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Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
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    Got a question about rhetoric, figures, Figaro, Figaro's book,the nature of the universe, or just want to lavish praise?

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    Dear Figaro,
    How should I go about convincing my parents (using rhetoric) into getting me a cell phone as a gift for Christmas? How do I get them to choose the $150 one instead of the $90 one? SN: I've tried using the safety excuse but that isn't working...

    Dear Ceeya,

    The safety argument was a good start, assuming that the more expensive phone would in fact make you safer. (The GPS won't get you lost?) The point is to make your pitch from their standpoint. Some possibilities:

    - The more expensive phone will somehow save money in the long run.
    - You'll earn the extra $60 yourself, either in work for them (what chore have they been bugging you unsuccessfully to do?) or in actual cash that you'll give them.
    - You'll trade them something--a habit they want you to stop, or a stereo they wish you'd stop playing, or a show they don't want you to watch.

    To butter them up for your argument, tell them that you're trying to learn to negotiate responsibly, and that in return you devoutly hope they'll give your proposal a fair hearing. Go on, lay it on thick: tell them that of course you'll try to accept their ultimate decision with as much adult grace as you can muster. Then tell them that Figaro strongly encourages parents to reward a good rational argument whenever they can. Worst case, it'll get a laugh out of them before they ask, "Who's Figaro?"

    Please let us know what happens.

    November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCeeya
    Hi Figaro,

    In your Constitution quiz, question #4 asks: "What branch of government determines who can qualify as an American citizen?" One of the choices is "The President." The president is not a branch of govt. The "Executive Branch" is one of the three branches. it would help if the quiz were more clear, especially if one of your goals is to educate people.

    Also, question #5 asks "Can someone commit treason by expressing support for al-Qaeda?" Your explanation says: "Article III, section 3 goes out of its way to limit treason to physical acts or “aid and comfort” to the enemy."

    I believe that "aid and comfort" would have to be defined. I can just see the TeaBaggers (Republicans in disguise) shouting and screaming over people who express support for al-Qaeda. They would shout to the rooftops saying that any speech in support of an enemy equals Aid and Comfort. What would you tell them?

    Jennifer G.
    Seattle, WA

    Thanks for the comments, Jennifer. You're technically right that the president doesn't represent a "branch of government," but he constitutes the executive branch in the same sense that Congress constitutes the legislative branch. As for the Tea Party--a group that by no means represents the whole of the Republican Party--I would tell them to be careful how they use the word "treason" in regard to speech, or they might find themselves facing similar charges someday.

    November 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenn976
    Dear Figaro,

    Angle said that Reid must accept his share of blame for Nevada's record unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure levels and demanded the Nevada Democrat acknowledge Social Security's faults:

    "He needs to take some responsibility.
    He says it is not his fault on the economy. Man up, Harry Reid.
    He says there is no problem with Social Security. Man up, Harry Reid.
    He says this war is lost and your general is dishonest. You owe us an apology. Man up, Harry Reid."

    Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle at a rally in Las Vegas
    Oct. 21 2010

    Please your analysis and comments,

    Arie Vrolijk
    November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArie Vrolijk
    Dear Figaro,

    I was just reading another of Fish's NYT editorials on the humanities, and was wondering whether the following might be an example of both many questions and simplified concession? What is the rhetorical definition for this kind of framing an argument?
    In any case, the "total effect" of reading the article makes me wonder how one can be a professor in the humanities and not know how to make a better case for it. Where is Flannery O'Connor when you need her.

    "And it won’t do to argue that the humanities contribute to economic health of the state — by producing more well-rounded workers or attracting corporations or delivering some other attenuated benefit — because nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it. "

    Thank you,
    October 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine
    Dear Fig ...

    Have been reading - and mouthing off - about your blog since its lovely write-up in the NYT a month or so ago. Great stuff!

    Question for you. I'm preparing to teach a class on revision to poets. Want to talk to the students about pattern and point to a particular poem by the wonderful poet Kevin Connolly, quoted below. Seems as though there might be a name for the " to x is to y " construction. Is it a rhetorical device?

    Thanks for your help!!

