About This Site

Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
(What are figures of speech?)
Ask Figaro a question!

This form does not yet contain any fields.


    Where the Heck Is Figaro?

    All over the place, it seems, except here.

    He’s been on Twitter as @jayheinrichs.  (That’s where you’ll find his micro-analysis of the election as it progresses. Our take on the Hillary announcement trailer: “It’s not for Democrats or Republicans. It’s for people with lives.” In short except for the awful logo and the condescending phrase “everyday people,” Figaro liked it.)

    He’s also been on our sister site, ArgueLab. And on a Youtube channel called ArgueLab.

    And you can see what his human version has been doing at JayHeinrichs.com.

    One of our latest projects is a series of videos, released every Monday on YouTube, Twitter, and on Jay Heinrichs’s Facebook page. Here’s a recent one:

    Jay and his colleague, Christina Fox, also answer questions, such as, “How do I get people to pay attention to me at meetings?” Feel free to contact us with your own questions!





    How Do You Begin an Argument?

    I just did a 7:15 a.m. Skype-in with AP Language students at Colegio Nuevo Grenada in Bogota, Colombia. The connection got too shaky, and I had to resort to messaging. I could hear the students, but they couldn’t hear me. So I typed furiously. The session produced an unexpected benefit: a transcript. (Each “Q” is a question asked by an individual student. “J”: c’est moi.)


    Q: How can you remember all those tools of rhetoric in an argument? And how do you know which ones to use

    J: I know how you feel. The best thing is not to remember every single tool. Just remember one thing at a time. It’s like learning a sport. The first tool to remember: Set your goal. What do you want out of the argument? To sustain a relationship? To talk someone into something? The second tool: Stick to talking about the future. That’s where problems and differences get resolved.


    Q: What’s the best rhetoric to use in a college admissions essay?

    J: Go to the page on my website about how to write a college essay. The biggest advice I give: Tell a story. Most college recruiters are really bored from all those thousands of essays they have to read. So give them a good yarn. And no grandmothers!!!! Everybody exploits his grandmother.


    Q: Can you talk more about multiple yoking, or the play-by-play technique?

    J: Sports announcers use this figure (technically called diazeugma) as they describe the action. You can use it when you’re telling a story. The best stories and jokes get told in the present tense. And that’s what the play-by-play technique does.


    Q: Can you give an example?

    A: Rhetoric Boy starts typing…the whole world holds its breath….Will they change their lives with his wisdom, or does he just look like an idiot? He keeps typing…people keep reading… and so on. I think I need more coffee.


    Q: Can you talk a bit about ornament?

    J: Ornament is a catch-all term.  It stands for anything other than just plain old boring language. Any figure of speech counts as an ornament. Have you studied figures?

    Q: Yes. Can you give us an example of using it in real life?

    J: Sure! Politicians use it all the time to sound biblical. “And I will lower taxes. And I will put a chicken in every pot. And I will give free medical care. And I will allow people to marry anybody they want. And I will allow them not to. See what that is? Beginning every sentence with “and?”

    [Class: Anaphora.]

    J: Anaphora!!! Right!! Smart class.


    Q: How can you use decorum if you don’t know your audience?

    J: Decorum: the art of fitting in. It’s hard to fit in if you don’t know what you’re fitting into. This happens a lot when you write for an audience online. It can go haywire, right? That’s why it’s important not to get angry or snarky in an email. It can go places you never intended. So… The best kind of decorum for an unknown audience is “semi-formal” speech. Like the kind I used in writing the book. Speak as though you’re talking on television to a general audience. And write the same way—as if you’re speaking on TV. Make sense?


    Q: What do you do when you’re arguing with someone and they point out a fallacy you committed?

    J: Never point out someone else’s fallacy. But if they point out yours… It’s good to praise the other person. “Great catch! I learn so much from you! So tell me: How would you have made my point?” Now you get the person actually telling YOUR point of view. Making YOUR argument. It does great things…like messing up their head. Isn’t this great manipulation???


    Q: Why is it so important to choose the right medium?

