Writing Advice From Roy Peter Clark
    Roy Peter Clark, author of The Glamour of Grammar and How to Write Short, acknowledges that many of the "rules" of writing are as mythical as centaurs and unicorns. Here he offers 10 key writing tips--or as he calls them, "keepsakes."

  • Annie Dillard on Getting Started
    Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard explains why an imperfect introduction--even one that's clumsy, wordy, boring, and vague--may be the best way to get your draft off the ground.

  • Blow Up the TV, and Other Writing Advice From Stephen King
    Whether you're out to compose best-selling novels or effective essays, memos, and reports, you should benefit from King's straightforward advice.

  • John Updike on the Pleasures of Writing
    Updike may have been the quintessential "lyrical writer of the ordinary," but extraordinary lessons can be found beneath the glittering surface of his prose.

  • C.S. Lewis on What Really Matters in Writing
    In a letter to a young Narnia fan in Florida, author C.S. Lewis offered some sensible advice on writing, including these points about "what really matters."

  • Toni Morrison on Writing
    From her early days as an editor at Random House through her many years as a teacher of English at Princeton, Toni Morrison has shown an abiding interest in the writer's craft. Here, in excerpts from several interviews, Morrison offers her thoughts on the practice and the process of writing.

  • "Keep Your Hook in the Water": Harry Crews on Writing
    The late novelist and essayist Harry Crews was also a passionate teacher. Not surprisingly, Crews had more than a few things to say about writing and the writer's life.

  • John Steinbeck's Rudimentary Writing Suggestions
    Novelist John Steinbeck encouraged beginning writers to write as "freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually . . . an excuse for not going on."

  • Somerset Maugham on Writing Without Frills
    British novelist W. Somerset Maugham understood that becoming a better writer involves confronting our limitations--identifying those qualities that stubbornly resist all our efforts to improve them. But even more important is the next step: building on our strengths.

  • "We Can Do Better": Dr. Seuss on Writing
    Here's some grownup advice on writing from Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to children and adults as Dr. Seuss.

Between the Dashes

Friday April 18, 2014

Interrupting dashes--like these, for example--are parenthetical devices favored by many professional writers but often ignored or misused by students. Because they're a handy way of slipping details into sentences--definitions, translations, illustrations, explanations, and qualifications, for instance--interrupting dashes are worth adding to our composition tool kits.

Consider these examples from recent magazine articles.

  • Very little grows here. Yet it is the home of quinoa real--"royal quinoa"--whose seeds are the world market's gold standard. . . .
    (Lisa M. Hamilton, "The Quinoa Quarrel." Harper's, May 2014)

  • Cardinal Walter Kasper--short, sturdy, 81--lives at No. 1 Piazza della Cittą Leonina, a brick apartment building near the old Vatican walls. . . .
    (Paul Elie, "The Pope in the Attic." The Atlantic, May 2014)

  • The tents huddled together on the high prairie. For seven months, they had borne deluge, frost and blizzard. In that time, the occupants--more than 1,000 striking coal miners and their families--had also endured the fear and fact of violence. . . .
    (Thai Jones, "Remembering the Ludlow Massacre." The Nation, April 21, 2014)

  • A new catalog of earthquake lights--mysterious glows sometimes reported before or during seismic shaking--finds that they happen most often in geological rift environments, where the ground is pulling apart. . . .
    (Alexandra Witze, "Mysterious Light Associated With Earthquakes Now Linked to Geologic Rift Zones." Scientific American, January 2014)

  • The Chelsea makes many more star appearances, but it's the denizens of the place, their celebrity and sheer numbers--from Mark Twain through several generations of artists, cranks and druggies, to Sid Vicious--that warrant its reputation. . . .
    (Jeremy Harding, "Short Cuts." London Review of Books, February 6, 2014)

  • The innovation of the coaching schools was not so much the curriculum--Coach U's was so similar to Erhard's that in the late 1990s Landmark sued for copyright infringement--but in the professed goal. . . .
    (Genevieve Smith, "50,000 Life Coaches Can't Be Wrong." Harper's, May 2014)

In almost every example, a pair of commas or parentheses could also do the job, but those marks lack the emphatic dash of the dash. Commas can lead to clutter, and parentheses seem to whisper (inviting us to skip over points that used to be relegated to footnotes).

