figures of speech

by John Shea  


Dear Joe,

It was great seeing you again last weekend. I don’t think Sharon and I have had so much fun in a month of Sundays. Sorry for the cliché. Which reminds me: I’d be delighted to write the rhetoric booklet you spoke about. It would be fun to trot out all those dusty figures of speech, half of which I can’t even name. Is there still a market for that sort of thing, with all these students who just ramble on or pour out their undiluted, unfiltered feelings onto the page? Rhetoric is a bad word to them, isn’t it? Well, if the offer’s still good, I’ll send up some pages soon. A few extra bucks would help tide us over. Sharon is feeling a bit glum about my tenure situation, and who knows what will happen if I have to start over somewhere else.

But to return to happier thoughts. We had a great time during your visit. I don’t think I’ve seen Sharon so lively in a while. Let’s not wait so long before getting together again, okay?

I must say, the suit you were wearing at the restaurant was most impressive. Italian, I gather? And the silk tie. Not the Joseph Stabler of old, the guy in the torn jeans and the Talking Heads tee-shirt! Remember how we would argue about Chaucer’s use of narrators or his depiction of the faithless Criseyde—or, jumping ahead a few centuries, the proper punctuation of Dickinson’s poems! Interesting aftershave, too. I was a little surprised that Sharon recognized the brand, since I don’t use any. Polo, by Ralph Lauren, I think she said. I never grew accustomed to aftershave or cologne or all that. Still, when you’re visiting your authors or trying to sell those textbooks to all the college instructors, I suppose it’s back into the old tweed jacket. To foster the illusion that you are still one of us? Protective coloration?

So you see how eagerly I seize upon details, turning your spiffy suit into an occasion for an explication de texte! Nothing escapes my notice… not even the fact that you neatly slapped down the credit card next to the check before we could protest.

Let’s hear from you soon.


Terrence R. Stark, Ph.D.
Department of English
Benjamin Franklin University

Dear Joe,
While I’m in my office, and my student seems to have skipped his appointment, I thought I’d warm up.

Hyperbole: I feel like a million bucks today.

A common problem in students’ papers is lack of parallelism. Often, I’ll get something like “I like to swim and playing tennis,” which (to continue our hyperbole) is enough to make one scream! Ah, and there we have the impersonal, aloof, very British one. Gotta love it. Pardon me, Your Grace, but one very much needs to go to the bathroom or one’s pee will be running down one’s leg.

Some examples of parallelism:

He felt so wonderful that the sidewalk seemed to soften to his tread, the breeze swooped down to cool his forehead, and the birds chirped her name a dozen times with every step he took.

The vampire had sallow skin, scarlet lips, and piercing eyes. (This one is an example of isocolon, too, in which the structure and the length of the parallel elements are the same.)

Anastrophe, in which the natural order of words is inverted:

Breathtakingly beautiful she undoubtedly is.

Parenthesis, in which the normal syntactical flow of the sentence is interrupted:

If I were to enumerate her virtues—but am I worthy to take on such a task?—I would begin with her honesty.

Her patience (for what else can one call it when she has stuck with me through seven lean years?) continues to astonish me.

Apposition, in which one of two side‑by‑side elements serves to modify the other:

Hamilton, the laboring assistant professor, stared at the computer screen in confusion.

Georgina, his beautiful wife, teasingly trailed her long dark hair across his face.

Ellipsis, in which a word or group of words is omitted but is implied:

She pulled off her pajama top, and he his own. (Too risqué for your intended audience?)

At any rate, I’m just warming up. Give me some more details about the handbook: how long you want it, what tone. And (he adds, clearing his throat) what sort of contract you have in mind. After all, Sharon deserves that vacation on the Cape, don’t you think?


Dear Joe,

Damn, sorry I missed you! Lo Bianco mentioned he had seen you for a few moments in Kissick Hall yesterday. Down talking to old Barkin about his third edition of the essay collection? At any rate, I wish you’d had a minute to spare for a junior professor like me. I’ve dashed off a few more examples, and I’d really like a preliminary response about whether we’re on to something here. When you’re in the warren, working on those gut‑wrenching student papers, you don’t always have a sense of what’s going on. Sometimes I think the Third World War could start, and I’d still be at the office desk, tirelessly circling the dangling modifiers with my red pen! I envy your somewhat peripatetic life. At least you get to visit your authors every now and then. Which brings us around to the figures of speech booklet again: As I’ve made embarrassingly clear, I am very interested in pursuing the project. Sharon got a chuckle out of one or two of these, so I’m confident I’m on the right track—writing for the general reader who wants to learn a bit more about the words and turns of phrase we usually take for granted. I’m sure someone like old Barkin would be appalled… but he can curl up in his Main Line den and be appalled all by himself.

How about some humorous anachronistic illustrations to accompany the text? I’ve always enjoyed the 19th-century engravings that moderns like M. Ernst and D. Barthelme have used ironically.