    Kimberly McClintock

    Winslow, Homer

    to wander a cacophony with the north wind as stoolpigeon
    is to draw silence from a well kick it in the scrotum then
    pronounce it unfit to drive

    to scale Everest towing a plastic Zellers baby stroller
    is to strand the sun permanently in a socket
    tedious to the elderly

    to erect a courthouse of baseballs and forcemeats
    is to coax democracy toward a final euphony
    the flies all shagging the dogs

    Dear Kimberly,

    Thanks for the kind words. The "x is to y" construction should be familiar to anyone who suffered through the SAT: it's a simple analogy. Since nothing Connolly writes is simple, though, his version constitutes a kind of satire of analogy. But it's more than that; he uses analogy to create a surprising set of interwoven unannounced analogs (wind is to pigeon, "kick it" is to socket is to forcemeat, baseballs is to shagging, cacophony is to euphony). Plus it's funny.

    My favorite poems start out as fun if a little odd, with the oddness resolving into mystery and unending delights after you memorize them and swish them about in your mouth for a while before swallowing. You appreciate the figures, and what's behind them, then realize that the figures are drawing new figures...

    Whew. Connolly does weird things to my writing.

    October 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly McClintock
    Dear Fig,

    President Nixon famously declared he was not a crook, repeating the charge against him.

    Christine O'Donnell, the Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware, also repeats a less than flattering label when she appears in one of her own tv ads proclaiming "I am not a witch".

    Is this an error on her part or a clever ploy to get Democrats to talk about witchcraft rather than the economy?

    Mrs. Fig.

    Dear Mrs. Fig,

    Sorry about the late response, but I was too busy being a loving husband and kind, beneficent father to have time for Ask Figaro. Plus it's nice outside.

    As you know, it's generally a bad idea to respond to an attack by repeating it. People tend to remember the salient words (e.g., "witch") rather than the argument. On the other hand, the "witch" charge isn't what's hurting O'Donnell; it's her airheaded, say-anything-that-comes-to mind demeanor. So an ad that lights her like a glamour shot and has her speaking good, unsatanic English makes it sound as if lunatics have been calling her a witch (the "charge" actually came from her own mouth).

    Of course, not being a witch is not a sufficient criterion for election. Except maybe for this year.

    October 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMrs. Fig
    Dear Figaro,

    Sharron Angle is fighting Reid in the Nevada Senate race:

    “It is also the corruption in Washington, DC that is characterized by Harry Reid, lets-make-a-deal cronyism, politics as usual, and so we’re saying dirty tricks Harry is up to his dirty tricks one more time and he’s just trying to hit the girl,”
    Sharron Angle on the Alan Stock Show. September 8, 2010.

    Please give your analysis,

    a hardworking, mainstream, common sense, constitution loving Figarist,

    Arie Vrolijk

    Dear Arie,

    Most of Angle's attack has to do with repeating focus-grouped phrases over and over and over and over and over. The memorable part comes at the end, when she accuses Reid of trying to "hit the girl."

    The technique is a SYNECDOCHE, a trope that makes one example stand for the whole genus--in this case, girldom. It's not nice to hit a girl, after all.

    But is it a good idea to use a sexist trope to accuse a guy of sexism? Figaro doesn't think so. Angle, shall we say, isn't one of the more adept rhetors out there.

    September 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArie Vrolijk
    Dear Figaro:
    I am researching diremens copulatio, a trope Richard Lahham says is obsolete. I am trying to use it to describe a statement and would like to know more about it. Can you help?
    Von Jones

    Dear Von,

    Ah, the delectably named dirimens copulatio--Greek for "a joining that interrupts." Despite its name, the term has nothing to do with sex. I interpret it as the "But Wait There's More" figure, which piles on additional points to an argument. A dirimens copulatio will often begin with, "Not only that, but..."

    This liberal interpretation of an ancient device allows us to keep using the name. I mean, how could we dare interrupt such a great copulatio?

    September 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVon Jones
    Hey Fig,

    Just finished the book (love it!). In the last chapter, you talk about us moving towards a more rhetorical society (yay!). It's been a while since the book came out and I'm curious if you still think that we're moving in that direction? And if so, perhaps throw out a few feel-good examples?


