Category Archives: figure of speech

“This solution addresses each problem that is keeping obesity at large.”

It’s a great language, isn’t it?

My students were writing in response to a group of articles on fast food and the American obesity epidemic. This essay focused on First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative; clearly the author felt Obama had a good idea.

“At large” means, as we (including the writer) know, “without restraint or confinement, as an escaped convict.” It can also mean “at length,” “in a general way,” and “as a whole”; but clearly my student is using the phrase in its first sense.

The verb “to keep” isn’t generally used with this phrase, though: “to keep” or “to hold” seems more comfortable with “at bay,” or “unable to retreat, thus forced to face danger.” But he doesn’t mean “at bay.”

He means “at large,” sort of—at least, he means “unrestrained.” But to be at large, obesity must be some kind of person: the phrase brings to the mind’s eye an image of a corpulent fellow in striped pajamas and a burglar’s mask, roaming through the back streets, trotting along the highway, lurking in the park. And on the police radios, the APB: “Escaped Obesity at large. Approach with caution. May be armed.”

And of course the real tickle of this sentence is the appropriateness of “at large” to “obesity.” The problems (sedentary lifestyle, high-calorie and high-fat foods, stress) are causing obesity in the general population (at large!), perhaps causing rampant obesity (unrestrained, wild, fast-moving and wide-ranging—although the image of the corpulent fellow rearing up on his hind legs or galloping along is going to infect that phrase too). In causing obesity, the problems are making us large. In other words, the problems are evidently keeping largeness at large.

So I wonder if this sentence is an example of a phrase that crept in by association. “Keeping obesity…um, uh…keeping obesity…AHA! at large! Just the phrase!” says the hapless student, and the words jump onto the screen and are printed on the page without a moment of reflection, without a laughing fit, without a reread to encourage the student to ask whether he should make his solemn sentence into a punny joke.

I have to be grateful. It had been a long evening of paper-grading, and I needed the laugh.

“Parents always stretch an extra limb for their children.”

I know already that when I check the “categories” boxes for this I’ll be checking “Your guess is as good as mine.”

I can imagine parents stretching out a helping hand for their children. I can see them going the extra mile. I know they will risk life and limb.

My student’s bizarre image may be an amalgam of these: the stretch, the extra, the limb…

But what I see is a tree-like parent sprouting a new branch that then grows and grows, out in the direction of the children, eventually reaching them. Perhaps then they clamber up onto the branch to swing, or climb, or read a book. I don’t know if I find this idea sweet or creepy. Certainly it’s a creepy picture. And if the parents always do this, they must develop quite a thick and tangled maze of branches before the kids finally move out of the house in search of other, younger limbs.

This picture is less bizarre than the other one I get, parents producing extra arms and legs, those limbs elongating themselves…. Would this stretching be done “for” the children’s assistance, “for” their comfort, or “for” their amusement? My student does not say. For their sakes, I guess.

I believe that if my niece needed some extraordinary kind of help, my sister and brother-in-law would find a way to generate an extra limb if that’s what it took. This is parental love.

And I know my student meant to describe just that kind of love.

However creepy (or just bizarre) the picture she created, it certainly beats the hell out of what most of my students say their parents will do for them: “be there for them.” Cold-hearted, I always write “where?” in the margin. I know what this expression is meant to mean, too; I’m just sick of it. Talk about wishy-washy sentimentality. I can’t steel myself to be so cruel as to write that in the margin; I’ll have to let the writers live long enough to read the phrase a thousand times or two, at which point they’ll realize that its meaning resides only in the writer’s mind (or soul), doesn’t make the trip onto the page where the reader can see it. And then they’ll stop writing it.

Meanwhile, I’ll prefer the image of that extra parental limb, stretching, endlessly stretching….

“What if the motif behind the murder was bettering off the victim?”

This student is considering the “punishment” handed down to the killer-father, and trying to figure out what the judge might have been thinking.

We can see the problem with motif/motive. We might speculate that the student was suggesting a pattern of behavior in the father that preceded and included the murder, a recurrent concern or desire that had motivated other (less lethal) actions in the past. More likely, alas, is that the student either didn’t know how to spell “motive” or typed “motiv” and was “helped” by Spellcheck to choose “motif” as the correction. The error is merely a spelling mistake, or perhaps a bad word choice.