So long for now. I’m sure Sharon sends her love.

Terrence R. Stark, Ph.D.
Department of English
Benjamin Franklin University

Dear Joe,

Great news that you’ll be in the area next weekend. Sharon and I insist that you stay with us—at least for one of the days! That will give us a chance to try that Ethiopian restaurant everyone’s been talking about… and, if you don’t mind, to block out the proposal for the rhetorical handbook.

I gave you some examples in my second‑to‑last missive. (I might have written penultimate, but Sharon sneered at my overly academic orientation the other day, so I’m layin’ off the doggone sesquipedalians for a while!) But we were considering ellipsis, I think.

Hope is the thing with feathers, jealousy the beast that never sleeps.

She yearned for better days, and he for earlier ones.

Anyway, I suppose I’m a little drawn to a rhetorical device like ellipsis, because it doesn’t waste words. But I’ve learned—unfortunately! as a heated chat with Sharon underscored last night—that in what we euphemistically call “real life,” we academics have to beware of holding too many words back. “Why don’t you ever say what you’re thinking!” and all that. Well, sometimes it’s hard….

But let’s move on to asyndeton, one of those devices everybody recognizes but nobody can name. For example:

He wheeled toward the basket, he launched his shot, he watched the ball drop through the net.

What we’ve done is to omit the conjunctions between related clauses.

She stamped her foot, she frowned, she called him an idiot.

The opposite approach, more or less, is to insert the damn conjunctions wherever possible—that’s polysyndeton. If you’ve heard youngsters (even college students!) talk recently, you’re hearing examples of what we might call extemporaneous polysyndeton.

So I go, “Who’s been using my makeup?” and she goes, “It’s not your makeup,” and I’m like, “Oh yes it is, I bought it right at Frank’s Bargain Hut,” and she gets real huffy.

Another sort of repetition to explore in the book is the repetition of sounds. The most common sort is probably alliteration.

She accused him of spending his days in a meaningless muddle of mediocrity.

Wondering where she was, he buried his face in her silky, satiny dress, savoring her scent.

Another interesting form of repetition is anaphora, which many of us recognize from its use in the Bible (where I’m tempted to take refuge sometimes, let me tell you!) or in religiously oriented passages. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Yes, doesn’t He/She! Sometimes a little deficient on the giving side, if you ask me. Anyway, the rhetorical device involves repeating whole words or groups of words at the beginning of clauses.

He loved her because she never complained about his lack of success. He loved her because she stood by him when the rejections threatened to bury him. He loved her because she could make the bad times a little less bad.

By the way, Joe, some hints are being given out by one or two of the old‑timers in the department about this year’s tenure race. It may not be looking good for me. Still early, of course, but it’ll be hell on earth if they turn me out after these seven years. Sometimes I think my only chance is to drop everything else and push on with the study of Forster’s Italian pastoral scenes… although it’s beginning to seem that all something like that will get me is a chance to spend the rest of my career in stodgy obscurity in Podunk U. And Podunk U. is not a place Sharon wants to be, let me tell you! Especially now, when her consulting business seems to have picked up. She’s certainly spending more time than usual with clients, so I find myself watching the TV with my microwaved Chicken with Saffron Rice. Well, that gives me more time to work on the handbook. Hint, hint.

Sorry to unload on you like this, old pal. It’s certainly beginning to look like you made the right choice to get out of the damn academic race when you did and find a real job!

Well, I’m off to teach my last class of the day.

So long.
Terrence R. Stark, Ph.D.
Department of English
Benjamin Franklin University

Dear Joe,

Hey, buddy! Did you forget your little black book with all the phone numbers and addresses? I was looking forward to a nice conversation with you in some restaurant. But not a peep from you. As it turned out, though, Sharon was busier than we originally expected, so perhaps it’s for the best. I’m beginning to think she’s working too hard. Sometimes I even have a hard time getting my calls through to her.

At any rate, some more examples for the rhetoric book. (By the way, I hope I can put my fingers on all of the earlier ones I sent you, because things have been somewhat hectic and messy here recently.)

How could we forget our old friend personification (also known as prosopopoeia): Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.

Not that one can top Donne, but here’s another: Suspicion slid off its barren tree and slithered into his dreams.

And we haven’t done metaphor and simile yet, have we? (Sorry, Joe, but it’s a mess in the office.) Her words were as sharp as daggers. The sneer she turned to him was fire in his heart.

Damn. Joe, I’m sorry. Got some business to attend to. I’ll be back in touch as soon as I can.

Fragmentarily yours.




Hello, Joe!

I’m writing late at night, pen in hand. The silence in the house positively crackles. Everything is piled up on the desk, ready for when I need it: dictionaries, thesauri, handbooks, style guides. And yet I’m as still as they are. It’s very frustrating. I look out the window, see the face of the moon half-hidden by white wisps of cloud. A coy thing, isn’t she? Pock-marked and lifeless, we know, but not to our eyes, not with her decorative midnight veil.

