Meaning and Rhetoric #2

In this post I will talk a little more about the meaning of rhetorical figures, and I hope in the process to address a few questions and comments I’ve received.

Rhetorical figures usually have more than one possible meaning. That’s not odd—meaning is rarely one-to-one. Most words, for instance, have a variety of meanings. Take the word “frog”. This little word has half a dozen different meanings, which don’t seem to be closely connected to each other. It can mean (1) the familiar amphibian critter; (2) the nut of a violin bow; (3) a piece of horny substance in a horse’s hoof; (4) an ornamental coat fastener; (5) a grooved piece of iron joining pieces of railroad track; and (6) it also occurs in the idiom “to have a frog in your throat”. What makes us decide to go with one of these meanings rather than another? Context!!! And that’s one big reason that I define one of the four aspects of philology as “the interpretation of meaning in context”.

The same goes for rhetorical figures. Most of them have more than one meaning, or more than one use. (I don’t make a strict distinction between meaning and use.) A figure, like a word, provides various potential meanings—the technical term for this is “affordance”—and it’s the context of the whole passage which determines which meaning is relevant.

The general job of syntax is to put words in relationship to each other. The syntax of “Joe kissed Sally” puts the words “Joe” and “Sally” in a particular relationship, while “Sally kissed Joe” puts the same words in a different relationship. There’s a subfield of linguistics called case grammar which deals with the complex ways that sentence structure reflects semantic relationships; another time I might get into that interesting topic, but for now I will move on from grammar to rhetoric.

Some of the figures also put words in relationship to each other, but in ways which get categorized as rhetoric rather than grammar. Take gradatio, which has the structure AB/BC/CD and so on. The word gradatio comes from the Latin verb gradior, which means to take a step, to walk step by step. This figure is also called climax, which is the ancient Greek word for a ladder or a staircase. Here is a famous example from Shakespeare’s As You Like It; Rosalind says: “your brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed, no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason, no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage.” Notice that Shakespeare names the figure with the phrase “a pair of stairs to marriage”—that is, climax. In his day, almost all writers and many readers knew the technical terms of the craft.

Shakespeare liked gradatio; in my collection I have another example from As You Like It, as well as examples from Richard II, Richard III, Troilus and Cressida, The Comedy of Errors, The Rape of Lucretia, and several examples from Henry IV Part I; I’m sure there are more in other plays that I just haven’t come across yet.

But gradatio can be found all over the place. Here’s an example from a thriller, G-Man, by Stephen Hunter; this is part of the description of a shoot-out: “Johnny was fast. Charles was faster. Mind to arm, arm to hand, hand to trigger, trigger to hammer, hammer to cartridge, cartridge to powder, powder to bullet, the need to act and the act itself were almost simultaneous”. And here’s one from Huckleberry Finn: “Every time he got money he got drunk; and every time he got drunk he raised Cain around town; and every time he raised Cain he got jailed”.

Here’s another example, from a popular science book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence M. Krauss: “But remember that the energy of empty space is gravitationally repulsive. If it had come to dominate the energy of the universe before the time of galaxy formation, the repulsive force due to this energy would have outweighed (literally) the normal attractive gravitational force that caused matter to clump together. And galaxies would never have formed. But if galaxies hadn’t formed, then stars wouldn’t have formed. And if stars hadn’t formed, planets wouldn’t have formed. And if planets hadn’t formed, then astronomers wouldn’t have formed!”

What all of these share, I think, is some sense of an orderly, step by step progression. The order can be an order in time, an order in causation, an order in size, really any kind of order at all. The specific effect of each instance comes from its context, but in general the figure tends to emphasize the steps in the orderly gradation. It’s interesting to see how a passage looks and feels and means when the figure has been edited out. Here’s the passage from G-Man without climax: “Johnny was fast. Charles was faster. Mind to arm to hand to trigger to hammer to cartridge to powder to bullet, the need to act and the act itself were almost simultaneous”. (A progression without repetition—A,B,C,D, etc., rather than AB/BC/CD etc.—would probably count as the figure incrementum.) I would be very interested to hear how people react to these two versions: What’s the difference?

Many of the rhetorical figures—at least the figures that describe structure—are used to put words into some kind of relationship, but there’s one figure which does almost the opposite. This figure is called congeries, which in Latin means a heap or a pile; and a congeries is just a heap of words in no particular order. I will talk about this figure in my next post.

As always, comments are most welcome. This post is a response to some comments, and I will always try to respond to whatever comments come my way. A few people have been writing me by email, and of course I’m happy to hear from my friends that way, but I encourage people to respond on the blog so that the conversation can become more general.

2 thoughts on “Meaning and Rhetoric #2

  1. What a great post and great question! And what an interesting exercise it is to try removing the gradatio from your examples. The differences from one to another complement your characterization of the meaning of the figure as having to do with orderly progression. The passage from G-Man is interesting because the gradatio emphasizes all the steps that the passage claims happen almost simultaneously. The repetition prolongs each step and heightens the contrast between all these steps and the quickness with which they happen. It also creates a kind of DA-da-da rhythm that then builds when the repeated terms have two syllables instead of one. Removing the repetition really changes that rhythm in a way that seems to me to emphasize speed and propulsion forward rather than the methodical steps that the gradatio emphasizes. The contrast between the figure and the main claim of the passage is thus weakened. What about dropping the polysyndetic “to”s? Then you’d have: “Johnny was fast. Charles was faster. Mind to arm, hand, trigger, hammer, cartridge, powder, bullet, the need to act and the act itself were almost simultaneous.” Or dropping the intermediate elements altogether: “Mind to hand to trigger to bullet”?
    In the As You Like It example, the naming of the figure makes removing it a more extensive revision. In the example from Huckleberry Finn, (“Every time he got money he got drunk; and every time he got drunk he raised Cain around town; and every time he raised Cain he got jailed”), you have the option of progression without repetition (“Every time he got money he got drunk, raised Cain, and got jailed”), but also what is maybe a kind of zeugma (in your “quick and dirty” version: “two different kinds of relation used…as if they were the same”): “Every time he got money he got drunk and jailed.” In this case, losing the repetition of “every time” seems as significant a loss as that of the repetition of the steps. As it is written, the progression from getting money to getting jailed seems like a regular feature of the fictional world, something that happens in this way like the rising and setting of the sun. The example from Kraus is fun in how it changes the register of the steps – from galaxies, stars, and planets to astronomers. The gradatio calls attention to that change. Losing the gradatio, I think, undermines the shift: “And galaxies would never have formed. But then stars wouldn’t have formed and planets wouldn’t have formed and astronomers wouldn’t have formed!” It could, of course, be revised in many different ways that call attention to the shift differently, but none that do it just how the gradatio does.
    So much fun! I can’t wait to learn more about congeries!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bessie—thanks so much for this most interesting comment. The rewriting technique can be used as a test of many of the figures. It’s still not easy to pin down the nuances, but the rewriting allows you to put two versions side by side and get some idea of the meanings through the comparison. By the way, I’m not entirely sure that the passage from G-Man works in the context. It’s a wonderful piece of writing on its own, but the extent of the gradatio seems to be contrary to the speed of the action, as I think you are suggesting.


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