But the real interest in his sentence is the new phrase “bettering off.” In the case in question, evidently the father felt his son would be “better off dead” than addicted to drugs. “Better off” is a common phrase modifying so many choosers: You’d be better off saving your money. You’ll be better off without him. You’d be better off with a college degree. Etc.

In the sentence the student had already begun, though, “better off” doesn’t come in naturally. Unwilling to start the sentence over, he plows on, determined (like Cinderella’s sisters contemplating the glass slipper) to “make it fit.” He creates a verb, “to better off,” and then uses its present-participial form as a gerund. Why not?

With this new verb much becomes possible. Its superficial resemblance to “butter one up” is one step toward normalization. “When he gives you presents you think he’s trying to better you off, but he’s only buttering you up.”

This verb is going to enter my lexicon, as “to unfair against” already has. It’s a living language, after all, right?

“He shot his son out of frustration…”

This is the killer father again. I don’t know if the topic spawned so many strange sentences because my students just weren’t ready to write clearly or because they were uncomfortable writing about a young man about their own age who was shot dead for smoking a little dope.

At any rate, the student-author of today’s sentence has a credible idea about the father’s motive: frustration. But let’s go on:

“He shot his son out of frustration with his drug problem and inability to get back on his own feet.”

The part of the sentence I love is the melded clichés: “stand on his own two feet” and “get back on his feet.” Neither expression seems particularly sensible or necessary when you take a close look, but a cliché properly uttered is comfortable. The loss of “two”—or the addition of “own”—creates a strange phrase, a discomfort; and that little bump allows just enough time for the reader to think about the words, and therefore to entertain the possibility that one might get back on someone else’s feet.

Dylan Thomas had a good time with clichés, or perhaps we might call them common figures of speech, transposing elements  to give the reader pause and create fresh ideas:

                         …a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream…

(Thus the reporter with a nose for news becomes a dog with a much-more-threatening jaw for news in “Altar-wise by Owl-Light.”)

Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon…

(Here the cosmos is animated and made strange when the man leaves the moon and supplants the “west” in the wind in “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”)

Poets can get away with this kind of serious playfulness because they are armed with intent. The reader assumes the intent and takes the time to contemplate the phrasing and its role in the meaning-making of the poem.

Students have to be more careful with similar kinds of wordplay because they cannot predict whether the reader will perceive intent or presume incompetence.

And in the case of my student’s phrase, intent is most likely not present. The rest of the essay showed no such spriteliness, and the sentence in question shows no such grace; furthermore, the melded image adds not insight but only confusion—which, I’m afraid, is probably an accurate reflection of the student’s own measure of control of the sentence.

I do find quite poignant the idea that had the young man managed to stand on his own feet instead of, perhaps, his father’s—or the guy’s who scored him the grass—he might have been less frustrating to his father: he might have been permitted to live.

A lesson to take to heart, I guess: No matter how many feet you have, stand on your own.



“Achilleus is pist.”

This statement antedates spellcheck, or at least the spellcheck feature that underlines dubious words. The writer is clearly oblivious not only to his spelling error but also to his error of diction, or tone.

With great energy, simplicity, and confidence, my student is writing about The Iliad, that stately epic poem about war, glory, and loss. Together with The Odyssey, it defines the epic—not only its form and subject but also its stature. Heroic, that’s what an epic is supposed to be, in every dimension.

So my student reads about the rage of Achilleus that follows on Agamemnon’s autocratic and self-centered distribution of the spoils of war—and of Achilleus’ “prize” woman in particular. This anger is so great that despite his hunger for glory in battle, and despite his supposed loyalty to the Greek confederation that has come to Troy to take back Helen, the kidnapped wife of Menelaus, Achilleus sits stubborn in his tent and refuses to join the battle even when the tide turns against the Greeks and everyone pleads with him.

Admirers of Achilleus and those sympathetic with his need for respect would say he’s in high dudgeon, or in a towering rage. Those readers who prefer Hektor’s brand of heroism (of which I am one) would say Achilleus is throwing an heroic temper tantrum, or having a big sulk.

