Scesis Onomaton Sets the Scene

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Here is John Banville in Mefisto describing a hospital setting. Read the Quote, then see if you can count the conjunctions and main verbs in each sentence—it’s easy, very easy. (Answer below.)

Quote:

Sighs, groans. Shouts in the night. An old man puking up gouts of green stuff, leaning over the side of the bed, a young nurse holding his forehead. Slow, wet, coughs, like the noise of defective suction pumps ponderously labouring. In the huge, white-tiled bathrooms, little labels exhorting patients not to spit in the handbasins. Everywhere the same thick cream paint, smooth as enamel, clammy as skin. I wore a mouse-colour dressing-gown with faded red piping.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Effective description.

This may not be the most pleasant scene to paint, but it is well-painted. A lot of figures went into making it flow smoothly, but one particular figure is at the core: scesis onomaton, which means the relation of words, and it has something to do with verbs. How many verbs did you count in the Quote?

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The answer is one—the wore in the last sentence of the Quote. Note that puking, leaning, holding, labouring, exhorting are all participles, and to spit is a noun. Scesis onomaton is a sentence without a main verb. Scesis onomaton exists to set the scene.

Even though there are no verbs until that last sentence, the scene isn’t as static and sedated as you might suppose. Note how shouts implies action, as does puking, pumps, exhorting, or spitting. 

What is at the core of the Quote?

Scesis onomaton, alliteration, simile, personification, asyndeton.

If employed thoughtfully, scesis onomaton can be a shortcut to brevity and clarity in many cases. Last week I quoted Ray Bradbury from Zen in the Art of Writing, so the “shape” of his prose was before my eyes; I flipped to his first chapter and was rewarded with a good example in the opening two sentences:

Zest. Gusto.

What an energetic start to the book! Forsyth gives an excellent example in The Elements of Eloquence, and I bet you’ve heard this one:

Space: the final frontier. 

Then he tries to rewrite it without the ascesis onomaton: This is Space, which is the final frontier. Rubbish, right?

Alliteration means beginning closely positioned words with the same sound or letter: sighs, shouts, stuff, side, slow, suction, spit, same, smooth, skin; groans, gouts of green; leaning, labouring, little labels; puking, pumps, ponderously, patients, paint, piping.

Simile: like the noise of, smooth as enamel, clammy as skin.

Personification: labels exhorting, pumps ponderously labouring.

Asyndeton: the omission of conjunctions. My previous post, The Flow of Experiencediscussed the opposite figure called the polysyndeton, which is the inclusion of conjunctions that could have been omitted. Today’s Quote is an extreme example of asyndeton. The number of conjunctions in the Quote: zero.

Addendum

Along comes E. B. White with his little 1939 essay No Verbs for The New Yorker. (I quote from Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976.)

We particularly envy [gossip columnists] their ability to earn a living by talking in participles. You have, of course, observed this phenomenon of the American press—the sentence with no verb. From a literary standpoint it is the prose invention of the century, for it enables the writer to sound as though he were saying something without actually saying it. Thus: “Mrs. Oral Ferrous on the Starlight Roof, chatting with Count de Guiche.”

So! Scesis onomaton had its moment in the gossip columns of the 1930s. A few lines further down (for this is truly a short essay), White says how they resolved the unwholesome effects of these sentences on their nervous systems.

…we took to completing all sentences under our breath—using a standard predicate. We found that the predicated “ought to be in bed” served well enough, and that is the one we still use. Almost any old predicate will do, however. The important thing is to add it.

Shall we give it a go?

Space: the final frontier ought to be in bed.

Zest, Gusto ought to be in bed.

Sighs, groans ought to be in bed.

Shouts in the night ought to be in bed.

An old man puking up gouts of green stuff ought to be in bed.

 

To E. B. White wherever he is: it works, it still works. Thank you.

 

PS If you have a favourite predicate, do share it below!

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Reading Recommendations

  1. Mefisto, John Banville. Because it’s a reworking of the classic Dr Faustus theme, according to a blurb, although if that is the case, it is a loose reworking.
  2. The Infinities, John Banville. More lyrical prose. I discuss the opening sentence of his book (a periodic sentence) in Periodic Before Dawn.
  3. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Because it’s fundamental to the how Faust is thought about in Western culture.
  4. More of E. B. White’s brilliance, as featured on QQ.

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11 responses

  1. Wow. What a post. What a blog! Thanks for the like — I’m so honoured, especially after reading this bit of your blogging. And of course I am absolutely compelled to follow it from now on, with only one question floating in my head: where have you and your blog been, all my life…?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed them (I’m sure there’ll be more to come)!

      I often play around with the number of conjunctions in a sentence, adding some and omitting others, then reading the results aloud to see what effect I’ve achieved. The differences are surprising. Moreover a few small changes can help balance the rhythm of a sentence or of a paragraph, even without altering the meaning or overall tone. Feels like a cheap trick and yet …

      Like

  2. I used to tell my English students that once they have learned the RULES of grammar, and understand them, they are free to break them. We don’t think in perfectly constructed sentences. I’m glad I now have a label to put on a concept, although I will probably never use it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You will probably never use the label, is that what you mean? (as opposed to never use the concept/figure)
      It is obscure, you’re right. I find that knowing the label, or some approximation of it, helps me structure language tools in my head and analyse what works and what doesn’t work in other people’s writing.

      Like

      • You are so totally right. I don’t care a twit what the legal name is.But all I ever wanted was for my students to have enough bravery to flaunt every rule the English Coordinator set down in his manifesto.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I see. I have trouble sticking to the rules, not flaunting them … It’s striking a balance that’s hard, and more importantly, knowing in each situation the margins of this so-called balance, knowing how much they can stretch before they break and you find yourself in the Land of the Boring or the Land of the Wild.

        Liked by 1 person

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