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April 29, 2003 8:14 PM   Subscribe

The politics of Polysyndeton On today's Fresh Air, Linguist Geoff Nunberg explores the affection conservative writers hold for the polysyndeton. (Here is the segment in RealAudio and Windows Media. Scroll down to "Listen to Linguist Geoff Nunberg".)
posted by 4easypayments (18 comments total)
The Silva Rhetoricae should be cited constantly, thanks. Funny, Nunberg dated his guest shoot 29 April, 2002 on his page, but I guess it was a typo. Linguists get nervous when somebody actually pays attention, I guess. Still, I want to see his data before I buy the correlation between syntax and political persuasion! And another thing ...
posted by hairyeyeball at 8:27 PM on April 29, 2003

Why, thank you, hairyeyeball, I have been looking for an encyclopedia rhetorica for so long. You should post this forthwith--really. It is a gem.
posted by y2karl at 8:50 PM on April 29, 2003

Writers tend to find a rhetorical device they like, and then use it to death. Sounds like Noonan's guilty of this. Bet she cuts down on it after hearing about Nunberg's piece. A number of years ago Doonesbury, IIRC, took George Will to task for some stylistic quirk, and I noticed that Will in his columns promptly stopped doing that. Media feedback is good.

I do think the political spin is silly, especially the second paragraph. Geoff Nunberg at least admits that lefty writers trying to affect a homespun, populist flavor, like Molly Ivins, do polysyndeton too, and that NatRev-type writers don't.

Agree with y2karl, that's a great link to the Silva Rhetoricae, hairyeyeball.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 9:03 PM on April 29, 2003

Umm, guys, the definition link in the fpp is to Silva Rhetoricae. 4easypayments just took out all the other frames for us.
posted by wobh at 9:15 PM on April 29, 2003

Thanks for the link. I do this all the time, use those little joining words instead of commas for effect, but never really thought about it, let alone knew there was a word for it. I wish I had more learning...I gotta read this Silva thing.
posted by chrisgregory at 11:16 PM on April 29, 2003

Thanks, 4easypayments. I'd never thought about it - but the evidence Nunberg presents is quite persuasive. Perhaps the semi-colon is leftwing? ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:56 AM on April 30, 2003

The example Silva gives from Hemingway. Another that just occurred to me is a passage from Harlan Ellison's 'Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes':
Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, who came from Tucson and trailers and rheumatic fever and a surge to live that was all kaleidoscope frenzy of clawing scrabbling no-nonsense.
And then in the next sentence Harlan discovers the comma:
If it took laying on one's back and making sounds like a panther in the desert, then one did it, because nothing, but nothing, was as bad as being dirt-poor, itchy-skinned, soiled-underwear, scuff-toed, hairy and ashamed lousy with the no-gots. Nothing!
Great short story, BTW.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 5:08 AM on April 30, 2003

Umm, guys, the definition link in the fpp is to Silva Rhetoricae. 4easypayments just took out all the other frames for us.

True, but this isn't like it's some abstruse article on the evolution of the comics--it's an extremely exhaustive and well organized encyclopedia of rhetoric: some of extreme interest, value and use to all here.
Silvae Rhetoricae is not central to 4easypayments's worthy and witty post, which, as you point out, made a link to a frameless definition there, and, as always, the quicker clicker uppers here would explore it on their own.

hairyeyeballs merely named the source of the definition for to help dummies like me appreciate the implications of the link in the larger sense. He expanded and contributed to the post and the discussion in the process. It's no knock on the excellent 4easypayments to make a note of appreciation for that.
posted by y2karl at 6:18 AM on April 30, 2003

And furthermore...

Seriously though, Nunberg is in interesting territory. Am I the only one who first thought Nunberg was trying to be on the high-minded side of "Conservatives are inarticulate hicks and Liberals are eloquent snobs" (Molly Ivins counterexample notwithstanding)?

I keep running into this lately. Anyone who attempts a populist appeal, regardless of their political position, is going to run the following risks, appear false (think of Bush the First), or appear dumb (sorry, but Bush the Second is just the best example right now). But regardless of how successful the appearance and the appeal is, those opposed can easily attack either the sincerity or the intelligence of the position without actually attacking the position itself. It's a cheap shot, ad homiem from the peanut gallery, and it's a major pet peeve of mine.

Nunberg, very gracefully manages to not quite attack the sincerity of the writers (they're all professional writers and opinionators who have a big bag of rhetorical tricks to draw from) and not quite suggest that they think the dumb audience is best appealed to by this kisch. Or maybe I'm the one reading into this and therefore it's my own meanness of spirit attaching these uncharitable insinuations to Nunberg to the writers he's commenting on and their audience.

Well played, linguist.
posted by wobh at 7:38 AM on April 30, 2003

Props to both 4easypayments and hairyeyeball, OK? The Silva Rhetoricae is a great resource, whichever way you get to it, and should indeed be cited constantly.