    Dear Mary,

    We can define "rhetorical society" in two ways. (Maybe more, but Figaro has trouble counting past two.)

    First, a rhetorical society is one where students study rhetoric to become good citizens. Speaking personally, we're hearing from AP English teachers across the country that they're using "Thank You for Arguing" as a text for teaching rhetoric. Naturally, we'll take this as good news. In addition, parents seem eager to have their kids learn to argue; as many as 70,000 a month have been coming to this site to download the story about teaching a kid to argue (see the links at the top of the page).

    Second, we're talking about a society that acts rhetorically, persuading and being persuaded. A true rhetorical society avoids tribalism and considers common problems on their merit. Here it's a mixed bag. Obama, a man who deeply believes in rich oratory, became president. Then there's...um, not much else, frankly. We're seeing increased tribalism on the left and right, with fewer cosmopolitans speaking up. Politicians who were sounding pretty reasonable a few years ago are now mouthing extremist rhetoric.

    In short, we're hoping that rhetoric education proceeds fast enough, and effectively enough, to save this country. We'd like to see rhetoric move beyond English classes and morph into full-fledged, argument centered civics classes. Meanwhile, the greatest threat to our republic is tribalism; the founders said this, not Figaro. We were founded by cosmopolitans, and cosmopolitans we must be.

    September 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary
    Dear Figaro,

    What term would you identify for an essay introduction that begins with a farcically broad opening phrase such as, "Since the beginning of time..." or "Through the ages..." I call such phrase openings cliches, but it's a little more than that, in relation to the student-writer's problematic choice of scope. Any suggestions?


    Dear DH,

    Any labored, excessive writing can be classified as a PERIERGIA (per-ee-ER-ja). That's Greek for "overdoing it." Periergia falls under the larger category of overwriting. (The Greeks called it MACROLOGIA, which means "overwriting.")

    But you asked about a specific kind of boring writing, the old "begin at the beginning" approach. If it's NOT boring, actually, it's a CHRONOGRAPHIA, a vivid description of a time or event, told chronographically. Otherwise you can call it a PERISTASIS, which gives all the details of a setting.

    Figaro hates getting bogged down in technical terms--a sin called ARCANAPHILIA. So let's just call your students' figure the In the Beginning Beginning.

    Incidentally, a ghost story told to freshmen at Dartmouth College begins with the beginning of geologic time in New Hampshire and proceeds up to the present, a deliberate attempt to lull the poor students before the story ends with a literal bang. The chronographia interruptus, if you will.

    September 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDH
    Dear Fig,

    Is a lie a figure of speech as Stephanie Mencimer implies in her piece for Rolling Stone?


    Mrs. Fig.

    Dear Missus,

    It's so nice that we loving spouses exchange sweet nothings over a public website. In this case you refer to Glenn Beck's claim that he "held the first inaugural address written in his own hand by George Washington."

    The National Archives promptly replied that no one, not even a Constitution-adoring patriot, is permitted to touch the sacred documents. Glenn Beck most certainly did not make physical contact with Washington's first inaugural address.

    But does his claim constitute a lie? According to Figaro's Oxford English Dictionary (the paper version, which the OED recently announced would soon be obsolete), to "behold" an object implies that one is holding that object in one's eye. This is a definite trope--a METONYMY, to be exact.

    Therefore, Figaro declares Mr. Beck's little stretcher to be figurative (or, more accurately, tropical) and not a literal lie.

    On the other hand, if Mrs. Figaro plans to take this conclusion badly, we declare Mr. Beck to be a lying two-faced bastard.

    All my love,
    September 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMrs. Fig
    Dear Figaro

    A friend just sent me this query: One of our architect’s little girls is visiting the office today and is reading a book where the characters’ names represent them (like Mrs. Little is tiny and Mr. Quatro teaches fourth grade). I know there’s a for it but can't remember it. Can you help?

    I think it's just a pun, but she's not so sure. What say you?

    Thank you!


