So I bummed this book from a neighbor who is a fellow homeschooler. It’s a book on classic English rhetoric. Or verbal style.
She originally pulled it off her shelf to show me because of the name of the author: Ward Farnsworth.
Not an exact rendering of my last name (it’s Farnworth, no “s”). And that’s not pretentious posturing on my part — it has been that way for generations.
But it didn’t really matter who wrote the book. I fell in love with it on the spot.
Each chapter is devoted to a literary device like anaphora, chiasmus, and litotes That may sound like nonsense to you, but they are really just fancy words for rhetorical devices you’ll easily recognize.
Furthermore, each device is broken down into sub-species, complete with examples from notable sources like Shakespeare, Churchill, Chesterton, and the Bible (and I threw in a few by Tupac Shukar, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Bob Dylan).
And, by the way, these are essential devices for web writers.
Why style is important to web writing
There is a lot of good substance out there. Hardly any style, though. This is not an accident.
Most people who peddle content are tradespeople first, writers second. In other words, their authority rests in a discipline other than writing.
Sometimes their content feels as if it’s meant to feed a machine when the creator will tell you plainly that is not the case. They are writing for people.
Fair enough. But technical writers also write for people.
Literary devices add style to your content
I look at some pieces, though, and I think the designer probably got paid really good money. The writer, not so much.
This is not to say style should be a pretentious exercise in drawing attention to itself. It should not be a navel-gazing sentence by James Joyce or a long-winded, baroque one from Faulkner (whom I adore).
Great web writing demands the plainness of Hemingway and the clarity of Orwell AND the playfulness of e.e. cummings. And you can do it while honoring the simplicity of Strunk.
As we’ve stated repeatedly over at Copyblogger: you can get rich as a copywriter when you marry the poet with the killer.
And mastering these 12 figures of speech from Mr. Farnsworth’s book is a great place to start if you are a greenhorn … a great place to beef up your skill set if you are a veteran. Enjoy.
1. Epizeuxis — Simple Repetition of Words and Phrases
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
“But you never know now do you now do you now do you.”
David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
2. Anaphora — Repetition at the Beginning
Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!
William Shakespeare, King John, II, i
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Langston Hughes, Let America be America Again
3. Epistrophe — Repetition at the End
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.
1 Corinthians 13:11 (King James Translation)
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”
Lyndon B. Johnson in “We Shall Overcome”
4. Anadiplosis — Repeating the Ending at the Beginning
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Yoda, Star Wars
“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.”
“The frog was a prince / The prince was a brick / The brick was an egg / The egg was a bird”
Genesis, “Supper’s Ready”
5. Polyptoton — Repetition of the Root
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
“Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are.”
John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
6. Isocolon — Parallel Structure
“With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right…”
Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
“I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper — Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too? Dr. Pepper!”
Dr. Pepper advertising jingle
Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.
7. Chiasmus — Reversal of Structure
“Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
John F. Kennedy
Woe unto that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
“They say money don’t make the man but man, I’m makin’ money.”
Tupac Shakur, “Thug Passion”
8. Anastrophe — Inversion of Words
“Joined the Dark Side, Dooku has. Lies, deceit, creating mistrust are his ways now.”
“I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy.”
Virgil, first line of Aeneid
“Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance”
W. Eugene Smith
9. Polysyndeton — Using Extra Conjunctions
And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
“If there be cords, or knives, or poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I’ll not endure it”
“And St. Attila raised his hand grenade up on high saying ‘O Lord bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayest blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy. ‘and the Lord did grin and people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats and …'”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
10. Asyndeton — Leaving Out Conjunctions
“…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
“That we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address
And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.
11. Litotes — Rhetorical Uses of the Negative
“Keep an eye on your mother whom we both know doesn’t have both oars in the water.”
Jim Harrison, The Road Home
“I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.”
“Are you also aware, Mrs. Bueller, that Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record?”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
12. Hypophora — Asking Questions and Answering Them
“What made me take this trip to Africa? There is no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated.”
Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.
1 Corinthians 11:21-22
“Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Another warning about style
I admit. This could be an exercise in dilettantism. An argument for fashion over function. In the hard and fast competition found on a search results page, most people just want answers to there questions. They want substance over style. Function over fashion.
Fair enough. That, however, is only true in a market that is not saturated. If you hobnob in an industry drowning in competitors, on the other hand, then substance alone is not enough. You need style — among other things — to stand out.
So, bookmark this post, then carve out some time to study these devices. In the meantime, how many of these devices did I use in this article?