Hi. I am a joyful vegan techno-klutzy English grammar and pronunciation expert, language coach, and soon to be published author. I have been meaning to start my blogging and posting life for a while now, but many things kept me from following through on my intentions. The most important two things were additional work on my forthcoming grammar book and my techno-klutziness (or is it a full-blown techno-phobia? My sons think that I am simply a techno-sloth.). For those of you not afflicted with techno-klutziness, let me tell you that it’s a painful condition that slows me down in all areas of life and sometimes blocks me completely.
I re-submitted my grammar book manuscript over three weeks ago (after feverishly hunting down remaining typos in the galley proofs and re-adjusting all the colors) and have been anxiously awaiting news about the publication date ever since. The book should be coming out any day now. (I am so nervous about how my beautiful colors will turn out in the commercial product.) And meanwhile I have been busy with writing one of my next books (a short guide to pronunciation) and with very many things that are related to starting a coaching business with a strong online presence.
As I indicated above, part of that work has involved overcoming innumerable and scary tech-hurdles, hurdles like opening up an Instagram account and building an email list ... I know, I know … You are laughing at me right now because things like that are easy for "normal" people. But for me modern technology hasn't been easy at all and these little techy issues have been interfering with my scholarly and writerly life.
I was insanely proud of myself a few days ago because I created an Instagram account, bought and downloaded the app that allows me to upload posts to Instagram from my Mac, then learned how to convert a document written in Word to a JPG file, and finally actually started posting. ALL BY MYSELF. I joyfully announced my Instagram achievement to my younger son, who simply said: “Mom, that’s not an achievement. Every 15-year-old girl can do that.” Well, yes, that’s true, I guess. But I couldn’t do it before - and now I can. And that feels good. Celebrate your small successes, I always quote to my students, and I will do the same. When I uploaded my first Insty post, I honestly felt as proud as my older son did when he pulled himself up into a standing position for the first time at the age of 8 months – exactly 21 years and 19 days ago today.
And, of course, I find posting on Instagram easy now. It’s as easy as falling off a log, in fact, and much more fun – but only now, after I have learned how to do it. And that’s an important point that I always make when my students groan over grammar before having been initiated into the joys of syntax by me:
Everything is easy once you know how to do it, but until you do, it’s freakin’ hard.
(That’s a tweetable quote, right? But I don’t do twitter yet, so you’ll have to tweet that for me, please. And don’t forget to quote me.)
Anyway, today is the day on which I will simply start blogging and posting regularly. I will post and blog about English syntax, English tenses, English pronunciation, critical reading and text analysis, smart study tips, how to deal with study and writing blocks, and other related (and seemingly unrelated) stuff. So stay tuned for news from me. (You can sign up for my newsletter here and you can follow me on Insty and Facebook.)
Because a friend of mine needs to study poetry, I have decided to start out by writing a little something about figures of speech. So here I go. (Hint: Figures of speech are also very interesting if you don’t like poetry and never ever read it. They are ubiquitous (/juːˈbɪkwɪtəs/) and they are a creative power tool in more ways than one.)
Figures of speech are also called rhetorical figures, figures of rhetoric, rhetorical figurations, rhetorical devices, literary devices, stylistic devices, and figurative language. (And there are more terms). And they have been discussed and taught for eons. They have been categorized and sub-categorized and both the categorization systems and the figures themselves have been called by many different, complicated, and hard-to-pronounce names (most of them of Greek and some of Latin origin). And, of course, as is the case with all categorizations, systems, terminologies, things, and creatures, people have always disagreed and fought about the names and definitions and purposes … I am not going to end all fights but simply add my two cents’ worth. And I hope to make figures of speech painless and even fun for you.
A figure of speech is a purposeful, systematic, artful, playful, and noteworthy selection and arrangement of groups of words. In his “Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student,” a cool book that you should definitely check out if you are an English major, Edward Corbett says that he will use the term “figures of speech” as “the generic term for any artful deviations from the ordinary mode of speaking or writing.” He divides figures of speech into two groups, schemes and tropes. I find his division useful as a starting point.
A scheme is a figure of speech that achieves an effect to a large extent through the special selection and arrangement of words. In other words, to create a scheme, one plays around with word choice and word order: one arranges words (that are carefully selected with a special purpose in mind) in special, sometimes unusual, patterns. Of course this also involves selecting words that work in particular patterns. As always, there is an interrelationship and interdependence between the consistency, flavor, and meaning potential of words and the respective syntactic patterns with the help of which they are allowed to enter into meaningful relationships with each other and start meaning something in a particular situation. For remember: words cannot mean anything unless they are in a meaningful relationship, usually with other words; and it is syntax and context that enable these word relationships.