    Dear Bonnie,

    The Littles and Quatros of this world constitute a periphrasis (per IF rah sis), the figure that swaps a description for a proper name. That's Greek for "speak around." While most periphrases are more than one word (e.g., He Who Must Not Be Named), the descriptive one-word nickname counts as well.

    August 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbonsmots
    Dear Figaro,

    I'm doing my advanced placement English comprehension summer work and we had to read your book thank you for arguing. I thought it was great book :) anyway, we had a question and I was wondering if u could answer it. The question is: research the authors background and discover how his life experiences have influenced the content and context of the book. I figured who better to ask than the author himself, so if you could get back to me soon, that would be awesome :) thanks!


    Dear Alicia,

    My most relevant life experience are written up in the book itself, when I talk about my family. My wife and I believed that happy couples never argued; but since we started manipulating each other rhetorically (we recognize each other's tricks, which just makes it all the more fun), we've become a happier couple.

    Our kids, in turn, learned that they could get their dad to change his mind as long as they came up with a good argument. The realized that they're largely responsible for getting what they want out of a person like a parent.

    One thing that isn't in the book: my career, like that of most adults, has relied on persuasive techniques through the years. Being a pretty eggheaded, rational type myself, I often found myself frustrated that people didn't naturally accept the unassailable logic in my proposals and presentations. That's one reason why I grasped rhetoric the way a drowning man grabs a life preserver. Once it taught me the principles of Ethos--the orator's persuasive image--I found that people were starting to pay more attention to what I said, and occasionally even taking me up on my proposals.

    You've probably noticed that life comes more easily for some kids. With any luck, you're one of them, Alicia. Teachers praise them more, they get picked more for stuff, they gets the awards...life's unfair, and it's unfair in their favor. Looks have a lot to do with it, and maybe brains, but it all comes down to their Ethos. Rhetorical skills help you make life unfair in your favor.

    August 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia
    Dear Figaro,
    On his blog "wakingupnow" Rob Tish has coined the term "argument-ex-contradictio", describing the behaviour of making several mutually contradictory statements that are worded to sound superficially as if they support each other. He gives a good example in this blog-post: http://wakingupnow.com/blog/the-argument-ex-contradictio. They efficiency of the method would come from the fact that the opponents cannot really mount a counter-argument, since the original argument has no clear line to attack... each counter-argument would somehow seem to be already refudiated by one of the contradictory factoids presented in the original "argument".
    I knew at once the sort of rhetoric he means, and I was wondering is there is already some term in use to describe this infuriating bahviour.

    Dear Martin,

    Rob's Latin leaves something to be desired, and I'm not sure that a string of self-contradictory ill-logic deserves any label but "mess." To rebut it, there certainly is a clear line of attack; just about any line, in fact. The commentator Rob refers to says this, for instance: "Uganda’s anti-gay bill formally extends the death penalty to homosexuals who commit pre-existing capital crimes." A simple rebuttal would ask, "How can the death penalty be 'extended' to a group already covered by it?"

    But the commentator's technique, if there is any, lies not in any abuse of logic but in his refusal to engage at all. Rob's attempts to learn more about the issue led to his being de-friended on the commentator's Facebook page. And here's the rub: most political argument isn't about logic at all. It's about tribes. Get your own tribe more riled up than the enemy's tribe, and you'll win the battle.

    The problem, in short, isn't logic at all. It's our increasingly tribal culture.

    August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMartin
    In reviewing Aristotle's 28 Valid Topics, I notice these topics rely a lot on argumennts that apply logical fallacies. Am I to understand that argument is a kind of poker game where you mix true strong hands (valid and truthful arguments) with bluffing hands (arguments that apply logical fallacies to sound good) to win the pot (audience support of your position/decision)?

    Dear Al,

    Excellent question. Aristotle's Topics are clearly made not just for the arguer but for the audience as well. Learn the manipulative techniques, and manipulation becomes less effective.

    We make a mistake when we think of argument as little more than one-on-one matches. They rarely are. Your critical audience--the person or people actually open to persuasion--usually aren't your opponents. They're onlookers, blog readers, listeners. Besides, what's a "win"? Scoring on points? Or getting people to like and trust you?

