Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part IV

Post 2/3 discussing the stylistic devices related to syntax.

Appositive: One of the few devices we still learn by name in school, it is the use of a noun to modify or provide additional information about another noun.  Commas are usually appended to each end of the appositive in a sentence.

Fig. 3.2. Appositive

Disjunctio: A list of different verbs (preferably alliterative) w/ similar meanings connected in successive clauses recounts the actions of a single subject.

Fig. 3.3. Disjunctio

Epiplexis: A series of aggressively posed rhetorical questions.

Fig. 3.4. Epiplexis

Hyperbaton: A certain word or idea is highlighted by the use of unorthodox word order.  Best used sparingly…unless you are Yoda.

Fig. 3.5. Hyperbaton

oldie but goodie

Recently, my friend sent me a short story I had written a six yrs ago.  I thought it had been lost forever in the great hard drive meltdown of 2005…but then he sent me an email saying he had read it, and that he thought I should be a writer, and also that “the original computer [he] had this saved on also crashed, but we recovered everything from the hard drive and put it onto this computer.  This is a lucky document!” ^_^ Continue reading

Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part III

Isocolon: The joining of phrases of nearly identical structure and length (think The Human Centipede, but w/ fused sentences instead of people).

Fig 2.6 Isocolon

Disjunctive Proposition: An offering of two explanations/outcomes, only one of which can be true; the other is necessarily false.  NB: Often used to misleadingly narrow the field of discussion.  Always be on the lookout for further possibilities!

2.7 Disjunctive Proposition

Syncresis: The appearance of contrasting parallel clauses in tandem.  Compares the subjects of the sentence, while Antithesis focuses on differing predicates and participles.

Example: “A coward dies a thousands deaths; a hero dies but once.”

III.  Syntax

English already has some fairly strict rules regarding word order and sentence construction– definitely more stringent that the laws that governed Greek or Latin.  Still, the language allows some flexibility, and some arrangements are certainly clearer and more eloquent than others.  The rules that govern syntax are more subtle than what we have discussed previously, and are designed to appeal to the subconscious mind.  The syntax is the casing in which the vivid picture of the argument is framed, and while in casual observation it may go largely unnoticed, were it to be absent, the resulting loss of structure and emphasis could only degrade to the impact of the centerpiece.

Anastrope: The placement of an adjective directly after the noun it modifies.

Fig. 3.1 Anastrope

Syllepsis: A single word (most often a verb) is used to join two different ideas or phrases, in which the word is applied with a slightly different meaning to each.

Example: Everyone has an ass-hole, but not everyone has to be one.

Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part II

Read Part I.

II. Balance

“But you, divine, to the last resonating…you drowned out their shouting with beautiful order….”–Rainer Maria Rilke

Balance has several definitions, but the one that usually comes to mind has something to do with harmony and equilibrium.  Applied to rhetoric, it also takes on another of its meanings, namely “the power or ability to decide an outcome by throwing one’s strength, influence, support,  or the like, to one side or the other.”  Balance is a calculated attempt to make an idea memorable by imbuing it with a visual or sonic symmetry, often through repetition.  Such an idea lingers long after the discussion is over.  However, an over-reliance on Balance devices may lead the sacrifice of substance for the sake of aesthetics, ultimately weakening the argument so that it devolves into meaningless sloganeering.

Parallelism: Comparable ideas of equal importance are structured and phrased identically.

Fig. 2.0 Parallelism

Chiasmus: An idea is paired with another one of equal importance whose grammatical structure is an inversion of the one that preceded it.


Fig. 2.1 Chiasmus

Antimetabole: A particularly powerful and elaborate device that requires the use of two clauses, in which the second one employs the same language at the first, but in reverse order.

Fig. 2.2 Antimetabole

Antithesis: Two opposing ideas are placed together and structured similarly in order to draw attention to their contrasting assertions.

Fig. 2.3 Antithesis

Antanagoge: A perceived fault or weakness is mitigated by the addition of a positive/redeeming quality.

Fig 2.4 Antanagoge

Dirimens Copulatio: An assertion of the quality of something is further substantiated by the addition of another quality similar in nature.

Fig 2.5 Dirimens Copulatio

Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part I


In his chronicle On the Education of an Orator, Quintilian notes that “the art of speaking depends on great labor, constant study, varied exercise, repeated trials, the deepest sagacity, and the readiest judgment.”  Writing, of course, is simply speech in print, and the arts of writing and speaking rhetorically have been held in high esteem since the beginning of civilization.  In the ancient world, royalty devoted years to the study of rhetoric (persuasive discourse) and philosophy.  They memorized famous texts in order to enrich their arguments with historical precedence.

Compelling argumentation is not merely intuitive.  Quintilian goes on to say, that “it is assisted by rules, provided that they point out a fair road, and not one single wheel-rut, from which he who thinks it unlawful to decline, must be contented with the slow progress of those who walk on ropes.”  The Greeks had an entire arsenal of rhetorical devices at their disposal, many of which we still use today whether we are aware of it or not.  In this hectic, technology-based era, we are bombarded with far more information than our ancestors would have dreamed possible; furthermore, most of this information is not presented objectively, but rather with a “spin” that reflects the bias of the source.

