Saturday, July 26, 2008

Rhetoric on the Weekend

Rhetorical figures are the ways in which our language and our thinking fly free of the literal. They are the metaphorical, colorful, artful uses of words that suggest meanings beyond what appears at first glance. Some overly grouchy people out there tend to think that rhetorical figures are a bad thing; language, in the view of these sourpusses, is supposed to be literal, and anything metaphorical is an abuse. Yet, recent linguistic and cognitive studies show that figurative speech and thought are central to our capacity to reason and to communicate -- and they're always central to our writing.

For example, notice how in the first sentence of that paragraph I said that language and thinking "fly free"? No they don't, a literal sourpuss might say, not really. But, a rhetorical person would reply, saying that they fly tells you something about language and thought that you couldn't express so easily if you were being literal and sour. The figures make us better writers, and make our thinking more colorful and more precise.

We'll be exploring figurative language in all sorts of ways in the coming weeks; if this stuff is unfamiliar to you, I hope it's interesting and fun; if you know all of it already, feel free to go get a sandwich or something -- or, you could stick around for the fun of getting back to basics. Let's start this week with a couple of easy figures that we may remember (or not) from high school: metonymy and synecdoche (pronounced "meh-TAH-nah-mee" and "sih-NEK-da-kee"). We use these every day without thinking about them, so they seem a good place to set out.

They're not difficult to understand: in metonymy, we substitute some descriptive attribute of a person or thing for the person or thing itself; in synecdoche, we substitute some relevant part of a person or a thing for the person or thing itself. These two figures have a lot of overlap, but it's still possible to tell them apart most of the time. For example:

LITERAL SENTENCE: All the sailors rushed onto the deck.
METONYMY: All the old salts rushed onto the deck.
SYNECDOCHE: All hands rushed onto the deck.

LITERAL SENTENCE: I stared at the television for hours.
METONYMY: I stared at the idiot box for hours.
SYNECDOCHE: I stared at the screen for hours.

Notice how the figurative sentences are more descriptive and precise than the literal ones? In the first example, the metonymy "old salts" tells you something about who the sailors are, what kind of impression they make, how they are part of a whole set of images connected to legends about the sea, while the synecdoche "hands" tells you what their function is on the ship, emphasizing the work they do. In the second example, the metonymy "idiot box" tells you what sort of thing was on the television while the writer was watching it, what sort of attitude the writer has toward it, how the writer felt while passing the time, while the synecdoche "screen" suggests the level of the writer's attention (shallow) and the superficiality of the activity of watching.

Notice, also, that these figures are not exactly the same as metaphor. In metaphor, one thing is substituted for a separate but similar thing. For example:

LITERAL SENTENCE: All the sailors rushed onto the deck.
METAPHOR: All the worker bees rushed onto the deck.

Not very good, but you get the idea. Metonymy and synecdoche substitute aspects and parts for the whole, while metaphor substitutes a different whole.

There are lots of other rhetorical tools in the box, but these two will give us enough to think about for now. Have fun spotting them in what you read for the next little while (I know I will, alas).

blog comments powered by Disqus