    J: Never ask a woman to marry you by email. And never break up with her by email. See the mistake? Email is writing. It lacks the emotional and personal qualities. When a guy proposes to a woman by Jumbotron, that embarrasses the woman.

    She would be crazy to say yes. In Thank You for Arguing, I list various media—instant messaging, telephoning, speechmaking, etc.—and link each to the various senses: sight, sound, smell, touch. Touch conveys the most emotion. Sight conveys character. The sound of a voice? Logic. And character.


    Q: Can you explain the difference between metonymy and synecdoche?

    J: That’s a tough one. Linguists argue about this all the time. That’s why I like to combine the two into what I call the “belonging trope.” Both metonymy and synecdoche take something that belongs and makes it stand for the whole thing. If I say, “Want a toot?”, I mean, “Do you want a drink from this bottle? Toot imitates the act of drinking from a bottle. That’s a metonymy. But you can call it a belonging trope. Synecdoche takes a member of a group, or a piece of something

    and makes it represent the whole. Like “redhead.” It stands for a person, but you’re just talking about the head. Or “White House,” standing for the entire US administration.


    Q: What techniques should you use to sell somebody something. [12/4/14, 7:48:32 J: There are lots of ways to get someone to buy something. One tool: repeat what the other person says. Keep repeating what they say, while nodding your head. It shows you’re with them in this together. Let them talk more than you do. Then steer the conversation around to a problem—THEIR problem—and show how what you’re selling solves it. The idea is to connect what you’re selling to the person’s own need.

    Biggest sales mistake: Talking about how you’d benefit. The point is to make the person feel there’s a deep need. And you’re the one to fill it!!! Works in love as well as sales. So I need to sell you something. I’ve noticed that you all are really interested in figures and tropes. Right? I’m glad you’re interested. Figures and tropes are critical to your education. (OK, so it’s best if I let you do the talking, but I’ll keep going) There is a book that solves the problem. I happen to have written it. It’s called Word Hero. OK, so here’s another technique. Don’t ask for too much. Ask for a little baby step. Back to Word Hero… Here’s what you’ll want to do… Go to Wordhero.org. You’ll find lots of great figures and tropes, for free!!!

    [12/4/14, 7:52:58 AM] Jay Heinrichs: After you read them, you’ll probably want to buy my book. It’s called… wait for it… Word Hero.


    Q: How do you twist a cliché?

    J: Twisting a cliché takes a LOT of practice. So…want to give me a cliche?

    A: “With power comes great responsibility.”

    J: The Batman cliche!

    [Class:] Spiderman!

    J: Spiderman cliche!! With great typing comes…Great typos. It works in making you look clever. Without trying very hard.


    Q: Which works better in day to day persuasion, inductive or deductive logic?

    J: That’s a brilliant Q. Deductive logic is more…logical. It’s great in formal argument, such as in a paper. But in regular speech, inductive argument works better. That’s because stories work better than mere facts in persuasion. And induction has to do with stories. Examples, that is, in the form of stories. So if you talk in anecdotes, people see them as a kind of truth. Even if those anecdotes are made up, or just support your point of view. Sherlock is all about deduction, right? And he’s really, really annoying. Unpersuasive. So… deduction for formal stuff… and induction for informal, regular persuasion. Make sense?


    Q: What’s the best way to begin an argument?

    A: The biggest thing to think about is your ethos. Establish your character, or image, with the other person. Do that by (a) showing you care about the other person. (b) Show you know what you’re talking about. And (c): Show you share the same values. I call these traits “Caring, Craft, and Cause.” They get the other person to like and trust you—the most powerful tool of all. Start by asking questions of the other person. Show you sympathize and are familiar with their problem. Finally, talk about some higher cause. “This isn’t about whether I should wear high heels. This is about empowering women!”


    Q: Thank you!

    A: You’re welcome.



    Trope or Hypallage? You Decide!

    One of our Figaristas wrote us this question: I heard this on my local public radio station today. Is there a name for this type of infelicity? 

     …complained that the law unfairly lets recreational fishermen off the hook.

    Given that the news writer or person quoted was probably being intentional, we’d mark it down as an ironic trope. “Off the hook” is an idiom that, when applied to the literal hook, takes on the dual resonance of a pun. An unintended usage would be termed a hypallage, an unintended agreement or mishmash of words.