I was not made formally aware of stylistic, or rhetorical, devices—the “rules” that Quintilian speaks of— until my senior year of high school.  My literature teacher dictated a list of words to us, and while I dutifully copied them out, I did not perceive them as having any real importance.  It was only lately, in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, AZ, that the power of rhetoric is being frankly and widely discussed.

Using rhetoric is like Photoshopping thoughts*: they are changed in subtle (or sometimes not) ways so as to be rendered more convincing to the target audience.  Just as altered images can profoundly affect the way we see ourselves and others, so is adroit phrasing able to shape our thoughts.  Therefore, it makes sense to try and develop knowledge of rhetorical/heuristic devices, so that even if we cannot entirely prevent ourselves from reacting to and being manipulated by them, at least we can try to rationally analyze how and why we have come to a given conclusion (which is usually based on some form of evidence.  Thus, a study of this presentation is called for in order to validate the conclusion reached).  Beyond that, if one is constructing an argument, it helps to have knowledge of the proper tools.  It would be quite difficult to build a bookcase without knowing about hammers, levels, or saws, no matter how much wood was at one’s disposal.  Similarly, stylistic devices allow us to organize and structure our prose in a clearer, more forceful, yet more graceful, manner.  Returning to the carpentry analogy, it is the difference between saying “Bring me that heavy, bangy thing,” and “Please fetch me a hammer.”

*Figurative language!  This will be discussed in later chapters.

I. Clarity

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant….”–Horton the Elephant

Before you start playing mind tricks on your audience, you want them to understand what you’re saying, or at least think that they understand.  The clearer your message is, the more readily absorbed it will be.

Distincto: Furnish a precise definition for and give context to a word or phrase that might otherwise be interpreted several ways.  Popular among the legal set (i.e., lawyers).

Figure 1.0 Distincto

Exemplum: Use of concrete information/imagery to elucidate the meaning of a concept that may be abstract or unfamiliar.

Fig. 1.1 Exemplum

Amplification: Repetition of a key word or phrase adorned with choice descriptors designed to fix it firmly in the reader’s memory.

Fig. 1.2 Amplification

Metanoia: The qualification of a statement via its complete or partial rejection and subsequent restatement in more explicit terms, it brings a feeling of spontaneity and candor to the piece.

Fig. 1.3 Metanoia

back in the future

There’s a story that my mom likes to tell.  Back before she was saddled w/ a husband and children, she used to keep Dobermans.  One day, her dog Diana disappeared.  My mom was frantic; she searched the neighborhood on foot.  She drove around, looking and shouting herself hoarse.  Nothing.  A week passed.  My mom began to try reconciling herself to the idea that she would never see her beloved Diana again.  And then, one morning, she woke up, and she knew Diana was at the animal shelter.  She had checked earlier, and come away disappointed; she had called repeatedly.  Yet now she found herself compelled by a voice in her head that said, Go to the animal shelter.  Sure enough, Diana was there.  She had just been picked up that morning.

I don’t believe in magic or the supernatural.  I believe there are some things that have yet to be explained, but I don’t think anything exists beyond our physical realm.  Considering all that encompasses, isn’t that enough?  I know that extrasensory perception, or ESP, has long been a subject of scientific interest which gained momentum during the Victorian era, when a morbid fascination w/ death and the afterlife combined w/ an emerging passion for using new technologies and techniques to gather empirical evidence.  From what I have gathered in my reading, there has been no compelling evidence to definitively prove the existence of psi, which is defined by Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem as denoting “anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of  known physical or biological mechanisms” (Bem 2010, 1).

Dr. Bem has caused something of a stir in the scientific community w/ his latest paper, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.”  He asserts that his results show that humans are capable of precognition and premonition.  Apparently he isn’t just some quack, either (his Ivy League employment guarantees nothing; after all, Columbia has Joseph Massad).  According to NPR, Bem is a prominent, even redoubtable, psychologist and the journal publishing his paper is well-respected.  My curiosity was piqued.  The best part was that everybody seemed to be psychic, regardless of race or gender!  Well, at least everybody at Cornell.  Already I could imagine putting my ESP to good use.  I could invest in the stock market!  People would always laugh at my jokes!  I would never be caught w/o an umbrella!

My life would be a parade of awesome!

Unfortunately, none of the nine experiments Bem conducted point to anything so dramatic, at least as far as I can tell.  His first two experiments involved seating undergrads in front of computer screens.  Two curtains would appear on the screen, and the student would have to guess which curtain was hiding a certain kind of picture (either erotic, negative, or positive, randomly intermixed w/ neutral/non-arousing).  Neither “the picture itself nor its left/right position was determined until after the participant recorded his or her guess, making the procedure a test of detecting a future event, that is, a test of precognition” (8-9).  One would expect the undergrads to do no better than chance; instead, they identified erotic pictures correctly 53% of the time.  I’m no statistician, but that doesn’t sound particularly impressive to me.

