Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

grammar & usage

 

On the night of June 21, 1932, in Madison Square Garden, Joe Jacobs, the manager for boxer Max Schmeling, heard the judges award a decision to Schmeling’s opponent, Jack Sharkey. Enraged, Jacobs grabbed the announcer’s microphone and shouted to the world, “We was robbed!”

Turns out that Jacobs fashioned his patch of rhetorical and oratorical immortality from a Greek figure of speech called enallage, an effective mistake in grammar that drives home an argument. To those who complain that “We was robbed!” is a grammatical atrocity I say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” another enallage and one considerably more effective than “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” In the immortal words of a Duke Ellington song, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

When Abraham Lincoln concluded his remarks at Gettysburg by majestically describing a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” he was enlisting the figure of speech isocolon, a parallelism of grammatical forms, in this case prepositional phrases.

Derived from two Greek roots that mean “an unexpected outcome,” paraprosdokia is characterized by a surprising left-hand turn at the end of a statement that produces a humorous or dramatic effect, as in Bob Monkhouse’s “When I die, I want to die like my grandfather did—peacefully in his sleep, not screaming like all the passengers in the car he was driving.”

In the sage advice “It’s better to leave the house and kiss the wife goodbye, rather than leave the wife and kiss the house goodbye,” chiasmus is at work, a reversal of word order for rhetorical or (in this instance) humorous effect.

When a teenage bundle of hormones poured into sneakers suggests, “Dad, why don’t Mom and you watch the tube tonight so that I can borrow the wheels?” he or she or they is exploiting synecdoche, the figurative substitution of a part for the whole.

“You can call me Ray, and you can call me Jay, but please don’t call me late for dinner.” Note how the verb call takes on a new meaning the third time it appears. That’s zeugma, a figure of speech that features the surprising use of the same verb to generate a new twist.

These are but six vessels in a veritable flotilla of figures of speech and rhetoric that the ancient Greeks bequeathed to us. Here’s a look at a dozen more colorful and ubiquitous uses of figurative language:

alliteration. When I do count the clock that tells the time –William Shakespeare

anaphora. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

apostrophe. Death be nor proud, though some have called thee /Mighty and dreadful –John Donne

chiasmus. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. –John F. Kennedy

hyperbole. As fair thou art, my bonnie lass,/So deep in love am I,/And I will love thee still, my dear,/Till all the seas gang dry.-Robert Burns

juxtaposition. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. -Charles Dickens

metaphor. The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees./The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. –Alfred Noyes

metonymy. The pen is mightier than the sword. –Edward Bulwer Lytton

onomatopoeia. Then the wha-wha-wha of the slide trombone,/And the pitter-boink-boink of the xylophone,/And the umpa umpa umpa umps/Of tubas kissed by men with mumps,/And the twang and the wang and the whacka whacka whack/Of banjo wheels on a circus track.-Richard Lederer

oxymoron. Parting is such sweet sorrow. –William Shakespeare

personification. Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me—/The Carriage held but just Ourselves—/And Immortality. –Emily Dickinson

simile. Life is like a box of chocolates. –Winston Groom