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Lesson, The Third: Figures of Speech, Rhetorical Devices, and Wordplay

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There is a very good reason to learn and memorize figures of speech and rhetorical devices, and that reason is….you already use them. It’s natural for human beings to use language creatively. The fact is that your day-to-day writing and speech are already replete with rhetorical devices and figures. If you don’t already know them in an academic sense, it’s probably a little difficult for you to envision this in your mind, but once you start learning them and committing these abstract patterns to memory you’ll start to remember particular manifestations of these figures and devices that have stood out to you all on their own in the past while you were reading or watching movies or what have you. The advantage of actually explicitly learning all of these devices is that it really speeds up the natural acquisition process…and kind of takes away that intimidating mysterious quality that well-written texts filled with figures sometimes have. Learning the figures will often transform that je ne sais quoi mystique of a good writer or interlocutor into more of a je sais quoi mystique.

You might not know this…or maybe you do, but every time you turns on the television or cracks open a book, or surfs the Internetz…you are awash in rhetoric, which has to make you want to be aware of the patterns instead of just passively soaking it in all the time. Most likely, even Shakespeare explicitly studied rhetorical devices when he was in grammar school. Once you have these patterns rooted in your memory, it’ll be easier for you to notice them in your reading, and it’ll make those manifestations particular of those figures in your reading more meaningful. Also, it’ll help balance out your writing.

Anyway, avoid thinking of figures of speech and rhetorical devices as things reserved for serious literature like Shakespeare or the dusty old tomes of literature sitting in your local library. You’ll be very surprised by the places you’ll find them. You find them everywhere, from TV advertising to text messages from frenemies (is that trendy enough for you?) to the dialogue in your favorite Super Mario Bros. Game. They’re a way of making language memorable, and so you’ll find that they’ll be very useful in a diverse panoply of domains.

It’s kind of a shame that studying these figures has fallen out of fashion of late. At one time these figures were practically exalted as a gift from God because they allowed you to essentially work out a whole litany of versions of the same content — a useful kind of tool if everything you write on the first try isn’t worth its weight in gold. Of course people have strayed away from that now, whether it’s at school or at work.

Indeed there are rhetorical terms that deal with stylistic excess and annoyances, so it’s not a one-sided thing. My advice is to thoroughly learn the best tricks that both sides have to offer; learn how to spin wacky phrases with the best of them, but also learn how to ruthlessly cut through the schlock and trash that’s present in your drafts. Think of it like war…you don’t want to just learn how all of your allies think. Ya gotta get inside the heads of your worst enemies too!

What I’m thinking of here are texts like the AP or MLA style guides and boox like Strunk and White. Such works are definitely on the opposite end of the spectrum from some of the rarer figures of speech, rhetoric, and tropes, but an active acquaintance with them might turn out to be the difference between delightfully figured speech and speech that is malignantly misfigured.

Use an SRS and start making reference lists. Just the fact of you deliberately trying to use the figures in your writing or speech will not make your writing or speech necessarily better. What it will DO, is give you a concrete number of things to try, and that is very useful in going from the first draft to the final. Let’s say you put together some sort of monograph or essay on a particular topic, and over the course of drafting and writing you cast in all 400 sentences using figures of speech, style guides, and rhetoric. Of course, this is a simplistic example, but I’m a simplistic man. So fantastic job, but there’s no guarantee that your final work will make an excellent impression if you just hit the publish button right away. Here’s my proposal: Set your fresh corpus of sentences aside for a period of time, and upon your reunion, take out your editor’s knife and cut away the unnecessary excess, the fat, the adipocere until you are left with the bare bones of value in your work.

This is probably a good place to talk about the empire that has been constructed in our culture by a horrible group of people called the grammar Nazis. Not coincidentally, many of them work for state sponsored institutions. I jest bien sur….typically people fall into one or two camps when it comes to grammar. Either you’re in the camp of people who concentrate strictly on the explicit rules of grammar (I think we can safely dub this the concentration camp!), or you just say “suck it” and pretty much do whatever you want.

Now if you’re a native speaker with a decent handle on the language, it doesn’t matter so much because the important standard patterns of the language are already ingrained in your mind. However, if you’re learning a new language, these figures of speech and rhetoric probably aren’t going to be so useful until you’ve learned the language to near-native fluency.