    If any offense has been committed, it’s against fishing. Anyone who has ever caught a fish knows that you don’t just let it off the hook. Removing a hook from a fish requires an operation with a surgeon’s skill. Whoever invented that idiom in the first place, we’re guessing, spent a lot of time indoors.



    Define Lines

    A reader of Thank You for Arguingwrote saying he had been tongue-tied during an argument over the minimum wage. “My opponent, whom I had only just met, claimed 7 million Americans would lose their jobs if we raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while I said that number wasn’t supported by the data. We both claimed the same CBO study as our reference point, which made for a “yes it will/no it won’t” farce. Attempts to move the argument along kept being brought back to the fanciful job loss number. It wasn’t fun, or convincing, for anyone. And now I think my colleague’s wife hates me.”

    When a spouse is nearby, the best thing to do is simply to pour more wine and ask about the kids. But if you really want to argue in a situation like this, try skipping the statistics. One technique the Greek sophists used—it helped get Socrates a death sentence, mind you—is to seek definitions.  I sent the reader the following suggested dialogue. Let me know what you think.

    Opponent: Raising the minimum wage would cost 7 million jobs.

    You: 7 million! That’s a lot of jobs.

    Opponent: Right.

    You: So what do you mean by “jobs,” exactly? What defines a job in your view? And is a job always a good thing to have?

    Opponent: What kind of question is that? A job, obviously, is work that earns a paycheck.

    You: So work that doesn’t earn a paycheck isn’t a job? I have a friend who runs a hospital. She works seventy hours a week for a dollar a year; she doesn’t need the money. Yet she works really hard running an important institution. She doesn’t have a job?

    Opponent: You’re splitting hairs. Most people work for a paycheck.

    You: My friend gets a paycheck. It’s one dollar.

    Opponent: Your friend is a volunteer.

    You: So if she made $50 a year, would that make her employed? Would her work count as a job?

    Opponent: Not really. What’s she going to do with $50?

    You: I guess what I’m trying to establish is how much money counts as a paycheck that defines a job.

    Opponent: That depends on the work, of course. A kid in Bangladesh might be happy to earn $3 a day in a sweatshop.

    You: So that kid would, by your definition, have a job.

    Opponent: Sure. 

    You: My son is 12 years old. He doesn’t work in a sweatshop. In fact, he doesn’t have a job at all, by your definition. He just goes to school.

    Opponent: So?

    You: If given a choice between going working in a sweat shop and going to school, I would guess he’d prefer school.

    Opponent: Of course he would.

    You: So in his case, not having a job is better than having a job.

    Opponent: Well, that’s different. He’s a kid. He’s a student.

    You: My parents are retired. They don’t have a job either.

    Opponent: Well, they earned their retirement.

    You: The Koch brothers don’t have a job either. They just invest.

    Opponent: What’s your point?

    You: I’m wondering why jobs are so important to you. 

    Opponent: Without jobs we wouldn’t have an economy.

    You: But the economy has risen above pre-recession levels, while jobs haven’t. So the health the economy doesn’t necessarily depend on jobs.

    Opponent: OK, not entirely.

    You: And if people get money in other ways—from parents, or investments, or retirement income, or the government…

    Opponent: The government shouldn’t pay people not to work!

    You: Including my parents? Half their income comes from Social Security, and their health care is almost entirely paid for by the government.

    Opponent: That’s different.

    You: OK. You said that raising the minimum wage would cost 7 million jobs. But you never fully defined a job. Is a job work for a paycheck someone could live off? And if the person can’t live off it, what’ the point of the job? And if the economy doesn’t depend simply on the number of people employed…tell me again why jobs are the highest priority.

    Opponent: So people can work.

    You: Whether they want to or not? 

    Opponent: Every able-bodied person should be required to make a living.

    You: Except for my able-bodied son and my able-bodied parents, presumably. OK. But we still haven’t established the definition of a job. If a job is nothing but work, then millions of slaves lost their jobs after the Civil War. Most of them didn’t seem to mind.

