Figurative language in teaching

I found a free Kindle e-book on Amazon a while back called How to Speak and Write Correctly, by Joseph Delvin. I began listening to it on my commute and it reminded me how much I enjoy words, writing, grammar, and all that other nerdy stuff. The first half of the book was mostly technical, instructions regarding the usage of commonly misused words like further and farther, each other and one another, less and fewer– the kind of stuff only word-people actually like. The second half concentrated more on the art and nature of good writing and good speaking. As a pastor, I write and speak a lot, and of all the words that could be used to describe me one of the words I fear most is boring, so I glean from wherever I can the tricks that will help me avoid that. Chapter four in this little book was helpful.

Chapter Four is called “Figurative Language.”

“In figurative language we employ words in such a way that they differ somewhat from their ordinary signification in commonplace speech and convey our meaning in a more vivid and impressive manner than when we use them in their everyday sense. Figures make speech more effective, they beautify and emphasize it and give to it a relish and piquancy as salt does to food; besides they add energy and force to expression so that it irresistibly compels attention and interest.”

He goes on to list 15 figures of speech that a writer or speaker can employ to season their diction:

  1. Simile
  2. Metaphor
  3. Personification
  4. Allegory
  5. Synecdoche
  6. Metonymy
  7. Exclamation
  8. Hyperbole
  9. Apostrophe
  10. Vision
  11. Antithesis
  12. Climax
  13. Epigram
  14. Interrogation
  15. Irony

As a pastor, my primary calling is to preach the Word. Simply put, my job is to communicate with precision the truth of God’s Word. It’s of utmost importance to know the Word, but it doesn’t matter how much I know if I’m tongue-tied and misunderstood every time I get up to teach. And though clarity is essential to good communication, even clarity is nothing if I’m boring. Our speech needs to be aflame. It needs to taste like something. It needs to grab the listener and hold him in place.

Certain ways of speaking pique interest. Have you ever listened to a speaker who was not a yeller, not even particularly dynamic– but the way he formulated his words and sentences and thoughts was captivating? If you haven’t, listen to R.C. Sproul or Tim Keller– their manner of speaking holds your attention even though their style tends to be more academic. John Piper brilliantly weaves words together to make his communication beautifully aesthetic; gripping. Macarthur can strategically and powerfully drill a concept into your heart by the forceful use of the perfect series of words. These are speakers who have understood the power of language. And much of it has to do with mastering figures of speech. Though the ability to preach and teach is a gift, we can apply ourselves to sharpen our God-given skills by studying language.

In the next few posts, I am going to be examining some of these figurative language terms and their application to teaching/preaching, with hopes to benefit my own ministry and other people in the teaching world who are interested.

When a word dies

C.S. Lewis agrees with me (see previous post):

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

The sad, unnecessary death of a word

I am going to share a pet peeve of mine that, I believe, is reasonable. Most pet peeves are nothing more than petty annoyances, but this peeve ranks beyond a mere annoyance and is heading in the direction of problem. I might even say, “serious” problem. My pet peeve is this: the misuse of the word epic.

Epic used to mean something. It had a great, objective meaning that it carried with it. When used rightly, it came with sweeping power, capturing the idea of a story far bigger than ourselves. It was a great word– a word that was once rarely used, and rightly so, because not very many things in life are truly epic.

Milton’s Paradise Lost, which poetically recounts the devastating fall of man and the subsequent removal from Eden is epic. Lord of the Rings might be considered an epic. God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ is the most epic story of all. The word described a vast and glorious concept of an all-encompassing story. It was a transcendent word. It was bigger than us.

But in the last three years the word has been destroyed. Epic has fallen from its heights and has been dragged through the mud. The word has lost all dignity, and recently, all meaning. The death of a word is a sad thing, and, as I mentioned earlier, a serious thing.

Words are the powerful vessels of truth. Truth is given and received in words– written or spoken. Ideas, concepts, principles– these are all communicated in words. God’s first relation to humanity was in the spoken word; and he continues to speak today by his written word. God intended the words he spoke to have clear and objective meaning; they were the means of communicating ideas and concepts. Man was created to receive and interpret the words of God. From the beginning of Scripture God has woven words into the fabric of human existence. We need words to survive, relate, and develop. God himself even said “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). These truth-vessels must be protected and maintained. When a word dies, in essence, some truth dies with it.

Let’s take the word epic, for instance. The objective meaning it once held is gone. These days, the word is used to describe anything one subjectively enjoys. A nice song is epic. Your car is epic. Queen Latifah is epic. Now, a perfectly useful word that could have been used to describe things that were truly epic is unusable. The word is dead. It cannot be used with precision anymore– it doesn’t mean anything. When I call something epic, instead of describing something of its characteristics, I am describing how I feel about it.

Language is as useful as it is precise. As words lose precision, language loses power. If no one can agree on the definition of a word, no one can say anything. The less potent our language is, the more impotent our culture will be. Satan wins a battle every time a word dies. By chipping away at our language, he cripples our ability to communicate truth, for truth must, by necessity, be communicated in words.