« The Scum Paper | Main | It might well be spring »

A head for figures

How big a nerd am I? Judge for yourself. (Hypophora) When I opened the package from Godine to discover Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric (David R. Godine, 254 pages, $26.95), I was thrilled, I was giddy, I was delighted. (Anaphora)

Though surely there has been rhetoric as long as there has been language with speakers who recognized and employed its patterns, it was the Greeks who named it and exploited it and provided the technical terms for it. (Polysyndeton)

Adept speakers and writers understand that patterns—patterns of repetition, patterns of parallel structure—enable their audience to grasp meaning more readily. Rhetorical patterns crop up everywhere—in advertising, “Choosy mothers choose Jif” (Polyptoton); in the catchphrases and slogans of politicians, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “But just because you’re born in the slum doesn’t mean that the slum is born in you.” (Chiasmus)

As Ward Farnsworth points out, figures of speech “can show a worthy sentiment to great advantage. But they are merely grating when used to inflate the sound of words that are trite or trivial in substance, a regrettably common use of figures that has helped to give a bad name to rhetoric in general.”

Mr. Farnsworth, who despite being a professor of law writes clearly and trenchantly, wastes no time here with the trite and the trivial. This book of categories of figures of speech abounds with impressive examples: Abraham Lincoln, Pitt and Churchill addressing the House of Commons, Dickens gleefully exploiting combinations of language like Bach improvising at the organ, Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of the Bible establishing expressions for the centuries.

This wealth of examples, if you will only look into them, will stimulate your interest, gratify your curiosity, and amplify your own writing. (Isocolon)


Hypophora: Speaker or writer asks a question and answers it.

Anaphora: Repetition of the same words at the start of successive phrases or clauses.

Polysyndeton: Repeated use of conjunctions.

Polyptoton: Repetition of the root of a word with a different ending.

Chiasmus: Repetition of words with the order reversed.

Isocolon: Use of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases similar in length and parallel in structure.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:01 AM | | Comments (2)


I am fond of using anaphora when exhorting my audience to take action. Its use sets up an attention-getting rhythm.

It's my experience that professors of law generally do write clearly: they have nothing to gain by obfuscating their subject, once you understand its technicalities (which are no worse than those of any other field).

Disclaimer: I was begotten by one.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected