Rhetorical devices for revision

In preparing some materials for my recent (June 2020) 21 Day Challenge, I revisited some material on rewriting in order to provide resources for a couple of participants revising their fiction manuscripts.

In a neat connection with the previous post on rhetoric and writing, Robert Ray, of the nonfiction Weekend Novelist series on writing, has a set of exercises based on rhetorical patterns. In his book, The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel, Ray offers a practice called syntactic flex that makes use of three literary devices: asyndeton, polysyndeton, and anadiplosis. Many of us are familiar with devices such as imagery, metaphor, and simile. These are additional techniques that offer strategies not only to vary your writing from the expected, but also to shake up your prose and discover insights for your revision.

Asyndeton, polysyndeton, and anadiplosis are variations on normal or expected patterns. For instance, in the early post on the Oxford comma, we talked about the use of commas in a series. Though the comma before the conjunction is optional, the pattern of commas (separating the items and becoming before the conjunction) is expected and creates no special effects, as seen in this example from Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar (184):

 “You have your own style of writing, just as you have your own style of walking, whistling, and wearing your hair.”

As discussed in the post on grammatical errors and other matters of style, we can also write the same sentence without commas between the items in a series:

You have your own style of writing, just as you have your own style of walking, whistling, wearing your hair.”

This is an example of asyndeton. From the Greek meaning “unconnected,” it’s a stylistic device in which the conjunctions are intentionally removed in the series. A famous line of Caesar’s demonstrates asyndeton: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” (Veni, vidi, vici in the original Latin.) In this example, the series is composed of short, but complete sentences.

As we saw in the previous post of rhetoric and writing, rhetoric as an art and argument form developed in the nascent Greek democracy of the 5th century BCE when citizens of the new state needed to learn to speak well in public and legal forums. Thus, many rhetorical devices are used in speeches.

Asyndeton can be seen in the work of many famous orators:

“[government] of the people, by the people, for the people” – Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address (11/19/1863).

“…we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friendoppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” – John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address (1/20/1961).

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be…” – Winston Churchill to House of Commons, UK Parliament (6/4/1940).

Though some sources would like to reserve asyndeton to oratory, it can be effective in written works, too. Here are two examples, including one from Aristotle’s famous work on rhetoric:

Consciousness of place came ebbing back to him slowly over a vast tract of time unlit, unfelt, unlived…” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

This is the villain among you who deceived you, who cheated you, who meant to betray you completely…” – Aristotle, Rhetoric (4th Century BCE).

Omitting the conjunctions speeds up the rhythm and pace to your language. And as, Mark S. Tourneau points out in English Grammar, it creates two additional effects: it conveys the sense “that the events in a series are [either] virtually simultaneous or . . . that they form a unified whole,” as with Caesar’s famous example (449). Aristotle himself believed asyndeton could be especially effective if used in the ending of the texts.

Polysyndeton, on the other hand, is a literary technique used to slow down the rhythm of speech. The conjunction (usually and or or) is repeated before each item in the series:

 “You have your own style of writing, just as you have your own style of walking and whistling and wearing your hair.”

As Kolln writes, this pattern puts emphasis on each element of the series with a fairly equal beat and can emphasize the separateness of the elements:

­­­­__________ and ­­­­­­__________ and _________.

In addition to slowing the language down, it can also add a sense of formality or stateliness, as noted by Arthur Quinn in his book Figures of Speech (qtd in Koln 216).

William F. Buckley used polysyndeton in a speech: “In years gone by, there were in every community men and women who spoke the language of duty and morality and loyalty and obligation.”

Polysyndeton is also used in literature, as seen in the following passages:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” – Genesis 1:24-25 (King James Version).

Mrs. Hurst and her sister allowed it to be so—but still they admired her and liked her, and pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they would not object to know more of.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

In the Bible passage above, we hear the stateliness of the prose; in the passage from Austen’s romantic novel of manners, we can hear the enthusiasm and breathlessness of the speaker.

As Kolln says, the differences between asyndeton and polysyndeton are subtle but meaningful.

The third literary device Ray recommends for rewriting is anadiplosis, which neither Kolln nor LeTourneau discuss in their tools for composing that writers can experiment with.

Repetition is a rhetorical device is a literary device used in all sort of rhetorical traditions, form Classical Greek and Roman ones to African-American one as discussed in this post. Anadiplosis, which comes from the Greek for “a doubling” or “folding up,” is a form of repetition in which the last word of one clause or sentence is repeated as the first word of the following clause or sentence. Though not discussed in many of our sources, it is probably familiar to many because of its prevalence in popular culture, as well as in literature.

Consider these examples from popular films:

“They call for you: The general who became a slave; the slave who became a gladiator; the gladiator who defied an Emperor. Striking story.” – Commodus, Gladiator (2000 film)

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda, Star Wars

Yoda’s speech may well be an echo of Shakespeare’s earlier work:

The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.
(Richard II)

The orators and writers of the examples in this post may be consciously using these rhetorical devices to create desired effects, and this, as Kolln and LeTourneau discuss, give students more stylistic strategies and choices for their writing. Ray, however, is not advocating that you adopt these particular rhetorical patterns for your finished piece – unless you are desiring those particular effects. Ray recommends these as strategies of timed free-writing that will open up your insights and prose so that you are using your authentic voice. It’s worth experimenting with his syntactic flex method for your writing project.

 (Resources used in this post include Ray, The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel; Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; Tourneau, English Grammar; literarydevices.com; americanrhetoric.com; thewritepractice.com.)

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