My student makes a different choice. Is it some perverse delicacy of mind that keeps him from spelling out “pissed,” or does he think there are two different words depending on whether there is urine involved or only spleen—or does he actually think that’s how the (single) word is spelled?

At any rate, even “royally pissed” would have more dignity than my student has allowed this “hero”: he has managed to trivialize Achilleus, or infantilize him, or unclass him, in a single stroke. All that might be epic is piddled away.

Next time you’re feeling pissed, picture my student’s word. Tell yourself you’re pist. It will probably tickle you so that you cheer right up.

On this amphora, posted at, you can see the pist Achilleus at center, next to the hanging helmet.

“These buried people are dead and gone.”

Before or after they were buried?

Actually this is not necessarily another case of a student inept at writing about death, of which I have had words before. So often they are trying for a gravitas, a profundity, that they can’t get at with ideas or words. After laughing, I do spend a moment appreciating their aspirations.

The student who wrote about “buried people” here was discussing the case of a man who stole damaged or disintegrating cemetery art, refurbished it, and in some instances, including one spectacular case dealing with a Tiffany window, sold it. I ask students to decide what the man had actually done, and how criminal it is. I get some interesting essays from this topic.

This student is trying to say that the dead don’t care what happens to the stones (etc.) above them—or, in the case of the Tiffany window, the mausoleums around them. This is part of her argument that it is impossible actually to steal from the dead. So by “these buried people” she means “the people whose remains lie in this cemetery,” and by “dead and gone” she means “no longer capable of owning anything or having an opinion about material goods”; “no longer in this world.” She’s taking the clichéed “dead and gone” quite literally.

And I knew what she meant.

Alas, though, as in many of the other Horrors I copy into my little book, she may have meant it, but she didn’t write it.

The written word is a funny thing. We set great store by it, and whole disciplines—industries—have been built up to serve and interpret it (Literary Criticism, History, Constitutional Law, Theology…). Yet it is slippery, elusive, protean, relative, source-dependent, reader-dependent, inadequate.

Nevertheless, any effort at interpretation must begin with the thing itself, das Ding an sich—in this case, the word. And by that measure, my student has not made a point: she has merely written what seems to be a self-defining sentence that evokes laughter. Or at least silly questions.

Well, all I can say is, I hope I am well dead and gone before anyone tries to bury me.

“He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp of his wrist…”

How, oh how, to express the magnificence and power of Othello before Iago undermined it all and brought him low? Obviously one must marshal all the strong images at one’s command.

Or not quite at one’s command.

The sentence begins forcefully enough: “He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp…” And then Othello loses a lot of majesty when he wraps that wrist of his around the island. Even as figurative language this is bizarre.

But she goes on:

“He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp of his wrist that clenched with strength and fortitude.”

So the wrist is not merely wrapped; it’s clenched. Now, fists can clench; and muscles can clench—a tightening that, in the hand, produces a clenched fist and in the face a clenched jaw. But can wrists actually clench, even if the muscles in the wrist are clenched? Clench: “to clinch [meaning, in one sense, ‘to hold fast or firmly’].” “Clinch” is a transitive verb, which means you have to clinch something, just as in this usage the wrist would have to clench something. “Clench” can also mean “to hold fast, clutch.” Again, the clencher needs an object. And it can mean “to set or hold tightly,” as clenched teeth: the clencher clenched.

Well, of course the verb has an object—or. more correctly, at least something to clench—way back there before the prepositions and relative pronouns: the island of Cyprus. The clenching is what makes the grasp.

But what held the island of Cyprus—what clenched, or clenched on, it? That wrist. I think there are limits to how far closed a wrist can actually bend, but the island of Cyprus is pretty big. On the other hand (sorry!), I doubt someone could securely hold the whole island just by wrapping his wrist around part of it: a rock, for instance, or a sapling.

Even if the wrist is clenching “with strength and fortitude,” it has its limits.

This sentence is definitely one place where less would be more. “The island of Cyprus was firmly in his control.” Why not?

I wept to myself, “She can’t stop!”

Quietly I ran lines through many words and changed one: “He had the island of Cyprus in his grasp.” And in the margin I wrote “overwritten.” She never asked me what I meant. I hope she knew, because this kind of overwrought prose will never impress her readers as she so clearly wants to impress them.

