Wednesday Writing Word: Zeugma

Zeugma

/ˈzugmə/  |  ZOOG-muh

 

Zeugma is a fun little device that occurs when a word is used in multiple contexts simultaneously – i.e., to mean two (or sometimes more) things at once as it applies separately to the other words in its purview.  Mostly used for humorous brevity, it naturally requires that the word have some homonymous or polysemic properties.

 

Examples:

  • Billy ran from the slog and for mayor.
  • The minstrel plays the flute almost as well as he does the fool.
  • I punched the slog with fury, indignation, and my fist.
  • I like chips in my cookies, not my teeth.

 

Bene scribete.

Singular ‘They’

Lots of theys

 

“Did someone leave their wallet in here?”

It’s not unusual to hear this sort of sentence in English.  The sex of the subject (‘someone’) is unknown, so the speaker uses the pronoun ‘they’, even though the subject is not plural.  Now, as a copyeditor (and otherwise general linguistic snob), I may be expected to rail against such usage, but alas – I am, in fact, about to do just the opposite.

The problem with this sort of construction is that English, like many languages, doesn’t have explicit fourth person* syntax, so any way we cast it becomes a sort of workaround.  And, when it comes down to it, singular ‘they’ is simply the least ambiguous and awkward of a lot of bad options.

* (“What the #&@$ is fourth person!?” a non-super-language-nerd might ask.  Well, I’m glad you did: a fourth-person entity is one that is unknown, generic, or irrelevant.)

Let’s take a moment to consider the alternatives.

  • The formally prescribed solution is to randomly choose a gendered third-person pronoun: “Did someone leave his wallet in here?”  The issue with this option, aside from the awkwardness of randomly assuming a gender, is that it creates a particularly strong pronoun-antecedent disagreement, so the initial impression is that you are asking if an unknown someone left an identified other person’s wallet in here.
  • The construction “Did someone leave his or her wallet in here?” is also a preferred one, but it is needlessly cumbersome.
  • ‘One’ is the closest thing English has to a real fourth-person pronoun.  So you could ask, “Did someone leave one’s wallet in here?”  But that sounds terribly stilted.
  • Similarly, ‘someone’ itself is, in essence, a fourth-person pronoun as well, but “Did someone leave someone’s wallet in here?” recreates the pronoun-antecedent divorce that makes it sound like you could be talking about two different people.
  • You could subvert the need for the second pronoun altogether by using passive voice: “Was someone’s wallet left in here?”  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that phrasing, but it changes the focus of the inquiry to the presence of the wallet itself rather than the owner you’re trying to reunite it with.
  • You could try a number of other rewordings, but each would have a slightly different meaning than what you’re intending, and they would only be applicable to the specific sentence.

So we’re left with ‘they’.  It’s hardly ideal, but it’s cleaner than the other choices, and it’s used so often informally that it now sounds the most natural, and its meaning in context is immediately clear.  Reusing plural terms for certain singular cases is not without precedent (we have only to look at the subjunctive form of “to be”), and ‘they’ is frequently used in other fourth-person constructions, anyway (“You know what they say.”).

Thus, while I’m not about to encourage anyone to start using singular ‘they’ in formal writing, I would advocate for a grammatical shift in that direction, if for no other reason than to be relieved of the constant need to convolute phrasing that avoiding it entails.  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.

Wednesday Writing Word: Epistrophe

Epistrophe

/ɛˈpɪstrəfi/  |  eh-PISS-truh-fee

 

Epistrophe is the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of consecutive sentences or clauses (basically the converse of anaphora).  Like its counterpart, it is mostly used for emphasis through poetic redundancy.

 

Examples:

  • The slog is the worst, its face is the worst, and its mere existence is the worst.
  • Stop writing, and you lose.  Stop editing, and they lose.  Humor the slog, and we all lose.
  • I’d slay the slog with pleasure, then dump its remains with pleasure, so I could finally write – with pleasure!

 

Epistrophe.  Use it.

 

Bene scribete.