    Opponent: I said that a job is work for a paycheck! We’re not talking slavery!

    You: But when I mentioned my friend’s one-dollar paycheck, you said that wasn’t a job. You mentioned the sweatshop pay. Is $3 a day the minimum that defines a job?

    Opponent: I don’t like talking about minimums at all!

    You: Well, then you need to do better in defining what a job is. You still haven’t, you know. And while you’re at it, you might define what a job is for. Is it because you’re offended by able-bodied people—certain able-bodied people—not working? Why does that offend you?

    Probably, you’d drive him crazy. So there’s that.


    Monkeys! Aliens! Naked Creationists!

    We’ve just posted a set of fallacies on our sister site, ArgueLab.com. If you’re interested in following what Figaro is doing these days, that’s the place to go. Also follow @Jay Heinrichs on Twitter. Figaro is much, much more concise there.


    Socrates Concludes that the Government Must Stay Closed!

    A shocking development: The philosopher has concluded that opening the government and raising the debt ceiling would be morally wrong. After interviewing Boehner, Reid, and Cruz (Obama has remained aloof so far), Socrates learned from Congressman Raoul Labrador that the gift of opening the government would actually damage Reid. Labrador’s words come from today’s Morning Edition on NPR.

    Socrates: Your name pleases me. It connotes a passion for returning thrown sticks and continuing resolutions.

    Labrador: I’d personally be willing to give the president a one-year CR, and a lot of conservatives are there with me, which would be good for the president, in exchange for a one-year delay in the implementation of Obamacare. And I think that would be something where both sides would actually be able to get something out of these negotiations.

    Socrates: You fetch something good for each side! That sounds very reasonable, Labrador. The Republicans receive a halt in the insurance exchanges. The president, in return, receives a government and the ability to pay its bills. But I do not understand how having a government or paying bills is a gift to the president. My understanding was that Congress is equally responsible for the government. Perhaps you think you in turn are getting very little in a mere year’s delay of Obamacare.

    Labrador: If it were up to me I’d completely repeal the act. I think we need to get rid of Obamacare. I think the Affordable Care Act doesn’t make healthcare more affordable. We’re hearing more and more people that are losing their health insurance right now, and they’re being told, unlike the promise Obama gave the American people, that if you like your current health insurance that you could keep it, they’re actually losing their health insurance and they’re being told that they’re going to have to pay more for their health insurance, so that’s what happening.

    Socrates: Then it is very accommodating of you to accept a mere year’s delay of this evil law. Explain to me how people are losing their health insurance and still having to pay more for it. Do you mean they are losing their insurance because the law is making that insurance too expensive to buy? And this is happening throughout the land? Those who have not been able to get health insurance in the past—they, too, are being denied this promised insurance?

    Labrador: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for a one-year delay of a program that’s clearly not working.

    Socrates: If a program is not working, that must mean the program exists. And if it exists already, how can you delay it? Do you mean that you wish to pause or dismantle an existing program? How would such a pause or dismantling work? And will this act bring insurance back to the people who are being denied it through the evil law?

    Labrador: You know, there’s a lot of ideas that are floating around, and I’m not going to reject any of them, but in order for these ideas to come to fruition, what we need is to sit at the table with Harry Reid and Barack Obama.

    Socrates: The table of which you speak must be an extraordinary piece of furniture; I have heard your Republican companions sing a paean to it. You are highly sociable to wish to share it with Harry and Barack. So your dinner gift to him would be an offer not to re-open your government.

    Labrador: We’re not the ones who wanted to shut down the government, and you need to remember that. We wanted to keep the government open. This entire battle is about Harry Reid making sure that he keeps the Senate and that he wins the House of Representatives. That’s why he wants the shutdown, and I fear that that’s why they want actually to breach the debt ceiling at some point.

    Socrates: Then your proffered gift to Harry would be an insult! By your own reasoning, Labrador, opening the government and raising the debt ceiling would do damage to your enemy. That is a moral wrong and I would not condone it. If Harry wishes to keep the government closed, then you must not pretend that it is a gift. You must keep the government closed for his sake.