Let me give you an example. Take the figure called “asyndeton” I’m sure I’m butchering the pronunciation of this really old word. Asyndeton refers to the act of omitting a conjunction. Now there are lots of situations where it would be an interesting move to omit a conjunction, but unless you explicitly know when you’re supposed to have a conjunction, how do you know that you’re even omitting one? So you have to kind of pay homage to and recognize the reliance on prevailing grammatical patterns that these figures have.

When you’re learning these devices, there are several ways that you’ll want to learn them. You’ll want to acquire the ability to spit out the name, mentally or verbally, of a figure of speech when prompted with its definition and/or examples. Here are a few examples:

Front: Figures of Speech: Thou thy *worldy* task hast done, Home art gone, and *ta’en* thy wages.

Back: syncope

In this example, I put asterisks around the segments of the sentence that I wanted to draw attention to, but some flashcard software will allow you to italicize these bits instead. Whatever works for you.

Front: Figures of Speech: direct exposure of an adversary’s faults:

Back: categoria

(anyone who has ever watched the anime Bleach has witnessed this one over and over again!)

You’ll have the option to learn multiple names for these phenomena as many of them have several names, but I typically only learn one name. You’ll also want to acquire the ability to spit out the definition or pattern of the figure of speech when prompted with the name of the figure of speech.

Let me emphasize that knowing the names of these figures is very worthwhile! Don’t write them off as technicalities that aren’t worth your time. Knowing the names of these figures is indeed a part of the foundation of the ability to manipulate them.

A language, in a way, is itself a system of labels. And language itself is perhaps humanity’s most powerful tool through which it has accomplished things, ah w-one of the most powerful tools. We manipulate one another and our environment in ways that our primate cousins haven’t even dreamed of, and language is a big part of that.

There’s some manic anti-memorization phobia that’s caught on in the rhetoric world. “Don’t bother memorizing the names!” Well honestly, if the names aren’t for knowing then what on god’s green girth are they for? This isn’t Diary of a Wimpy Rhetoric Student. Eat your Wheaties and start your reps!

What makes these figures exciting is their relevance not just in classical literature that you might or might not be bored with. These figures are incredibly relevant whether you’re working with the vocabulary of Jane Austen or a businessman in Manhattan. Really, they’re a way to use and make any vocabulary exciting and memorable.

There is a school of thought that says grammar rules are for the most part only useful to know explicitly after you are already fluent in a language. The argument goes that it is futile to try to write an essay in a new language by trying to derive the proper patterns from vocabulary lists and grammar rules, and I can personally attest that this calculating sort of approach to language acquisition is just as unnatural as it is institutionalized I mean popular. Instead, grammatical knowledge is mostly useful after fluency as a way to correct oneself.

Rhetorical patterns and concepts are very similar to grammar. If you get out a list of them and say you’re going to use xyz figures four times each in a specific order… what you end up with might be really interesting, but there’s a good chance that it won’t be or that it will in entirely the wrong way. An unwaivering dedication to using certain figures in a certain order a specific number of times no matter the collateral damage bore by the ideas in your work, is very much like setting foot in a wood working shop and saying you’re going to use a staple gun, nails, a socket wrench, a hammer, a lathe, a saw, a vice grip, and a screw driver in exactly that order ten times no matter what it takes. If you’re a genius you could end up with an exhibit fit for the Guggenheim! But the chances are great that you’ll end up with a product with no discernible value whatsoever other than firewood or kindling (perhaps we can reserve the latter term for crappy, self-pubbed kindle ebooks? was that hitting a little too close to home?). Figures of speech and rhetoric are tools, and nothing more.

So you do need some higher order governing your work, and a knowledge of real life, of tropes, and of story patterns might aid you in that endeavor. You can think of such a deep and intricate knowledge of life and storytelling as similar to the kind of fluency that lends itself nicely to the usage of grammar as a corrective mechanism.

I took my work, cut it down into this bite-sized, abridged version, and have decided to make it freely available in various places o’er the Interwebz. Permit me to be blunt: I worked really hard on the full version, and it will soon be is available in sundry formats in various places including Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

Photo Mar 18, 8 48 30 PM


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