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digression

Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)

Definition:

The act of departing from the main subject in speech or writing to discuss an apparently unrelated topic.

In classical rhetoric, digression was often considered one of the divisions of an argument or the parts of a speech.

In A Dictionary of Literary Devices (1991), Bernard Dupriez notes that digression "does not particularly make for clarity. It . . . easily becomes verbiage."

See also:

Etymology:

From the Latin, "to turn aside"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Digression, according to Cicero, had been put by Hermagoras . . . in the speech, between the refutation and the conclusion. It might involve praise or blame of individuals, comparison with other cases, or something that emphasized or amplified the subject at hand. Thus it is not literally a digression. Cicero criticizes the requirement as a formal rule and says such treatment should be interwoven into the argument. Ironically, ethical digressions of the sort here described are very characteristic of his greatest speeches."
    (George Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition, 2nd ed. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1999)


  • The Digression in Classical Oratory
    "[A]mong other functions, the digression in classical oratory served as a formal transition and in this capacity became incorporated into medieval and Renaissance arts of preaching. For Quintilian a digression 'outside the five divisions of the speech' reflected an emotional detour; and indeed, from the early rhetoricians, digression was associated with the extra breath of the 'furor poeticus,' the inspired passion which excites emotion in the listener, which touches and persuades."
    (Anne Cotterill, Digressive Voices in Early Modern English Literature. Oxford Univ. Press, 2004)


  • "But I digress"
    - "'You are no doubt enlightened,' he inserted in a gracious tone, 'but contrary to urban legend, there is actually an entire underworld of Christians who are normal, alert, engaged, even a good time. Many are very smart, well educated, even leaders in their fields. These are people who participate in real life and the open-minded discussions about it. I have met some of them in reading and in person.' He grinned. 'But I digress.'

    "Grinning, too, I could not help but think of Lord Byron's pronouncement that in life there exists no such thing as a digression."
    (Carolyn Weber, Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir. Thomas Nelson, 2011)


    - "Digression is the soul of wit. Take the philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton, or Hamlet's father's ghost and what stays is dry bones."
    (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953)


  • Robert Burton on Delightful Digressions
    "Of which imagination, because it hath so great a stroke in producing this malady, and is so powerful of itself, it will not be improper to my discourse, to make a brief digression, and speak of the force of it, and how it causeth this alteration. Which manner of digression, howsoever some dislike, as frivolous and impertinent, yet I am of Beroaldus's opinion, 'Such digressions do mightily delight and refresh a weary reader, they are like sauce to a bad stomach, and I do therefore most willingly use them.'"
    (Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621)


  • D.H. Lawrence on Parentheses
    "Don't base your conception of it on the style of this letter--I hold that parentheses are by far the most important parts of a non-business letter--and don't be afraid of my feelings."
    (D.H. Lawrence, letter to Blanche May Rust Jennings, April 15, 1908. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by James T. Boulton. Cambridge University Press, 1979)
Also Known As: digressio, the straggler
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