The basic picture is just wrong, comically wrong. Embellish it as she will, it will just make them laugh.

“It left my blood boiled in cold water.”

Another student trying to express extreme emotion.

It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve been reading and listening today as people try to put their reactions to the latest senseless slaughter into words; I’ve been trying to express my own reactions too. Our vocabulary of horror and outrage is too small, and our culture has exploited it too often to hype fairly trivial things; language is less adequate than ever. (When we hear this kind of exchange every day—”Is there any ketchup?” “Yeah, here.” “Awesome”—how to describe the Grand Canyon, a major tornado, or God? When passing a healthcare bill is equated with the Holocaust, how can we think about the real Holocaust? When someone beholds a redecorated rec room and says “Oh My GOD!” how will she react to something worthy of such a powerful invocation?)

I don’t remember what event or literary situation or vision occasioned this student’s effort at strong language, but for a reader like me he achieved exactly the opposite of what he was trying for: he got helpless laughter.

Of course I knew what he meant. He was reaching into his brain for a figure of speech and accidentally grabbed parts of two, rather than one intact one. “It made my blood boil”—I was filled with rage.  “It made my blood run cold”—I was filled with a chilling horror.  He jams those two opposite figures of speech into one impossibility: a boiling coldness. The discordia concors, or paradox, so popular with Renaissance poets (“That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?” asks Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that the lover simultaneously freezes and burns with passion is seemingly invoked here. “I freeze, I burn,” indeed.

But that isn’t actually what he’s saying. He’s saying that his blood was boiled in cold water. Sort of the opposite of the frozen dinners that come in pouches, ready for immersion in boiling water to become a delectable treat: here perhaps the blood is in a bag and, by some miracle, immersed in cold water in order to boil. Maybe the water has some dry ice in it and will bubble and steam?

No, this would not have worked in my physics lab when I was a student, and it really doesn’t work on my student’s paper now.

I can certainly sympathize with his effort to express, his inability to express, an emotion—rage, most likely, not love!—that has filled him and shaken him. I celebrate his ability to feel emotion so strongly.

And I also sympathize that his teacher was ultimately unable to approve the wording as well as the emotion. Still, there it is.

“She and Candide were destined to be together in both their eyes.”

My student is referring here to Cunégonde, the lovely aristocratic inamorata of the eponymous character in Voltaire’s extraordinary satire Candide. They carom around the globe like balls on a warped billiards table, meeting, glancing off each other, spinning away, colliding…. Their adventures are bizarre and darkly hilarious; and, yes, through it all, Candide longs for Cunégonde and Cunégonde knows she loves Candide.

In Candide’s eyes—”eyes” in the sense of “view,” or “belief,” or “opinion”—Cunégonde is his destiny. In Cunégonde’s eyes—again, “eyes” in the sense of “view” etc.—Candide is her destiny.

So what’s so wrong with my student’s sentence?

First of all we have an unfortunately placed adverbial prepositional phrase. Moved to the beginning of the sentence, “in both their eyes” would more clearly modify the sentence as a whole via its verb “were destined”: in their opinions, they were destined to be together. At the end of the sentence, though, the phrase can seem to be answering “where?” about “be together,” just as “in Peoria” would work in the sentence “She and Harold were destined to be together in Peoria.” They are destined to be together in their eyes. If such a thing is possible. Eeuuw.

And then we have that unlikely but very real student-writing Waterloo, “both.” Students stick it in all sorts of places in all sorts of sentences, trying to signify a unanimity of purpose, feeling, experience, or what-have-you. Most often they wind up suggesting collaboration or conjunction where there is none and never was any. I could give examples here, but the examples I have are interesting in their own right and deserve separate treatment. Something to look forward to!

Meanwhile, the fact that most eyes come in sets of two adds further confusion to the phrase “in both their eyes.” Do they have only two together, as the Fates shared but one when they wanted to see the future? In Candide, two one-eyed lovers would be no more surprising than the Old Woman With One Buttock. Voltaire may have missed a really good idea there….

