Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Doubling forward, doubling back

About a year ago, dhawhee wrote a post on her favorite trope (in her case, zeugma). As I’ve been bushwhacking my way through the draft of an as-yet rather terrible essay on some new material, I’ve started noticing all over again what appears to be, if not necessarily my favorite trope, then certainly one I use with insane frequency: hendiadys.

I first encountered this term just a few years ago, in Frank Kermode's chapter on Hamlet in Shakespeare's Language--but when I did I realized immediately that it was a defining feature not only of most of the works I wrote my dissertation on, but also of my own writing. Literally "one from two," hendiadys refers to a pair of words linked by "and" that expresses a single meaning neither word alone conveys.* Some of these we use every day, unthinkingly, to the point that they're clichés: "house and home," "law and order," "doom and gloom." Ideally, though, they're less common, more evocative, and even surprising pairs.

I'd like to claim that I use hendiadys consciously (and of course evocatively!), but I notice it most when when I'm drafting--when I let myself just write, just in order to get words on the page and without turning on the editorial function. When I do that, I write in pairs unthinkingly and almost compulsively.

Here are two sentences I just added to the essay I'm working on:
In this passage, [Thing A] is characterized by its fragmentation and imperfection. Unlike [Thing B], which appears functional and whole while being divorced from any authentic source of motion or meaning, [Thing A]'s brokenness is a sign of its legitimacy.
Fragmentation and imperfection; functional and whole; motion or meaning--and actually there's another, ghost pair, "legitimacy and truth," which I rejected a split second before typing it.

So what the hell is that all about? Now, it may simply be that I believe in the buddy system when it comes to word usage (why settle for just one when two are available?), but since I don't tend to verbal excess or floweriness in other ways, I think my use of hendiadys is at least partly a process of refinement: of figuring out whatever it is that I really mean and how to say it.

In the above example, for instance, I'm still not sure whether what I'm talking about is motion or meaning. . . or some third and entirely different idea; that pair would definitely go in a revision. Similarly, I pre-rejected "legitimacy and truth" because, although the two terms don't express the same idea, they're too close in sense and not really interesting as a unit anyway. When I generate that kind of pair, it's clearly just a placeholder: two words that are different approximations of what I think I'm trying to say. On the other hand, pairings like "fragmentation and imperfection" or "functional and whole" do useful work, conveying ideas that no single term can express.

So partly it's that I don't like to commit--I'd rather generate possibilities than foreclose them--but it's also about what sounds right in my head: pairs and trios of words and terms and clauses just make rhythmic sense to me in ways I can't explain.**


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*Technically, hendiadys has a more narrow meaning, referring to pairs in which one noun is clearly subordinate to the other and could be converted into an adjective modifying it--but this broader usage is approved by at least some of my reference books, so I'm going with it.

**Before writing this post I was unaware that there is also such a thing as hendiatris, which involves three words that express a single meaning. But you'd better believe I employ that, too.

16 comments:

Fretful Porpentine said...

I'm fond of the polysyndeton, myself.

trillwing said...

I'm an anacoluthon woman.

Sisyphus said...

I like things in threes, instead (unless you're reading Faulkner, where you get 5 or 6 completely unrelated but surprisingly evocative adjectives appended to every noun in long, pendulous sentences).

This reminds me of the Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition sketch by Monty Python. "The secret of the Spanish Inquisition is surprise.And fear. Two! The two secrets of the Spanish Inquisition are.."

scr said...

Sounds like you're bracketing the true meeting with the words that are closest.

It's easier to say "... leaves you feeling this and that" than it is to say " .. leaves you with a feeling that is somewhere between this and that."

meg said...

Don't tell Mothra Stewart about hendiadys, whatever you do. It would interfere with my dope-slapping her every time she says "each and every."

Flavia said...

Trillwing: I didn't know that one! Thanks for the introduction.

