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The Tropes and the Figures

June 24, 2021

In the ancient world, rhetoricians used a lot of modeling as a means for creating stylistically interesting sentences. They systematized style to make it useful for instructing their students in writing.

As the ancient teachers of writing examined the best writers of their day, they noticed patterns. These patterns usually involved changes in “normal word meaning” or “normal word order,” calling these changes “tropes” and “figures.”  

Hundreds of these tropes and figures are known to us today. Just like the ancients, we too can use them as models for our own writing.

The figures are easily divided into kinds of changes from normal word order. We might think of normal word order as a sentence such as “Helen caught the little lamb.” Subject + Verb + Object.

The ancients felt that such simple expressions might be modified for effect by repetitions: of words, roots of words, or endings of words. They might count syllables or arrange ideas into particular grammatical arrangements.

For example: The Apostle Paul in I Cor. 13 used the figure called “epiphora.” “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

It’s clear that Paul repeated the word “child” in this verse. He also repeated the sentence structure “When I . . . .” He certainly didn’t need to create this sort of sentence to express what he meant, but the effect of the repetition is aesthetically pleasing, and thus more memorable and emotionally touching.

President John F. Kennedy used repetition in his inaugural address of 1961. This sentence is justly famous. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Note that Kennedy has reversed the grammatical order of the first clause of the sentence in the second clause of the sentence. This is a repetition that the Greeks already knew about, named, and used!

Tropes are not changes in normal word order, but are changes in normal word meaning. Tropes involve showing relationships between different elements of the world in non-literal ways. A metaphor is a trope. “My love is a red, red rose.” Obviously, the speaker is not being literal, but figurative.

More complex tropes are possible. For example, the ancients might use a trope called “synecdoche,” which exchanges a part for the whole. “All hands [sailors] on deck.” “The crown [the monarch] is angry.”

Or they might exchange an effect for a cause, as in: “Because of our lax liquor laws, drunkenness can be purchased at any grocery store.”

Your writing teachers at Southern will help you see how techniques such as mimicry can aid you in creating the best prose possible!