Wednesday Writing Word: Antimeria

Antimeria

/,æntɨ’mɛriə/  |  AN-tih-MAIR-ee-uh

 

Antimeria is one of my favorite rhetoric devices.  It is the application of a word outside of its lexical category – e.g., using an adjective as a noun or a noun as a verb (in this case also autologically called ‘verbing’!).  Even with the words repurposed ad hoc, the missing semantics are filled in by context and their meaning is easily understood.

When particular uses become common enough, polysemes are born.

 

Examples:

  • The slog is giving me a case of the sads.
  • I can’t computer very much with the slog gnawing at my brain.
  • Thanks to the slog, I feel like I’m stupiding all over the place.

 

Antimeria.  Use it.

 

Bene scribete.

Literally?

Confused man

 

A few days ago, a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook concerning the use of the word ‘literally’ in the increasingly popular figurative sense.  The article unfortunately seems to have disappeared at the moment, but the gist of it was pointing out that most dictionaries have now appended this alternate meaning to the word’s definition, and explaining that this usage may have originated with, or was at least first recorded in, Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (published in 1769).

Naturally, this sparked a conversation on whether or not this sort of language development is acceptable.  Prior to encountering this, I had no idea there was even a movement to gain legitimacy for this non-literal use of ‘literally’, as it’s kind of the butt of diction jokes everywhere, but there are apparently many who feel that rejecting it (or any other semantic shift) amounts to needless linguistic authoritarianism.

My own take on the matter was as such:

The evolution of language and words is a natural, inevitable thing, and in the general case it is something to be embraced.  That said, stability is a necessity of language’s functionality, thus any given modification cannot be assumed to possess intrinsic merit.

Language is a tool of communication, of which clarity is an important aspect, and I should assert that preserving its ability to convey meaning is a not an unworthy goal, particularly in an instance such as this wherein the suggested secondary interpretation of a term, when used in the same context, implies something strictly antithetical to what the accepted definition would.  This dilution of precision, while admittedly neither entirely untenable nor without precedent, is nevertheless customarily unfavorable.

(That the word was used in this sense a few centuries ago scarcely argues its virtue – words have been used improperly since words were first words, and most such misuses do not incur a change in their respective societal perceptions!)

But, I’ll concede to being guilty of a little linguistic snobbery.  People will say what they will, and language will be thus, regardless of what may or may not be in its own best interest.  (>^-‘)>

 

I’m curious to hear where others lie on the issue, though.  Any thoughts to add?

 

Bene scribete.

Wednesday Writing Word: Merism

Merism

/’mɛrɪzəm/  |  MAIR-iz-mm

 

Where a synecdoche is a specific type of metonym, a merism is a specific type of synecdoche in which a phrase refers to something by the name of a few of its components (usually two in contrast).  Like other metonyms, their usage most often comprises pre-established terms (such as saying “high and low” or “near and far” to mean “everywhere“), rather than existing in unique cases.

 

Other examples:

  • The slog can corrode you, mind and body.  [Referring to the ‘whole of a person’ to mean completely]
  • Don’t let the slog waste your blood, sweat, and tears.  [Referring to products of ‘bodily exertion’ to mean hard work]
  • Being the worst is the slog‘s bread and butter.  [Referring to ‘basic needs’ (by way of food) as a function of their acquisition to mean manner of supporting oneself]

 

Merism.  Use it.

 

Bene scribete.

Wednesday Writing Word: Tautology

Tautology

/tɔˈtɒlədʒi/  |  taw-TAW-luh-jee

 

Tautology is a multifaceted concept.  In most cases, it refers to something contextually uninformative.  This can be as simple as a redundant word or phrase (“He burnt his hand in hot fire.”, “Julie the bachelorette arrived last, without a husband.”), but in what I’d call its most interesting form, a tautology is an entire assertion that is rendered intrinsically meaningless strictly because it is inherently true.

With so many ways to convey information in language, there is just something I find almost artfully ridiculous in the construction of a syntactically and semantically sound statement which nevertheless effectively communicates nothing under any interpretation.

 

Examples:

  • The stupid things that the slog does are all stupid.
  • The slog is precisely as terrible as it is.
  • Either I’ll defeat the slog, or I won’t.

 

Tautology.  (Don’t?) use it.

 

Bene scribete.