The Big Three of Literary Analysis Diction, Syntax and Imagery



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The Big Three of Literary Analysis Diction, Syntax and Imagery

  • By Carol A. Tebbs, MA

INTRODUCTION

  • Students must learn some basic “analysis” vocabulary and how to apply it to what they read, so they may generate meaningful commentary.
  • The “Big Three” of analysis:
  • diction, syntax and imagery.
  • Rhetorical terms (vocabulary) is necessary to accurately convey style (The Big Three).

DICTION

  • Diction Defines Style / Character:
  • Diction is an author’s choice of words modified by his own unique style also called the author’s “voice”.
  • Like a good closet of clothes, a skillful author selects the appropriate “verbal wardrobe”:
  • to fit the occasion or situation
  • to reach his audience
  • to achieve his purpose.

DICTION

  • Some writers, like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, use a very wide range of diction to make their characters distinctive.
  • For instance, the used car salesman speaks in repeated clichés and slang such as, “It’s a real bargain”, or “The deal’s a steal”;
  • Some characters speak in more formal language when they are repeating the edict from the bank, “You must vacate the premises immediately”.
  • Other characters speak in colloquial language showing their lack of “proper” education. “Shucks”, pa, “Ain’t no use fightin’ ‘em…”. Many authors use various sorts of diction to distinguish their characters one from the other.

DICTION

  • Type of Diction
  • Audience
  • Purpose
  • Example
  • Sophisticated
  • Highly educated or refined
  • The meal was exquisite
  • Formal
  • Strangers, notables; professional
  • To show good manners
  • My stomach is full
  • Informal
  • Friends and Colleagues
  • To share feelings
  • My belly is stuffed with food
  • Colloquial
  • Family and close friends
  • To share feelings without pretense
  • That there finger lickin’ grub stuffed my gut.
  • Slang
  • Close friends
  • To be cool and “in”
  • That belly-buster filled me up.

DICTION

  • Denotation and Connotation are Cultural Nuances of Diction:
  • In analysis, the dictionary definition of the word “birthday” is simply the day one is born, or the annual celebration of the date of birth. We call the dictionary definition, “denotation”.
  • Authors, and especially poets, use “loaded words” we call “connotation” that are packed with extra meaning from their cultural experience.
  • For instance, what American 16 year-old doesn’t know that “birthday” means driver’s license, and if he is lucky, maybe even a car.
  • But those definitions are NOT to be found in the denotation of the word, “birthday”.

DICTION

  • People of any culture know additional meanings or “connotations” that are implied or “come with” many words.
  • In American culture, the word, “birthday” has other connotations, such as: cake, ice-cream, party, friends, and presents, but they may not be universal in other cultures that have their own associations for “birthday”.
  • When analyzing poetry or prose passages, you will notice many “loaded words” where the author is counting on your cultural understanding of connotation to fill in the details from your own experience.

DICTION

  • Word
  • Denotation (dictionary definition)
  • Connotation (cultural definition)
  • Birthday
  • The date of one’s birth, or the annual celebration of the event of one’s birth
  • Party, presents, friends, cake, candles, ice-cream, relatives
  • Wedding
  • The ceremony where vows of marriage are exchanged between two people
  • Friends, presents, reception, bachelor party, showers, tuxedo, wedding dress, photos, cake, relatives
  • War
  • Armed combat between adversaries on a large scale
  • Guns, bullets, killing,
  • blood, tears, fear, hatred,
  • loneliness, tanks, mortars, violence,
  • bombs, devastation

SYNTAX

  • Syntax Defines Style Through Variety of Sentence Structure:
  • Syntax refers to sentence structure and the variation of phrases and clauses within, which the author manipulates:
  • to fit the occasion or situation
  • to reach his audience
  • to achieve his purpose.

SYNTAX

SYNTAX

  • A Sentence is a Clause:
  • All clauses have a subject (S), a verb (V), and sometimes a direct object (DO) and an indirect object (IO).
  • A sentence with only one subject (S) + verb (V) combination is called a simple sentence. Adding phrases to a simple sentence can make it very long, but it is still simple.
  • Sometimes a sentence has two or more clauses (S+V) + (S+V), joined by a coordinating conjunction such as: and, but, or, and the result is a compound sentence.

SYNTAX

  • Sometimes, long sentences are complex, with two or more subject-verb-object combinations (S+V) + (S+V) joined by a subordinating conjunction such as: however, although, which, that, nonetheless, and many of the personal pronouns that can sometimes be used as subordinating conjunctions.
  • So the terms, simple, compound and complex refer to the type of sentence structure used by the author.

