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Meet the assorted characters of writing

It's an odd little community, this place called Phlemtown. All the inhabitants are grotesque-looking creatures and sound like they're always hacking up fur-balls with snot dripping from their noses. Okay, that was gross, but since we're talking about how to use words effectively, you have to admit that statement created a vivid image in your mind.

The reason I call it Phlemtown is primarily because all their names sound awful. I'll describe them, but I don't expect you to remember them. I certainly don't. I only ask you to remember that in this town there are no laws—no rules or regulations.

Let's start with a family of four brothers, who all sound like they can never quite clear their throats.

The Zeugma Brothers (ZOOG-mah)

These bothers are never seen apart because their name means yoked together. They like to link ideas by introducing a part of speech in a clause that is implied in other clauses. I discovered this one fine day when I watched the Zeugma brothers pick a flower, and then took turns describing it.

Proszeugma—He begins each sentence with a verb, which he then implies in the clauses that follow:

This flower fills my eyes with splashes of color, my nose with a fragrant boquet, my heart with feelings of delight.

Diazeugma—He's very much like prozeugma, except he uses the subject as the part of speech that is implied:

This flower fills my eyes with splashes of color, fills my nose with a fragrant boquet, fills my heart with feelings of delight.

Mesozeugma—A bit perverse, he likes to insert things in the middle; a part of speech in a clause that both preceding clauses and those that follow depend upon:

Nothing about this flower fills me with more intensity than what my heart feels; neither it's color nor it's fragrance.

Hypozeugma—He's the youngest brother and likes to go last. He follows parts of speech in a clause that the preceding word or words depend upon:

This flower; its color, boquet, delight, fills my senses.

The Town Gossips, Scesis Onomaton and Apophasis
(SKI-sis oh-NO-mah-ton) and (ah-POF-ah-sis)

Yes, every community has them. They are gossipy and love to make remarks over and over again until the horse has been beaten to death so much that it's left as just a wet spot on the highway of fiction.

The first one we come across walking down the street is Scesis Onomaton. She's fond of expressing her feelings about other residents of Phlemtown using a string of synonyms. I once heard her say ...

He's an idiot, a moron, devoid of cognitive thought, and needs to grow a brain.

Yes, she's somewhat repetitive, but can be emphatic.

Then there's Town Council President Mr. Apophasis, who is running for re-election. He raises gossip to an entirely different level, but does it often in a sneaky fashion. Sometimes it's legitimate, for example when he made this comment during one of his earlier speeches:

In my campaign, I won't bring up anyone being an idiot, a moron, devoid of cognitive thought, or in need of growing a brain because serious issues take precedence.

Obviously he made potentially inflammatory comments, but he remained detached from them. However, when the campaign heated up, so did his words. Everyone knew he was being underhanded and illegitimate when he said:

I'll ignore the fact that my opponent is an idiot, a moron, devoid of cognitive thought, and needs to grow a brain.

He was clearly making inflammatory remarks, implying certain facts while hiding behind a form of semi-polite denial. He can certainly be passive aggressive. At times you can hear him preface his words with phrases like: nothing need be said, I'll pass over, it need not be told, I will not mention, I won't bring up, I'll overlook, I don't mean to suggest, let's not imply, you need not be reminded, we can forget about, no one would suggest, and so on.

When his remarks are legitimate, he's an effective public speaker and helps us not to jump to conclusions. When not, he's making implications we'd never think about or even consider. That's when he starts to turn people off.

Anaphora and Antistrophe (eh-NAPH-eh-reh) and (ahn-TIS-treh-fee)

These are the repetitious sisters. The older sister, anaphora, constantly repeats the beginning of her phrases or sentences. She once said this about her ex-husband:

In his heart he knew, in his heart he hated, and in his heart he fought with all his might against the answer.

Everytime she speaks that way, her younger sister, antistrophe, turns it around and constantly repeats only the ends of phrases or sentences. She'll respond with:

In his heart he knew the answer, hated the answer, and fought with all his might against the answer.