Like any device, interrupting dashes lose their power and effectiveness through overuse, and too many of them can quickly become distracting. So good writers ration them.

Nevertheless, the next time you want to emphasize a detail clearly and concisely, don't be afraid to try on a pair of dashes.

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A Springtime Stroll on the Lighter Side of Language

Wednesday April 16, 2014

Every few months, when the lucubrations of linguists grow tiresome and the cackles of language mavens turn painfully shrill, we slip across to the lighter side of language. Please join us. (For definitions, discussions, and additional examples, click on the highlighted terms.)

  • The Lighter Side of Prefixes
    "If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted; musicians denoted; cowboys deranged; models deposed; tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?"
    (Virginia Ostman, quoted by Laurence J. Peter in Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Times. Quill, 1993)

  • The Lighter Side of Privative Affixes
    "The pilot declared it a 'catastrophic failure of equipment' and put the stairs out for us to 'deplane.' Why do we 'deplane'? We don't 'debus,' we don't 'decab.' It's such a phony word. It seems to me an emergency is the wrong time to try to impress people with fancy vocabulary. A simple 'The nose has unexpectedly fallen off this plane. Let's not use it. Get off' would have done the trick."
    (Paula Poundstone, There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say. Three Rivers Press, 2006)

  • The Lighter Side of Misplaced Modifiers
    "For many people eating spoonfuls of Marmite every day would be their worst nightmare, but for St. John Skelton it's his dream job. . . . Despite being loathed by millions across the world, St. John can't get enough of the stuff and eats it almost every day."
    ("Meet the Man Who Earns a Living Eating Marmite." The Sun [UK], April 14, 2012)

  • The Lighter Side of Proverbs:
    "Perhaps we should have a general reconditioning, or reupholstering, of proverbs. It could be done without too much trouble, and economically. New materials would not be needed. The old materials that Shakespeare and his great contemporary, Anon, used are still as good as new, and can't be bettered. You can't get stuff like that today. A simple rearrangement of a batch of the more prominent proverbs might do everybody a lot of good.

    "Something on this order: A man is known by the Russian he scratches. A bird in the bush is worth two on Nellie's hat. An apple a day is the evil thereof. He that keeps the doctor away will live to fight another day. A penny saved is a pound foolish. Beauty is only the spice of life. You see, they sound just as sensible as the originals, and if delivered by an adult in a solemn, minatory voice, will convince a youngster of his own unworthiness as thoroughly as if they made sense."
    (Frank Sullivan, "A Watched Proverb Butters No Parsnips." The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down. Little, Brown, 1953)

  • The Lighter Side of Anthypophora
    "Do I get annoyed when people ask themselves their own questions and answer them (rendering the interviewer irrelevant)? Yes I do. Should we allow this virus in the paper? No we shouldn't."
    (Kevin Mitchell, quoted by David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon in Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Guardian Books, 2010)

  • The Lighter Side of Assemblage Errors
    "Runny Babbit lent to wunch
    And heard the saitress way,
    'We have some lovely stabbit rew--
    Our Special for today. . . . "
    (Shel Silverstein, Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook. HarperCollins, 2005)

  • The Lighter Side of Brevity
    "[Calvin Coolidge's] most celebrated trait was his taciturnity. An oft-told story, which has never been verified, is that a woman sitting next to him at dinner gushed, 'Mr. President, my friend bet me that I wouldn't be able to get you to say three words tonight.'

    "'You lose,' the president supposedly responded."
    (Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Doubleday, 2013)

  • The Lighter Side of Reading Speed
    "I just got out of the hospital. I was in a speed-reading accident. I hit a bookmark."
    (Steven Wright)

  • The Lighter Side of Connotations
    "'Why is it a handbag instead of a purse?'

    "The General simultaneously rolled her eyes and released a tired sigh. 'A purse is a cheap, plastic discount store thing. A handbag is what contemporary, fashion-conscious women carry. And that's what we sell. Expensive designer handbags. An assortment of the latest trends and must-have famous names. They are handbags and you need to refer to them that way. You can say bag for short, but never, ever, ever say the word purse It's an insult to the exclusive designers we carry. Got it?'

    "'Got it.'

    "But I didn't really get it. The whole thing sounded kind of snooty and stupid."
    (Freeman Hall, Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store. Adams Media, 2009)

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