A trope is the purposeful and artful play with expected and unexpected meaning potentials of words. Of course tropes also involve word order and context, because, as mentioned above, a word cannot mean anything on its own.
Because words need syntax (word order patterns) in context in order to actually mean anything at all (as opposed to just being entities with meaning potential) and because syntax is invisible and useless without actual words, the division of figures of speech into schemes and tropes is not as neat as one might hope. And yet it is useful, in my opinion. As long as you remember that word order and word meaning potential and context cannot be separated, it’s useful to have a terminological system that, as a starting point, helps us focus our attention on either word order or word meaning.
A figure of speech is a noteworthy, playful, and unusual use of human language (usually one that has been “officially” described and categorized and labeled, preferably with a difficult, strange-sounding, and hard-to-pronounce term). Figures of speech are often divided into two groups, schemes and tropes.
A scheme is a group of words (used in their respective literal senses) that have been purposefully and artfully selected and arranged, sometimes in special patterns.
A trope is a figure of speech that creates meaning by playing with the expected and unexpected, and often the non-literal, meaning potential of words.
Caveat: All categorization systems and their corresponding terminologies are man-made and subjective. They are tools that are supposed to help us deal with aspects of life and to communicate with other people about aspects of life. Before we use any of them, we need to know what the particular system that we want to use helps and what it hinders and what world view and mindset forms its basis. If then the system turns out to be helpful to us for a particular purpose, great. Let’s use it. If it turns out to be confusing or unhelpful, no big deal, let’s ditch it and find something that works for us. Unfortunately, the ditching part is not possible while we are caught in classrooms and curricula that are controlled by various powers that be. Still it’s good to be totally aware of a system, even when we feel temporarily caught in it.
Don’t be surprised if you come across the term “figures of thought” as a synonym for tropes and to see this concept placed in a dichotomous relationship with “figures of speech” as a synonym for schemes. The great American literary critic M.H. Abrams, author of the famous “The Mirror and the Lamp,” discusses this classification in his “Glossary of Literary Terms” (a book well worth buying, btw; I have a copy of it on my desk). Abrams says: “Figurative language is a departure from what users of the language apprehend as the standard meaning of words, or else the standard order of words, in order to achieve some special meaning or effect … figurative language has often been divided into two classes: (1) ‘Figures of thought’ or tropes …, in which words or phrases are used in a way that effects a conspicuous change in what we take to be their standard meaning. The standard meaning, as opposed to its meaning in the figurative use, is called the literal meaning. … (2) ‘Figures of Speech’ or “rhetorical figures” or schemes …, in which the departure from standard usage is not primarily in the meaning of words, but in the syntactical order or pattern of the words. The distinction is not a sharp one, …”
As you can see, the basic dichotomy he describes is the same as the one that Corbett uses, namely schemes and tropes. There is just a difference in umbrella terms. To sum up: Corbett uses the umbrella term “figures of speech” to cover both tropes (deviations from standard meanings) and schemes (deviations from standard patterns). Abrams uses the umbrella term “figurative language” to cover both tropes (aka figures of thought, aka deviations from standard meanings) and schemes (aka figures of speech, aka deviations from standard patterns). So the two gentlemen and the traditions they represent basically agree. Both end up with schemes vs tropes.
Burdened by the confusion and sometimes even the acrimony that surround figures of speech, I was relieved when, a few years ago, I found Richard Lanham’s “A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms.” In this book, Richard Lanham doesn’t do any “categorizationing” and “terminologizing” himself and he doesn’t distinguish schemes from tropes. What he offers is a sort of combination of a dictionary and a thesaurus of rhetorical terms. I also love the epigraph that he chose for this book, a quote from Quintilian: “Writers have given special names to all the figures, but variously and as it pleased them.” And I really want you to note the words “and as it pleased them.”
Although I am going to work with the scheme-trope system today and over the next few weeks, I’d like us all think about whether it might not be time to abolish or at least question a variety of dichotomies that we have been using and taking for granted for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, dichotomies such as literal vs figurative language, schemes vs tropes, and scientific/academic language vs. everyday language. And, while we are at it, we might just as well rethink divisions such as correct vs incorrect usage, emotional vs rational, true vs. false, real vs imagined, and others. Life and language are so much more complicated, fluid, and connected than dichotomies and categorizations lead us to believe. We need nomenclatures, yes, definitely, but we shouldn’t ever be subservient to them and we should question and overhaul them regularly.