    Which leads to another mistake arguers often make: They fail to think of an ultimate goal. A happy marriage, for instance. Or friends who actually want to be with you. Or a citizenship that votes sensibly without the TV or their tribe telling them how to vote.

    So the Topics teach the tools of logic. But Ethos--the audience's view of your character--can be more persuasive. Who said that? Aristotle himself.

    July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAl
    Would you provide an example of the figure "prolepsis (pro-LEP-sis)" ? Thanks.

    Dear Al,

    Sure. You'll find a great one in the movie "All Quiet on the Western Front," where a militaristic German schoolteacher tells a class of boys, "Perhaps some will say that you should not be allowed to go yet - that you have homes, mothers, fathers, that you should not be torn away by your fathers so forgetful of their fatherland...by your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth."

    The prolepsis, the anticipatory figure, anticipates objections to an argument. A great prolepsis couches that objection in a way that favors his own argument. Want more? Just Google "Some will say..."

    July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAl
    Dear Figaro,

    The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I admit that I'm rhetorically challenged. As a student of the sciences, I was taught to back up my arguments with facts, which in the real world, is insufficient to drive decision making. Having lost so many arguments, I've become discouraged to the point of avoiding arguments almost obsessivley. Your book provides some great tools to release the rhetorical 'mute' button that was pushed so many years ago. I really want to put these suggestions into practice and hone my potential sweet rhetorical skillz. However, I would also like to stay on speaking terms with my friends, family and colleagues. Do you have any suggestions for how to work on overcoming my disability without aquiring the title of "jerk" amongst my loved ones? That is, assuming they don't already call me that behind my back ;-)


    Dear Mary,

    You obviously have sweet rhetorical skills already, as evidenced by your witty phrasing. Now work on your Ethos--your public image. Aristotle listed three aspects of a healthy ethos:

    - Practical wisdom, or street smarts. You're a knowledgeable person who knows what to do on every occasion.

    - Disinterest. You have your loved ones' interest at heart more than your own.

    - "Virtue." You believe in the values your loved ones share. You're not a hypocrite.

    Now ask yourself, which of these three attributes are you weakest in? Work to strengthen it. When people like and trust you, they listen. Ethos trumps logic in most cases.


    July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary
    dear Figaro,

    can you help me to give the figure of speech in song of love? Kahlil

    Song of Love
    by Kahlil Gibran

    I am the lover's eyes, and the spirit's
    Wine, and the heart's nourishment.
    I am a rose. My heart opens at dawn and
    The virgin kisses me and places me
    Upon her breast....

    Dear Kahlil,

    Nice poem, dude! Sorry I had to excise the bulk of it for brevity. Two figures--tropes, actually--go into your verse. PROSOPOPOEIA speaks in the voice of someone else. And PERSONIFICATION, or anthropomorphism, makes human characters out of objects or, in this case, organs. Sort of like being the ball in Caddyshack.

    Keep writing!

    July 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkahlil gibrans
    Dear Figaro,

    “Ground Zero Mosque supporters, doesn’t it stab you in the heart as it does our throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, please refudiate.”
    Sarah Palin, July, 17, 2010.

    What is she doing?


    Arie Vrolijk

    Dear Arie,

    She's stabbing English in the heart.

    July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArie Vrolijk
    Dear Figaro,

    ‘They could not have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.’

    Jessie Gugig, a neighbour of a suburban couple “Cynthia and Richard Murphy” in Montclair, New Jersey, accused of being members of a Russian spy ring.
    BBC News, 29 June 2010

    What is Jessie doing? Figure, fallacy?

    Arie Vrolijk

    Dear Arie,

    She's being very funny--intentionally so, I suspect. It's easy to dismiss the quote as a fallacy--one I call the "bad proof" in my book. Instead, let's look at those hydrangeas as a METONYMY, a kind of miniaturization of the issue. The hydrangeas represent an ideal of suburban life. How could someone associated with the suburban ideal be a spy?

    That's not a rhetorical question.

    July 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArie Vrolijk

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