SYNTAX

  • Another way to distinguish sentences is by their function: declarative, interrogatory, exclamatory or imperative. Their end punctuation provides the biggest clue to the sentence type.
  • The declarative sentence makes a statement and ends with a period (.). The interrogative sentence ends with a question mark (?), and the exclamatory sentence ends with and exclamation point (!).
  • The imperative sentence ends with a period (.), but it is distinguished because it starts with a verb and the subject is understood.
  • The imperative is easiest to remember by associating it with authority figures giving orders: “Clean up”, “Be quiet”, “Sit down”.

SYNTAX

  • Beginning students, without sophisticated vocabulary, can spot long sentences or short sentences. To notice and comment on such simple observations is helpful in discussing the author’s style.
  • Upper level students, should expand their vocabulary to properly name the long and short sentences and also noting the placement of the main clause or subject and verb (S+V) of important sentences.
  • The subject and verb (S+V) at the beginning of the sentence is called a loose or cumulative sentence.
  • If the sentence starts with subordinate clauses and a chain of descriptive phrases with the main subject-verb (S+V) combination at the end, it is called a periodic sentence.

SYNTAX

  • Periodic sentences are usually very long.
  • Example: Periodic sentence:
  • Down the hill near the old swimming hole by the railroad tracks, not far from the schoolhouse and near the old watermill, the children (S) raced (V) to the barn.
  • The more common Cumulative sentences vary in length and tend to be shorter.
  • Example: Cumulative sentence:
  • The children (S) raced (V) to the barn by way of the old schoolhouse next to the swimming hole down by the railroad tracks and near the old watermill.

SYNTAX

  • Phrases do NOT have a Subject and a Verb:
  • Phrases are important to enrich the detail of the sentence. Their function is to describe or modify either the subject or the verb, or to replace a noun.
  • Prepositional phrases add description and work like adjectives modifying nouns or adverbs modifying verbs. For instance, the prepositional phrase can be used as an adjective as in, “The road (to school) ended.” or as an adverb, “The road ended (beyond the bridge).”
  • Appositive phrases are set off by commas and simply restate the noun such as: Bob, my friend, lives next door.
  • The Verbal phrases are actually verb words with the “en” “ing” or “ed” ending working as nouns, adjectives or adverbs. They are: participles, gerunds and infinitives.

SYNTAX

  • Participles do the work of adjectives (to modify nouns or pronouns) or adverbs (to modify verbs). For example the participle phrase can be used as an adjective as in, “The speeding car crashed.”, or as an adverb in, “The car crashed speedily.”
  • Gerunds are verb forms that replace nouns or pronouns as in, “Running is my best sport.”
  • Infinitives always start with the word, “to” and end with a verb, as in “to work”. They replace nouns or pronouns as either the subject or object of a sentence; as adverbs that modify verbs, or as adjectives that modify nouns. Infinitives are easy to spot because “to” followed by a noun in the prepositional phase (to + noun) is very different than the “to” followed by a verb of the infinitive phrase (to + verb).

SYNTAX

  • Students won’t often need to identify or distinguish between verbal phrases, but it is helpful to understand the clear distinction between phrases and clauses and the different jobs they perform in the sentence.
  • The major syntax features of any literary work distinguishes the author’s style, much like a finger print identifies a person.
  • Syntax
  • Sentences = Clauses:
  • Subject +
  • Verb +
  • Direct Object +
  • Indirect Object
  • Must have, unless sentence is a command
  • Must have
  • Optional
  • Must first have a direct object
  • Sentence Types
  • Simple =
  • One S+V
  • Compound =
  • Two equal S+V’s
  • joined by and, but or yet
  • Complex = One
  • main S+V and
  • one or more
  • subordinate S+V
  • Compound/
  • Complex = Two
  • equal S+V’s, +
  • one or more
  • subordinate SV
  • Declarative = makes a statement
  • Interrogative = asks a question
  • Exclamatory = makes a strong or sudden statement
  • Imperative = a command with a verb and “you” understood
  • Sentence Length
  • Periodic – less common with S+V last
  • Cumulative – more common with S+V first
  • Phrases:
  • No Subject
  • No Verb
  • Phrase Types
  • Prepositions – work as adjectives or adverbs
  • Appositives – work as a repeat or clarification of a noun
  • Verbals – verb words that work as nouns, adjects or adverbs
  • Types of Verbal Phrases
  • Participles – verb words ending in “en”, “ed” or “ing” that work as adverbs or adjectives
  • Infinitives – verb words with “to” in front that work as nouns adjectives or adverbs

SYNTAX

  • Syntax also includes the author’s variations of sentence components as an element of style used to emphasize his message.
  • Some common variations of emphasis are:
  • word order (inversion)
  • juxtaposition of opposites (oxymoron)
  • repetition of words, phrases or clauses
  • rhetorical questions to explore ideas (not expecting and answer)
  • variations of punctuation
  • The careful reader will spot them easily.