Anyhoozers, regardless of what we call these language thingamajigs, they exist. They are fun. They are syntax and lexis at play – dancing – in love. Let’s look at some examples.
Here is a quote from the famous poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe:
“And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;”
Let me color-parse the quote for you (i.e., do a clause element analysis):
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;”
And I also created an IPA version (Standard American English today):
ənd (strong form: ænd) ðə ˈsɪlkən ˈsæd ʌnˈsɜːrtn̩ ˈrʌsl̩ɪŋ əv (strong form: ʌv) ˈiːtʃ ˈpɜːrpl̩ ˈkɜːrtn̩
ˈθrɪld ˈmiː — ˈfɪld ˈmiː wɪθ fænˈtæstɪk ˈterərz ˈnevər ˈfelt bɪˈfɔːr (See endnote 1)
(If you need help with grammar and pronunciation, buy my forthcoming books or contact me. For a summary of my color-parsing code, check out my book or my Instagram and Facebook accounts.)
Notice that the voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ – that’s the official (fancy) term for the s-sound that is predominant in “hissing snakes” – occurs four times in the first of the two lines. That’s not a coincidence, of course. Poe did that on purpose. He could have said, “And the rustling of the curtain both thrilled and scared me.” Or: “And the noise that was caused by the wind moving the curtain both thrilled and scared me.” Or: “And the sound occasioned by the wind moving the curtain both excited me and scared me.” But that wouldn’t have been poetic at all. So notice what he did: He selected words that create a visual image plus a supporting auditory experience and arranged them in a way that creates nice rhythm: Instead of the generic words “sound” or “noise” (generic words don’t create specific images and associations in readers’ minds and bodies), he chose the specific word “rustling,” which – bonus – is also onomatopoeic. (/ˌɑːnəˌmætəˈpiːɪk//ˌɒnəˌmætəˈpiːɪk/ Onomatopoeic means that the word itself echoes or mimics or imitates the actual sound that is being referred to. BTW, Poe could have chosen the noun “rustle.” But he opted for the gerund “rustling,” which emphasizes the dynamic process rather than the result, thus bringing the scene more to life. Semantically, that’s a cool touch. And it’s more rhythmic, too.) In addition to choosing a word that is itself onomatopoeic, Poe then added three adjectives as pre-modifiers of “rustling” that each contain the swishing s-sound and thus intensify the onomatopoeia. The concatenation of swishing sounds not only creates onomatopoeia, however, but it also ties the words together and draws attention to each component.
The purposeful recurrence of a consonant sound in a line of poetry or in a sentence is a scheme that’s often called an alliteration (/ˌælɪtəˈreɪʃn //əˌlɪtəˈreɪʃn/). And here we run into another terminological problem: People define alliteration in slightly different ways. My hero Richard Lanham provides the following summarizing definition in the book that I mentioned above:
“Alliteration: Originally, recurrence of an initial consonant sound (and so a type of consonance), but now sometimes used of vowel sounds as well (where it overlaps with assonance).”
So let’s unpack the options of what alliteration can refer to:
Alliteration doesn’t have to be onomatopoeic. In fact, it very often isn’t. Here is an example of alliteration without onomatopoeia. It’s taken from Kennedy’s famous inaugural address:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, 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.” (See Footnote 3)
Here alliteration helps emphasize the key words in Kennedy’s message to the world (pay-price, bear-burden, support friend-oppose foe, survival-success), while simultaneously helping to create rhythmic flow, thus giving us archetypal pleasure (we love and need rhythm and patterns and repetitions).
A few sentences ago, I said “terminology should take a backseat.” What’s up with that?
I didn’t make up the expression that I used. It’s an idiomatic expression that’s listed in dictionaries. Merriam-Webster’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, for instance, defines it thus: “to take a backseat: to be or become less important, active, or powerful.” Terminology is a mental concept and therefore cannot literally sit on a seat, obviously. If I say that terminology must sit somewhere, then I am treating it like a person. And when I treat a thing or a concept like a person, then I am using a trope that’s called personification. Personification is a special type of metaphor that is sometimes referred to as prosopopoeia, a term that it also shares with a related device (check the dictionary link I provided).