And Bro: yes, sort of, although not exactly--sometimes they aren't really related concepts that one nevertheless needs or wants to bring together. (And thanks also for your reporting from the field on The Youth of Today, on that previous post. Though maybe these days you're no more a youth than I am.)

Meg: is that really hendiadys? It just sounds like redundancy to me! Fowler calls these (and actually just about all the examples in this post--he follows the strict definition of hendiadys) "Siamese twins," and is on a warpath against the tautological ones like "betwixt and between." Or, well, he was on a warpath. Before he was dead.

And finally: I just noticed that one of the pairs in the sample passage I gave is actually conjoined with an "or," which I guess means it isn't properly an example of hendiadys after all. But I use lots of those, too, and in much the same way.

What Now? said...

Ooh, thanks for the vocab lesson! And now I shall scour my own drafts to analyze what my pet tropes may be. I love me some adverbs, but I think that doesn't qualify as a trope but is rather simply bad writing. Is self-conscious (but not exactly contrived) "folksiness" a trope, albeit one without a fancy Greek name? What about overuse of qualifying clauses inserted in the midst of the thing they are qualifying?

Plus, I love the word "pre-rejection."

Renaissance Girl said...

"pairs and trios of words and terms and clauses just make rhythmic sense to me in ways I can't explain..."

I always suspected you were a stealth poet, Flavia...

Flavia said...

Ha! I want "stealth poet" on my business cards, RG.

But I think I'll settle for "prosodist."

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Love a blog post that puts new life in old literary terms. Reaching for my M.H. Abrams now ...

Hieronimo said...

Best thing ever written about hendiadys: George T. Wright, "Hendiadys and Hamlet," PMLA 96.2 (1981): 168-193.

Here's the abstract:
_______________________
In all his plays Shakespeare uses the Vergilian figure hendiadys some three hundred times, most frequently in his middle plays and most of all in Hamlet. Rare in English speech or other English poetry, hendiadys joins nouns, or sometimes adjectives, in a false or specious union (e.g., "sound and fury" for "furious sound"). Its effect in Hamlet, where it appears perhaps sixty-six times, is often to elevate, estrange, and baffle; and this stylistic use of conjoined terms that are neither parallel nor complementary mirrors the play's deepest themes--especially the suspect character of personal unions and metaphysical connections. Once aware that Shakespeare frequently combines terms this way, we can understand better many puzzling phrases, including some celebrated ones. Three appendixes list instances of hendiadys in Hamlet, tabulate its incidence in all the plays, and discuss some misleading definitions in the OED.
_________________________

It's a great essay, and a great one for teaching grads about the ways in which seemingly old-fashioned rhetorical analysis can be made to carry great weight.

Now, what it means for your own personal psychology, I don't know: "false or specious union"? uh oh.

Hieronimo said...

what now?, self-conscious folksiness probably comes under the category of "ethos" more than figures or tropes: "Ethos names the persuasive appeal of one's character, especially how this character is established by means of the speech or discourse."

The quotation above comes from Silva Rhetoricae, such an amazing, amazing website. It's entirely possible there's a name for the "figure" of folksiness as well, if one pokes around enough in there.

Flavia said...

H: Thanks for the reference--I'd come across it in my slapdash internet research, but not read it. I'll be sure to check it out before I teach Hamlet again this term.

(And really: you should know by now that I try to elevate, estrange, and baffle my readers every day.)

negativecapability said...

The process of editing my dissertation has become one long performance of getting rid of unnecessary hendiadys.

It was great getting the utterly random and serendipitous chance to meet you the other night, by the way.

See, there's another one, and I swear it wasn't intentional.

St. Eph said...

I was just poking around in that Wright article a little bit ago. Weirdly engaging for being basically a list.

I'm a simple girl; I like oxymorons best. Back when I was an ambitious grad student, rather than the beaten-down husk I am now, I wrote a long ol' thing on a very special kind of oxymoron I had discovered (ahem) in Sidney's sonnets. I named it, even.

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