SYNTAX

  • For example, when poet Stephen Crane says:
  • “Do not weep, maiden for war is kind”, we should immediately recognize the extreme disparity between the words, “war” and “kind”.
  • The denotation of the two words is opposite in meaning, and
  • The connotation of the two words is opposite in meaning, which should signal the reader that something is very wrong, and the author is using juxtaposition to show it.

SYNTAX

  • Syntax variations
  • Examples of syntax variations for emphasis
  • Inversion
  • Carried (V), she (S) was, by others in her study group. The verb of the sentence is placed before the subject.
  • Juxtaposition
  • Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind. The italicized words are opposite in meaning giving a sudden contrast of ideas that signals something is wrong.
  • Repetition
  • I have a dream that all men are equal; I have a dream that my sons can aspire to the highest positions; I have a dream… is a clause that is repeated 17 times in the famous Martin Luther King speech for dramatic effect.
  • Shall we not rise up and be counted, make our cause be known? If we do not, we are fool-hardy in that choice. A question posed, and then answered. The function is to prod the listener to thought.
  • Parallel Structure
  • Marlene enjoyed the outdoor sports of skiing, hiking and riding horses, but much preferred the indoor sport of ice-skating. Items or ideas in a series must appear in the same grammatical form.
  • Punctuation
  • I heard a fly buzz when I died – He landed – Where I could not see to see. Here, the dash is used to signal an extended pause for dramatic effect.

IMAGERY

  • Imagery refers to words that appeal to the five senses: sight, sound, taste, feel, smell; or create a mental picture for the reader.
  • The figurative language of imagery also includes simile (“like” or “as” comparisons) and metaphor (direct comparisons with “is”).

IMAGERY

  • Imagery is Description and a Function of Style:
  • All great writers paint “word pictures” with their descriptive imagery. They show us about settings and characters rather than tell us.
  • Many authors are especially notable for their skill at complex and detailed imagery such as the non-fiction essay writer, Annie Dillard, author of A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and fiction writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Dillard describes the gory detail of a praying mantis chewing the innards out of a live wasp at the same time that he (the wasp) was squeezing a honey bee to death to lick her disgorged honey.

IMAGERY

  • “He [J. Henry Fabre] describes a bee-eating wasp, the Philanthus, who has killed a honey-bee.
  • If the bee is heavy with honey, the wasp squeezes its crop ‘so as to make her disgorge the delicious syrup, which she drinks by licking the tongue which her unfortunate victim, in her death agony, sticks out of her mouth at full length….(visual) (gustatory) (tactile)
  • At the moment of some such horrible banquet, I have seen the Wasp, with her prey, seized by the Mantis: the bandit was rifled by another bandit.
  • And here is an awful detail: while the Mantis held her transfixed under the points of the double saw and was already munching her belly, the Wasp continued to lick the honey of her Bee, unable to relinquish the delicious food even amid the terrors of death.
  • Let us hasten to cast a veil over these horrors.’”

IMAGERY

  • Imagery
  • Figurative language
  • Visual words: red, blue, all colors, shapely, ugly, pretty, handsome, tall, short, barren, wooded
  • Simile: She is nothing like the Sun…
  • Auditory words: (onomatopoeia) cracked, clang, snap, loud, whisper, discordant, harmonious, cacophony, blare, trumpet, melodious, raspy, croaking
  • Her eyes were as big as saucers when she saw the horror movie.
  • Gustatory words: delicious, sweet, sour, tart, tangy, scrumptious, hot, cold, spicy, creamy, warm, crunchy
  • Metaphor: The window darkened upon my soul and none could discern me hiding within.
  • Tactile words: soft, scratchy, silky, rough, hard, dented, knobby, satiny, weathered, pliable, flexible
  • There are many, many variations of metaphors, but all function as direct comparisons.
  • Olfactory words: stinky, perfumed, odorous, reeking, stench, putrid, steamy, sweaty, pungent

IMAGERY

  • Students who can recognize the nuances of diction, syntax and imagery in what they read are well along the way toward using those same tools to write an effective analysis of prose or poetry; fiction or non-fiction.
  • Argumentation is a more advanced skill for later mastery.


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