What's in a Word | All Blogs

Painting a picture using parallelism

By Debra Dobbins

I don’t always agree with his opinions, but I never quibble with how one national columnist expresses them. George Will is to exacting standards in language the way Lady Gaga is to unbridled statements of fashion.

Will also appreciates others’ command of English. In his column today, he quotes Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

Prohibition’s most famous leader was Carry Nation. Okrent describes her as “six-feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache.” (Italics added.)


Ouch! If that doesn’t flash a snapshot into our minds, nothing will. Okrent’s description works well for two reasons: specific words and parallelism.

Okrent could have simply said that Nation was tall, strong, ugly and persistent. By painting a word picture, however, he lets us reach the same conclusion in a much more satisfying way.

He also uses parallelism to great effect. Parallelism is the repetition of grammatical structure in phrases or clauses.

Julius Caesar is credited with this example: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Here, the structure is pronoun-verb, repeated twice. (Language purists may frown on the lack of a coordinating conjunction, but let’s leave that debate for another time.)

Starting with the, Okrent uses the structure of definite article-noun-preposition-indefinite article-noun. Yes, he sneaks in prison, which is used as an adjective, but the parallelism is still strong. The way this quotable quote is written enables us first to remember it so that we then can pass it along to others.

Writers’ use of word pictures and parallelism helps us retain what we read, and in the Information Age we need all the memory tricks we can get. No worries. Will and other wordsmiths will always find a way to help us out. We may not always like what they write, but we can always admire how they write.



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