I had a dream. No, not tonight. Another night. It spooked me, all about wandering through Kissick Hall, never finding the door to my office. And no one would answer my questions. When I do find the office, there’s somebody else’s name on the door! They’re almost like a figurative language, aren’t they, dreams? Telling us something in a vivid way, but obliquely. Not the literal way, which can be so boring.

It’s still silent. Writing by hand is so much more tactile than clickety-clacking at a computer keyboard. Moon. Tempest. Rage. Illusory. You own those words when you write them with a pen. Inkblood oozing out on the indifferent sheet.

It’s late. I said that already. Take care.
Joe, old pal!

In case you hadn’t noticed, you haven’t heard from me for a few weeks. And I hope to God you didn’t pay any attention to the chicken scratchings I think I might have sent last! I’ve been trying to straighten a few things out—the job’s a real hassle. A lot of things to consider. Anyway…

I vaguely recall that we had begun with metaphor and simile when last we “spoke.” No need for much elaboration there, but then there’s that trickier trope, synecdoche, in which the part expresses the whole. My eyes thirsted for those familiar sails on the horizon. There, sails stands in for the entire ships. Throughout the expensive restaurant, the suits were preening. And synecdoche’s cousin is metonymy, in which a related concept or defining trait is used for the original word. He has given up the sword for the pen. Mr. Aftershave helped her into her seat, smiling like a cheap Valentino.

But you know what’s really interested me recently, Joe? One of the figures of speech that I’ve always recognized but never been able to name, until now. It’s adynata, in which the writer expresses the impossibility of expressing himself adequately. A paradox? Or just a ploy? Loved by the classical writers and some of the medieval poets we used to argue about, remember? Our old friend Chaucer, he must have used it in Troilus and Criseyde, don’t you think, protesting his inability to describe their magnificent love and later the depths of T’s despair at her betrayal. But let’s try some more modern twists—I mean, after all, who among the booklet’s potential readers would know Chaucer!

There are no words sufficiently jagged to express his pain.

I suppose the cleverest writers then went on to tell you exactly what they could not or would not tell you. I have no skill to describe the massive ships of the Achaeans, taller than the tallest walls of Tiryns. I have no skill to evoke the treachery of the beautiful Criseyde. But you get the point.

As far as I can remember, we haven’t looked at one of the most popular forms of rhetoric—antithesis. A little odd, don’t you think, to overlook that? The juxtaposition of contrasting ideas. But not, I hope, in a way that suggests schizophrenia! The clown smiled, though his heart was breaking. Hold on—that’s definitely a cliché, and we should by all means avoid clichés, even if they turn out to be accurate. For all his cleverness, he blundered in his desperation to see her again.

“But Mr. Jones, I’m married!” she exclaimed indignantly, while under the table her fingers stole up his thigh.

Antithesis. I suppose it is also handy for purposes of comparison, covert or otherwise. Her gaze passed over Carl’s frayed collar before settling on Derek’s silk tie.

And speaking of ties, Joe, do you remember that year we went to the MLA convention? Tough times then, as I recall. Academic jobs were at a premium! You got drunk the night before you were to deliver your paper comparing Pandarus from Troilus and Criseyde and that scheming, matchmaking aunt in Washington Square. Do you remember how we sat up together practically the whole night? I can’t recall the name of the woman who had just dumped you, but I know I cursed her at least a hundred times that night. (Hyperbole?) Of course, those were the days before you started wearing scents like Polo, which I am quite sure have an allure no woman can resist! Where was the conference that year? One of the big D.C. midtown motels? No: hotel. They don’t hold MLA conventions in motels. Still, the ride back to the university was a lot happier, remember? Some eminent critic in the audience had actually commented favorably on your presentation, and the road to the future looked paved with gold.

But back to our glance at the Wonderful World of Rhetoric. We did metonymy, right? Antithesis, then:

With every animal thrust, he made her gasp like an angel witnessing the Mystery.

You know, Joe, much as it grieves me to say this, I’m just not sure the world is dying for another rhetoric handbook. Or maybe I’m not the one to write it. There are some other things I’ve got to do first.

Your friend.



How could we forget about litotes! It’s sort of the opposite of hyperbole, and I think a rhetorical form much more suited to my personality. As in:

Seeing them writhing on the bed was not the most pleasant experience.

And its more familiar relative, understatement: He wondered whether there might be cause for concern.

See you soon.

Sent from my smartphone

John-SheaAs a Foreign Service brat, John Shea spent his early years in Europe and probably didn’t appreciate his good fortune enough. He is an editor and writer at the University of Pennsylvania, and he may be the only person to have published stories in both Partisan Review and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Other stories have appeared in Columbia, Literal Latte, Philadelphia City Paper, The Café Irreal, Ampersand Review, and Philadelphia Stories.

Image credit: Laura Billings on Flickr


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