Does it use foreign terms where domestic language would do?

Published by Colleen Ness

Jun 4, 2021


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Choose a brief passage (1-3 paragraphs or verses at most) from one of the stories or poems assigned in our course and write a paper microscopically examining the language, phrasing and symbolism of the passage you’ve selected.
Every one of your claims should be aimed at the specific contents of the text you are interpreting—any broad, general statements about the Human Condition should be avoided. Aim for as dense a written page as possible—every sentence should contain an analysis of the pieces you are analyzing and should avoid any preloaded clichés about the topic at hand.
Look at the passage with an eye for the smallest detail: verb tense and punctuation, diction and phrasing, image and metaphor. Focus on HOW the passage means (by what techniques) more than WHAT it means (avoid summarizing and paraphrasing what the author has already expressed).
Examine at least one possible piece of wordplay in the piece. How does one word sounding like another make for a pun related to the piece’s main theme? “Eye” (as optic organ) puns on “I” (as self) and “aye” (as yes) in several of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. Speak a key sentence or two out loud to yourself and locate the sounds it makes—how does the gentleness or harshness of a phrase connect to the “inner” meaning of that phrase?
Etymologize the root meaning of at least one word via a good dictionary and explain how, for example the “deep meaning” of the word “politics” (from the Greek word for “city”) or “English” (from “Angle”) relates to a literary piece. Look at a word’s prefixes: how does “dis-” or “de-” turn a word like “ease” into “disease” or “form” into “deform” ? Look at a word’s suffixes: how does a word like “quickness” turn a “temporary” adjective like “quick” into a more stable (or permanent) condition?
Address the relationship between the author and the speaker via the “tone” the writing takes: “You can be certain…” is more controlling than an apologetic “Bear with me…” Look at the transitions between paragraphs: how does a paragraph ending on the word “hopeless” relate to the next paragraph beginning “However…” Look for tricks of orthography (visual spelling)—in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man a morally blind man is called a “poor fool,” a phrase whose doubled o’s suggest resemble vacant eyes.
“Comma” means “to cut off” in Greek—what ideas are being sliced apart or kept separate by an essay’s commas? How are the commas placing ideas in tidy compartments? How many of the essays’ metaphors are “visual”? Are any of the metaphors tactile (based on touch) or gustatory (taste) or auditory (hearing) or olfactory (smell)?
Are whole-sentence modifiers like “perhaps” and “maybe” being used to soften or qualify the piece’s claim? Are “certainly” and “absolutely” being used to the opposite effect? Examine what sorts of words an essay is placing immediately before its periods. What sort of terms are the sentences ending on? How does ending a sentence on “never” differ from ending a sentence on “possibly”?
Every piece of literature has an “imagined audience”—how does the language of a story or poem suggest what sort of readership it anticipates? When using words like “we” or “us,” has the writer earned the right to speak in a collective voice? Where does the language of the piece seem demanding and elitist? Does it use foreign terms where domestic language would do? Does it use pop-culture slang to come across as “unpretentious”?
Does the piece use (parentheses) as devices of intimacy or confidence? Does it engage in “false dichotomies” by splitting and polarizing our choices into too-simple black-and-white oppositions? Look at shifts in verb tenses. If the past and the future tenses are being used in the same sentence, why?
Look at the piece’s use of “as” or “like” (which signal a simile) and explain what sort of comparison is being made. Look for question marks (which are of course automatically “rhetorical” in a written piece, and so not expecting a response) and ask yourself what these questions are really “saying.”


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