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The Sins of Molly Ivins


W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

by Rhetorix - March 4th, 2001

Rhetorix means, of course, sins grammatical and rhetorical. For one who enjoys her prose without the adulteration of phony folksiness and false bonhomie, reading Molly Ivins is as close to penance for mortal sin as Rhetoric cares ever to be.

Let us consider the first three paragraphs of Ms Ivins' column of February 28th, 2001 ("Tax plan would be funny if . . . well, no, it wouldn't" )

President Bush's maiden address to the nation was classic Dubya: He talks moderate and governs right. And this is never more true than on economic issues.

Again, with Bush, what you see is not what you get. What you hear is not what you get. What you get is what you get.

One is tempted to conclude, "Surely he jests."

In these sixty words, Ms Ivins gives us isocolon, and anaphora. She attempts tricolon and she commits aporia, polysyndeton, and prosonomasia. She also capitalizes the first letter of the word following a colon and uses an unnecessary conjunction.

Let me first address that unnecessary conjunction. Yes, Rhetorix does know that the ancient Greeks began many a sentence with "(((", which, for those of you who were not offered the chance to study ancient languages, means "and." The Greeks, however, used conjunctions to tie together sentences that addressed or discussed the same topic. For this, we use paragraphs-an invention not available to the ancient Greeks. Ms Ivins could have omitted the "and" in her first paragraph and no one would have missed it.

Rhetorix could excuse this "and" as polysyndeton, the use of conjunctions between each clause in a sentence, but a good example of polysyndeton-"neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring" shows that Ms Ivins is not using the "and' as a rhetorical device. Reading the paragraph aloud does not prove that the "and" improves the sentence's spoken rhythm. Rhetorix must conclude that it is there solely to show what a folksy, down-home gal Ms Ivins is. Style, to the classical rhetorician, is enhanced by the correct use of grammar and rhetorical devices, not by their omission or misuse.

My other grammatical complaint is the capitalization of the word "he" after the colon in the first sentence. Since the sentence that follows the colon is an additional remark that explains or comments upon the previous sentence, a colon is the correct punctuation mark to use in this case. The word following the colon is never capitalized unless it is a proper noun. A good editor would have substituted a lower-case letter for that 'H'.

Now, onto Ms Ivins' rhetorical devices:

Tricolon as you should remember from past columns, is the use of a three-unit pattern. Had Ms Ivins used the word "not" in the third sentence of her second paragraph, she would have had a perfectly patterned tricolon. She does have isocolon, which consists of phrases or sentences of equal length and structure. By repeating the same words at the beginning of all three sentences (ignoring the introductory and somewhat redundant "Again, with Bush. . .", she achieves anaphora.

Rhetorix has spent enough time on these devices in previous writing, so enough of them. Let me address the devices of aporia and prosonomasia.

Aporia is the correct term for doubt or deliberation about an issue. It does not matter whether the doubt is real or faked; whenever a writer or speaker pauses to express a need to consider a matter, it is aporia. The last sentence in the quotation from Ms Ivins' column is a standard use of this device. It indicates that she (and we) should doubt the intent of President Bush and his tax proposals.

Does Ms Ivins truly think the proposal is a jest? No. Aporia often is used to introduce a rebuttal to an argument. The rest of Ms Ivins' column is such a rebuttal.

Note the "Dubya" in the first sentence. Using nicknames, diminutives, or names other than proper ones is prosonomasia, which means "using a appellation." It can be an affectionate affectation that shows what close friends the writer and the subject are. It can signal a sycophantic relationship where the writer wishes that the subject was a close friend.

It is also used to demean and belittle the subject, to signal that writer would not get close to the subject if he were freezing to death and desperately needed body warmth. In this case, the writer's disdain for the subject shows in the omission of honorifics, titles, or proper names.

There are no prizes for correctly guessing that Ms Ivins is using prosonomasia in the third manner. Such should be expected from a writer who also disdains grammar and punctuation in her pursuit of her "style."

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"...In these sixty words, Ms Ivins gives us isocolon, and anaphora. She attempts tricolon and she commits aporia, polysyndeton, and prosonomasia. She also capitalizes the first letter of the word following a colon and uses an unnecessary conjunction..."

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