Thursday, July 13, 2023

Writing tidbit

From Joseph Epstien's oped in the July 13 WSJ on Biden v Trump (please, dear Lord, no)

Each man has risen to the presidency thanks, mostly, to the unattractiveness of his electoral opponent. Each man was elected as a lesser-evil choice, yet both have succeeded in vastly polluting the tone of our country’s political life. Lesser-evil choices sometimes turn out to be evil enough.

Low and seedy are the corruptions of which Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused: molesting women, entering into dubious financial dealings with foreign corporations and governments, cavalierly mishandling important documents, and more. 

My italics. I'm not here today on content, but just on writing. I make mental notes of little writing tricks that might embellish my prose.  

I liked the first one, just because it's such a beautiful catchy phrase. I'm not sure what the general principle is, but I'd like to come up with more prose like that. 

The second one has a clearer lesson. The usual rule is, write your sentences forward. Or, more likely, edit your sentences to be forwards. You should quickly turn that one around to "The corruptions of which Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused are low and seedy." Or, better, through it changes the subject a bit, "Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused of low and seedy corruptions." 99% of the time you should do that. 

But not this time. Look how beautiful that backward sentence is. There must be some biblical quote it refers to. Maybe readers can come up with the allusions. 

Don't do it all the time. But rules are made to be broken, if you really know what you're doing. Which Epstein clearly does. 


  1. The first might be an example of chiasmus where words or other elements are repeated with their order reversed. Think of Churchill’s ‘you were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.’ The reversal in your example is kind of implicit: ‘…a lesser-evil choice [is less evil]…[but] lesser-evil choices sometimes turn out to be evil enough.’

    The second is anastrophe where you deviate from expected subject verb object order. A biblical example might be Matthew 5:3 ‘blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

    Ward Farnsworth’s books on English rhetoric and style are good references here (it’s where I pulled the examples).

    1. Farnsworth is great. Thanks again to the colleague who sent them to me.

  2. A bit of a guess, but I think the biblical quote you may have in mind is from Genesis 47:9, where Jacob replies to Pharaoh - "Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life"

  3. In the standard formulation "Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused of low and seedy corruptions,” the main character(s) are “ "Messrs. Trump and Biden.” But Epstein doesn’t want the sentence to be about them. He wants the sentence to be about the “low and seedy corruptions,” which he goes on to list. But Epstein does it with great style and flair.

  4. ט֣וֹב פִּ֭רְיִי מֵחָר֣וּץ וּמִפָּ֑ז וּ֝תְבוּאָתִ֗י מִכֶּ֥סֶף נִבְחָֽר׃
    טוֹב־מְ֭עַט בְּיִרְאַ֣ת יְהֹוָ֑ה מֵאוֹצָ֥ר רָ֝֗ב וּמְה֥וּמָה בֽוֹ׃
    ט֤וֹב אֲרֻחַ֣ת יָ֭רָק וְאַהֲבָה־שָׁ֑ם מִשּׁ֥וֹר אָ֝ב֗וּס וְשִׂנְאָה־בֽוֹ׃
    הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
    ט֥וֹב שֵׁ֖ם מִשֶּׁ֣מֶן ט֑וֹב וְי֣וֹם הַמָּ֔וֶת מִיּ֖וֹם הִוָּלְדֽוֹ׃
    רָח֖וֹק מַה־שֶּׁהָיָ֑ה וְעָמֹ֥ק ׀ עָמֹ֖ק מִ֥י יִמְצָאֶֽנּוּ׃
    טָפַ֣שׁ כַּחֵ֣לֶב לִבָּ֑ם אֲ֝נִ֗י תּוֹרָתְךָ֥ שִׁעֲשָֽׁעְתִּי׃
    טוֹב־אַתָּ֥ה וּמֵטִ֗יב לַמְּדֵ֥נִי חֻקֶּֽיךָ׃

  5. The second quotation uses a device called "syntactic inversion" or "fronting" discussed at pages 31 onward of Prof. Robert Alter's short and excellent "The Art Of Biblical Translation."

  6. Epstein still pretends or really believes he understand why so many Americans voted Trump. He still believes Trump and Biden are treated equally, fairly by the system. This is the tragedy of many elites who live in Beverly Hill and tell world there is no homeless in downtown LA or SF.

  7. Surely it's Yoda style? An unusual way of speaking, Yoda has.

  8. you might go down to germanic studies and find out what they think of goebbels prose/ It was very good but based on lies just like the above@

  9. If you walk down to Germanic studies you might find out a certain goebbels wrote wonderful prose however it was based on lies just like the above


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