Bem’s other experiments involved retroactive priming, habituation, induction of boredom and facilitation of recall.  Priming involves inducing a certain mindset before divulging specific information.  For example, the word “ugly” might flash on a screen, followed by a picture of a cockroach.  A test subject will then be asked to rate the picture as pleasant or unpleasant.  The word “ugly” is what is known as the “prime.”  It plants an expectation in the viewer about what will be encountered next.  A person who has seen “ugly” flashed before the picture of a cockroach (congruent) will rate the picture as unpleasant more quickly than a person who has seen the word “beautiful” flashed before the same picture (incongruent).  In Bem’s experiments, a reaction to priming–measured by response time–was evident even when the prime was shown after, rather than before, the accompanying image.

Habituation refers to the fact that extreme stimuli become less arousing after repeated exposures.  A corollary to this is the Mere Exposure Effect: animals favor the familiar.  As in the priming experiments, experiment participants were habituated (via subliminal exposure) to images only after they had selected the one they preferred.  Of the two experiments, the first was conducted using pairs of negative images; the second w/ erotic (positive) pictures.

The boredom induction experiments were similar in content and structure to the habituation experiments, save that they employed neutral images.  Interestingly, in this set of experiments the results were not significantly different from chance.

We have long heard that “practice makes perfect.”  Inspired by the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, Bem decided to test the old adage by giving it a new twist; could retroactive rehearsal improve past performance?  In order to determine the answer, Bem exposed 100 undergrads to a list of 48 words.  At the end of the sequence, a (surprise) recall test was administered.  After the test was over, the students were given 24 randomly selected words to practice.  Analysis of the students’ scores showed that they tended to remember the words they had practiced.  Furthermore, the longer they practiced, the more they remembered (Fig 1.0).

Figure 1.0

A few more notes:

  • All humans are capable of performing psi-related feats, but the effect is markedly stronger in people who qualify as extroverts (according to the Revised NEO Personality Inventory).  This may be b/c extroverts are more likely to seek novel external stimuli.
  • Psi effects tend to appear only when negative/erotic stimuli are involved.
  • Precognition/premonition does not seem to extend more than a few minutes into the future.

Of course, before we get too excited, the validity of Bem’s results needs to be verified independently.  Bem himself admits that this may be difficult to do, and that psi experiments have been traditionally rife w/ inaccuracies, mostly related to bias on the part of experimenters.  Still, I hardly think this is an irrelevant or gratuitous line of inquiry.  Bem’s colleagues are right to be skeptical; what they should not do is dismiss his study simply b/c they cannot imagine how psi might work.  If we can subjectively measure and examine the phenomena, as Bem’s experiments suggest, why shouldn’t we?  Science is critical, but not close-minded; rigorous, but not rigid.

Beyond the immediate implications for psychology, the idea that time might be porous or flexible is an exceedingly interesting one.  We have long recognized that our linear perception of time is just that: a perception.  This opens up a future full of possibilities.

What are we waiting for?

abby normal

Happy New Year, gentlefriends!  I hope everyone’s celebrations were satisfactory and have left some residual warmth lingering in your soul, b/c I am about to shower some pessimism on you.  I find that people get annoyingly hopeful at this time of yr.  They join the gym and crowd my power yoga class, dust off the forlorn copy of Les Miserables, and buy a juicer.  They seem to forget that not only is the end near, but we’re one yr closer to it.  Perhaps that is b/c their brains are SHRINKING.

That’s right, I just read this article from NPR, which talks about how we’re losing brain mass.  All those millennia we assumed we were evolving?  Well, it turns out we probably thought that b/c we are stupid.  We’ve lost enough gray matter to mold into a tennis ball, or make a small ashtray out of.  One theory to explain the phenomenon is that since it’s easier to survive now, people don’t need to be as intelligent to reproduce.  But you know, now that I think about it, this makes a lot of sense.  I mean, if I were in ancient Greece, I would be running marathons by day and composing Asclepiad distichs by night, and still find time to churn out a few geometric proofs.

Unfortunately, that is far from the case.  These days, I’m lucky if I can finish a reading a paragraph, and often I’ll have to re-read sentences as my tiny brain struggles to make sense of the material.  Worse, I flatter myself that I’m one of the verbally gifted ones.

Anyway, the point is, I can definitely tell that my brain made some sacrifices in other areas so that I could enjoy my prodigious vocabulary/become one of the best Word Bubbles players on the Internets.  In fact, I thought it might be a good idea to map my brain and donate it to Science, so that they could study this effect further, and some day inject my brain w/ some stem cells that will allow me to do math and tell which way is north.

NOT INCLUDED: Math skills, sense of direction, ability to parallel park

As you can see, my brain is still a wondrous and splendid thing even in its diminished state.  Still, it has obviously been weakened considerably by such things as the advent of car insurance.  Punitive costs used to be prohibitively high if you failed to execute a perfect parking maneuver, or ran into a pedestrian b/c you were too busy looking at the GPS on your phone to pay attention.  Debtors would be sold into slavery, worked to death, and buried in unmarked graves.  Now, though, you can do either of those things, pretty much w/ impunity!

Other things you can do: stop vaccinating your children, join the Tea Party