I'm entertained by Nunberg, but some of his essays, this included, seem very much like a mirror image of William Safire - citing a handful of examples and then declaring a left- or right-oriented point on that basis without providing all the backing evidence. An exception was the excellent Media Bias piece he did using Nexis and providing hard numbers.
posted by soyjoy at 7:41 AM on April 30, 2003

soyjoy: Except that Nunberg, unlike Safire, knows whereof he speaks. Safire could cite examples until he turned blue and he still wouldn't be able to construct a coherent argument, because he knows nothing about language except what his gut tells him and what he remembers from fourth grade. Nunberg is an actual linguist. Do you demand exhaustive references from your doctor when she diagnoses you? (N.b.: I'm not saying Nunberg is infallible or that Safire is always wrong, just that you're comparing apples and oranges.)
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on April 30, 2003

Dewey, Cheathem & Howe, lawyers for the Dark Lord, would like to present Mark Morford, author of the SF Gate Morning Fix, and avowed Lefty:

Semi-controversial but then again not really all that controversial anymore because no one really cares and no one's really paying much attention anymore and she actually hasn't had anything resembling a hit in about 10 years and even when she was controversial she wasn't really all that controversial but more like just sort of odd and interesting and amusing, Irish singer Sinead O'Connor will retire in July, according to a statement she posted on her Web site.
   SF Gate Morning Fix, April 28th, 2003.

Not that this means that Nunberg is wrong, but more that his generalization regarding a conservative bent may in fact be, well, wrong.
posted by thanotopsis at 9:05 AM on April 30, 2003

languagehat, I didn't mean to imply that Nungerg lacks credentials by comparing him to Safire; it's just that this random-sampling method, as thanotopsis just showed, can be used to imply more than it actually proves. Since I am in agreement with Nunberg's underlying implications (conservative writers may resort to more rhetorical shenanigans to bolster weaker arguments), I catch myself nodding in agreement and then wondering "would I accept this same implication if it came from the other side, e.g. Safire?" and realize I wouldn't. This doesn't mean Nunberg doesn't actually have the data backing up his case, but that he doesn't provide enough of it, so in that way he can come across like Safire.

And come on - reading an essay that's supposed to make its point by way of rhetoric and logic is not analogous to receiving a medical evaluation from one's doctor. Props, though (it's Props Day here in soyjoyland) for your use of the "generic she." I'm all for it.
posted by soyjoy at 9:30 AM on April 30, 2003

I don't think the argument is acceptable regardless of what side it comes from. The statement "conservative writers may resort to more rhetorical shenanigans to bolster weaker arguments" has all sorts of rhetorical nastiness in it. Not the least of which is it's very limited perspective.

The world according to editorial pages is a very ugly one, and I just don't believe it accurately reflects on anything. The game of popular opinion has been going on for thousands of years. I believe there's too many conflicts of interest going on between writers, editors, and vested political interests, and their beliefs about the audience they are appealing to.

It's also a question of ends justifying the means. What evils would you do to further a cause you believed good? Would you smear your opponent's sincerity and intelligence in order to make your cause more popular? If your opponent starts to smear your cause, are you justified in slandering back?
posted by wobh at 11:02 AM on April 30, 2003

After rereading my last paragraph I realize my questions are suppose to be rhetorical. My argument is still "two wrongs don't make a right." I see all kinds of left wing rhetorical shenanigans too. Nunberg just did one of them, albiet much better than any right wing opinionator I've ever seen do.
posted by wobh at 11:20 AM on April 30, 2003

wobh, "conservative writers may resort to more rhetorical shenanigans to bolster weaker arguments" was not meant as a statement, but as a description of the implication I had read into Nunberg's essay, filtered through my own admitted biases.

If I were going to express such a sentiment as fact, I would certainly put forward evidence to support it. Right now, I was only talking about the tendency to allow more rhetorical leeway for commentators one agrees with than the other side, which I believe is the same point you're making.
posted by soyjoy at 11:22 AM on April 30, 2003

Sorry soyjoy. I'm going to blame my overreaction on my inability to breathe through both nostrils today. (Bad mucus! Bad!). While I'm here I would like to withdraw the last clause of my previous post (s/, albiet.*/./). No sense in being wishy-washy about it.
posted by wobh at 6:45 PM on April 30, 2003

I think the idea of the "and" is to be inclusive, sort of a "not only, but also..." and that's really a great thing to say America is this and that and something else, which is what makes America cool in a fun Whitmanesque sort of way. Of course, some of the quotes used did include a rather limited list of references and therefore a possible abuse of the form, which is more to the point: someone trying to appear inclusive...
posted by dagnyscott at 1:38 PM on May 1, 2003

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