I continue in praise of Figures of Speech, by Arthur Quinn.
He describes the classic rhetorical figures, as Richard Lanham does, but with a light and engaging manner. And you can use these in contemporary fiction, as do some of the finest writers, like Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy.
I wrote last time about going over the copyedited version of The Goodbye House and discovering that the copyeditor saw both asyndeton and polysyndeton as grammatical errors to be corrected.
If polysyndeton is the addition of conjunctions, asyndeton is the opposite, leaving out conjunctions where they might normally occur. Arthur Quinn uses one of my favorites as an example, from The Gettysburg Address:
That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
By leaving out the conjunction, Lincoln avoided any sort of hierarchy within the three clauses and rhetorically supported the notion that all three are inter-dependent and equally important.
Quinn points out that asyndeton is used not only for a series of clauses but also for a series of nouns.
For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.
Note how asyndeton makes this seem less like a simple laundry list of human failings and more like a jeremiad.
Asyndeton is used not only in classic texts but also in contemporary fiction. Consider this example:
He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease.
I used asyndeton in The Goodbye House as well, when I didn’t want to have a sense of hierarchy between the items listed.
Here’s my version of a sentence:
He spent time at an outplacement firm, posting résumés to Monster, Career Builder, Hot Jobs, and also checking his investments.
My copyeditor wanted it changed into a more standard grammatical construction:
He spent time at an outplacement firm, posting résumés to Monster, Career Builder, and Hot Jobs, and also checking his investments.
In copyeditor’s version, the sentence seems to be a simple and exhaustive list. In my version, the websites mentioned seem more like a character’s desperate stabs at finding a job while seeing his bad stock picks spiral downward.
Here’s another sentence my copyeditor wanted changed:
Sales orders had been booked on products still in development, defective products were returned and the returns never recorded, phony invoices were created by sending orders between fax machines in the same office.
She changed it to this:
Sales orders had been booked on products still in development, defective products were returned and the returns never recorded, and phony invoices were created by sending orders between fax machines in the same office.
The “and” my copyeditor added gave the sense that things happened in a certain order. I wanted the frenzied sense that everything at this company was going wrong at once.
I have no doubt I’ll blog about other key figures described by Arthur Quinn in Figures of Speech. Anthimeria, Periprhasis, Repetitio, Epezeuxis, Pleonasm – one fascinating thing is how frequently the use of these figures contradicts the standard advice about prose fiction that is heard.