You need to be careful with both of them. Repetition, unlike what you may have learned, can be acceptable and often very effective. But only if not overused. This is especially true of antistrophe. Like a comedian's joke, the punchline comes last, so repetition at the end can have the effect of emphasizing a significant point. Yet if used too much, it becomes a distraction. We begin to notice technique over content, and when that happens, they loose us in rhetoric.

The Syndetons (sin-DEHT-un)

And then you have the Syndeton family. It includes the patriarch A. Syndeton (asyndeton) and his wife Polly (polysyndeton). They are mirror images of each other. The root word for the name is sundetos, which is Greek for "to bind together." Except, the way in which they bind things together is performed in a completely opposite manner.

Let's start with a paragraph such as this:

Suddenly I saw the world reflected in her eyes. I saw every Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, Irish, Indian, Afghan, and Bosnian child. I saw every boy and girl that lived in a place where violence and death had become a way of life.

In this paragraph, the second sentence conforms to proper comma and conjunction use. But could it be re-written by the simple addition or subtraction of conjunctions to either change the meaning, or drive a point home? It indeed can using either asyndeton or polysyndeton.

Asyndeton likes to drop conjunctions as a way to bind words together into a single thought. For example, he would write that sentence as: I saw every Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, Irish, Indian, Afghan, Bosnian child. This makes it seem like the list is incomplete, which as a matter of fact, is probably true. By dropping the conjunction after the last serial comma, he leaves the sense that the main character represents every single nationality. Since he can't list the nations of the entire world, dropping the conjunction binds every nation in a single thought.

He also does it to emphasize a point. Sometimes he might write that sentence as: I saw every Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, Irish, Indian, Afghan, Bosnian, world child. Suddenly, the list is no longer incomplete. We get drawn into the list where conflict may be more severe than others, but then surprised in the end that it extends beyond those places and, in fact, includes the entire world.

Polysyndeton is just the opposite. She adds conjunctions where one would think conjunctions should not be used. For example, she would write that same line again as: I saw every Israeli, and Palestinian, and Iraqi, and Irish, and Indian, and Afghan, and Bosnian child. This gives a completely different impression. Sure, we are still left with the feeling that it encompasses the entire world, but that is more of an afterthought. The main emphasis now seems to be that it's here, it's there, it's everywhere.

Again, don't pay attention to the fact that your English teachers taught you that all repetition is bad, although you must be careful. It's a great way to emphasize multiplicity, and can make use of conjunctions like "or" and "nor" and "but" and "yet." See how I used it with good effect in that last sentence to give a feeling that the number of conjunctions that can be used is almost limitless. Sometimes, repetition is the perfect way to emphasize a point, and there is no better way to do so than with polysyndeton.

The Phlemtown Mental Institution

Obviously, Phlemtown is rife with paranoia, schizophrenia, manic depression, dementia. It must be something in the water supply. Visiting the local institution, I was able to obtain flashes of coherent thought from some visitors, though all wore white coats.

Antimetabole (an-tee-meh-TA-boe-lee)—He likes to reverse the order of repeated words or phrases as a means to compare and contrast a complex thought. He walks around all day like some kind of Socratic philosopher, repeating:

All fiction is truth, all truth is fiction.

Epizeuxis (ep-ih-ZOOKS-iss)—She tends to repeat the same word over, over, over and over—for emphasis. During my last visit, I heard him murmer:

All writing is pain, pain, and more pain.

Diacope (die-AH-co-pee)—He repeats the same word or phrase, but only after an intervening word or phrase. I didn't quite follow his reasoning, however, when he said:

You are just like us, Heaven help you, you are just like us.

Symploce (SIM-plo-see) or (SIM-plo-kee)—So schizophrenic that she thinks she is both anaphora and antistrophe, she repeats a word or phrase at the beginning and another at the end.

To think clearly and rationally, that I must do to get well; but by thinking clearly and rationally, I do not get well.


Harris, Robert. "A Hanbook of Rhetorical Devices." VirtualSalt. 6 April 2005. <http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm>.
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