In addition to personification, we also have a more basic kind of metaphor here: I am not really talking about an actual seat in this case, but am using seat in a non-literal sense, to denote a mental place in a mental rank order system. So how exactly does this work in this case? Because front seats are the places from which you can control things (like cars) or on which VIPs sit (in theaters), front seats suggest power, control, and importance; and, consequently, backseats symbolize a lack of power and control and a lack of importance. The importance and power, or lack thereof, that are seen in a person are transferred to the seat on which the person sits and then the actual seat is used as a mental concept. So we have two transferences of meaning, one from a person to a seat and one from a concrete thing to an abstract concept. Funnily enough, people tend to use backseat metaphorically much more often than front seat. That’s how come the backseat metaphor is in Webster’s and the font seat one is not.
Personifications and metaphors abound in poetry and fiction, of course, but we non-poets use them all the time as well. Many personifications and other basic metaphors have become idiomatic expressions that we use on a daily basis, i.e., they have become part of the language listed in dictionaries. In fact, metaphor is one of the key creative forces (if not THE key creative force) in all new word formation processes. If you think about it, all abstract language and a large part (or most?) of our concrete language are metaphorical, i.e., involve a transference of meaning of some sort (just think of such words as concept and table leg, for instance). But that’s a story for another blog or book.
Let me give you one more personification example and also one more basic metaphor.
“And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes.”
From T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” quoted by Edward Corbett
Let me put this into factual language: Yellow exhaust smoke will drift through the streets, rising up to the windows, covering the window panes, obstructing a clear view.
Here is another example of a basic metaphor:
Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer,
Drinker of horizon’s fluid line.
From Stephen Spender’s “Not Palaces,” quoted by M. H. Abrams.
Yes, what a lovely, ingenious, and fitting image: Our eyes are like gazelles in that they roam the landscapes around us, jumping here and there, "nibbling" here and there. And perceiving the world around us through our sense of sight is indeed a sort of consumption. This metaphor vividly points us to an important fact that we often forget or are not aware of: when we look at things, we take them in, absorb them and they affect us just like food and drink that we consume affect us. And we need visual input, just like we need to drink.
Here is a study tip for you: In order to understand schemes and tropes deeply, play with them by reformulating them or translating them. Not only will you gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of each figure at hand. You’ll also expand your active vocabulary and you’ll understand that schemes and tropes are creative power tools that you can learn to use as well.
I think this is enough for now. This post is already so much longer than normal blog posts. My younger son just said that I have clearly misunderstood this genre. But I haven’t. I am adjusting it to fit my purpose. Some of my blogs posts are going to be little lessons like this. I plan on turning my social media space into a fun and lively classroom - at least sometimes.
So today’s lesson was an introduction to schemes and tropes. I hope you found it helpful. Over the next 30 days or so, I’ll give you one figure of speech a day via Instagram and Facebook. So please follow me on Insty or Facebook if you are interested in hearing more from me on this topic. And if you have questions, reach out to me via Facebook or email.
Here are a few resources that I love:
- Abrams, M.H., A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Javonovic College Publishers, 1993.
- Corbett, Edward P.J., Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
- Holman, C. Hugh & William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.1992.
- Lanham, Richard A., A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. 2nd ed. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1991.
- Merriam-Webster’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Diciontary
- Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged
- The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
- & (psssst) Wikipedia
(1) I used this converter: http://www.photransedit.com/online/text2phonetics.aspx ; and I chose American English pronunciation. And I made corrections to what the converter did, using the online Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:
I adore these two tools. Enjoy the IPA passage if you are IPA-savvy already; and if you need help with pronunciation issues or the IPA, contact me.
(2) However, many people reserve the term consonance for the recurrence of final consonant sounds. Holman and Harmon do so, for example, and as an example they mention, among others, Emily Dickison’s “I like to see it lap the Miles” where, instead of using end rhymes, she ends the second and fourth line of each stanza with the same consonant sounds: “up …step”; “peer /pɪr/ … pare /per/”; “while / waɪl/ … hill /hɪl/”; Star … door.”
Sometimes people talk about alliteration even when the repeated sounds are not identical but merely similar, as in this part of the Kennedy-quote: ”to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The middle sound in "assure" is a palatal fricative while the other sounds are alveolar fricatives.
(3) “Well” and “ill” are nouns here and together they form a compound noun phrase that functions as a direct object. (“Well” can be a noun in the sense of “well-being.”)