Les yeux (tous les deux) de Voltaire

“In ‘Beowulf’ I do not believe I heard anything about him being committed…”

While we’re on the subject of Beowulf.

Here’s a student who is up-front about having only a vague recollection of the text. “I do not believe” is, this time, not a denial of a thesis but an expression that means “hmmm, seems to me….” She treats the text as a story-telling or gossip session, too (“heard anything about”)—which is nice in a way, since we do believe the poem Beowulf was meant to be recited rather than read, and since the various legends on which it is based definitely were orally transmitted. Had my student been around in England or Denmark between, say, 500 and 1000 C.E., she certainly could have remarked that she didn’t believe she’d heard something about Beowulf. For the teacher who assigned the poem to be read, though, the phrase does not suggest conscientious behavior on the part of a student.

And what’s this about “him being committed”? Would rumors that he had been confined in a facility for the insane not have surprised her? Here we go:

“In ‘Beowulf’ I do not believe I heard anything about him being committed, but some may consider that Alison was somehow committed, but she really did not wed for love, only what was in it for her.”

As George Takei, my latest secret crush, would say, “Oh, my.”

The “Alison” in question is the winsome and lissome young wife in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale.” Yes, she’s married, but to an older and jealous husband (two out-of-proportion and therefore medievally negative traits)—who can blame her for flirting with a susceptible cleric and dallying with John’s lodger, “hende” Nicholas?

I can’t remember why my student felt that Beowulf and Alison should be discussed together. Maybe she was writing a paper about marriage in the literature of the Middle Ages…which would still raise the question of how Beowulf got in there, especially since Arthur and Guinevere were just waiting to be talked about and would, with Lancelot, have made an interesting combination with Alison, her elderly cuckoldy carpenter John, Absolon the squeamish cleric, and that irresistible hende Nicholas. But speculations are beside the point here: we have Beowulf, who doesn’t seem to have been committed, and Alison, who was “somehow committed.”

Well, the mention that Alison did not “wed for love” is the giveaway: “committed” is obviously short for “in a committed relationship.” Alison’s marriage was “somewhat committed,” but obviously not committed enough: she was only interested in “what was in it for her,” that gold-digger, and had not given John her heart along with her hand. The rest of her body was therefore up for, dare I say it, grabs. Enter hende Nicholas.

So when my student says she didn’t hear anything about Beowulf “being committed,” she means she didn’t hear any rumors that he was married, or in a committed relationship (can’t you just see theBeowulf poet trying to get that into a four-stress alliterative line with caesura? Try it!).

In a poem that celebrates the diplomacy-driven but clearly happy marriage of King Hrothgar and presents a number of other songs and back-stories involving good and bad marriages, Beowulf’s life is curiously private. All we know for sure is that when he died after his battle with the dragon he left no heirs of the body. Young Wiglaf, who in coming to Beowulf’s aid defies Beowulf’s announced determination to fight the dragon alone, is presented as the only young man in the rising generation with courage and principles of fealty like Beowulf’s; Beowulf says he has no sons to leave his armor to, and Wiglaf is the one who sits with him as he dies. Whether he had daughters, whether he had lovers, whether he had a wife, we do not know; my student is right, we don’t “hear anything” about those possibilities.

If we’re using “committed” to mean “promised, dedicated, pledged,” then certainly Beowulf was committed. Commitment was practically his middle name. He committed himself to repay his father’s debt of honor to Hrothgar by destroying Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, the monsters who had been besieging the Danes. He gave his loyalty to his own king and to the king’s heir, and then by popular demand succeeded him, to become a committed king for fifty years. He committed himself to protect his people by destroying the hoard-dragon some local drunk had awakened. In each of his battles he insisted on fighting alone, in view of the great risk (and also in view of his own reputation, at that time considered one’s earthly immortality).

But the way my student has phrased it, “committed” reeks of the loony bin. And maybe for Alison staying faithful to old John would have driven her nuts.

Does the rising generation of today use “committed” to mean “in a committed relationship”? If I hear someone say “I heard he was committed,” should I not think of mental or emotional problems but instead imagine him happy and fulfilled? If I see a smooching couple, should I walk up to them and say “You two should be committed!“? And what would my student think if she read that for a time King George III’s family had him committed?