Monday, March 4, 2013

Accidental Alliteration

Years ago, a professor made a comment on a paper of mine that has stayed with me through the years. He circled a phrase (the precise contours of which I cannot remember) and warned me to “watch out for accidental alliteration.” At the time, I was surprised by the comment; mostly, I was surprised that the comment made perfect sense. The reader had noted something that had simply eluded me, the writer—a mindless use of language that had resulted in a formulation that was a tad distracting, if not downright comical (when I did not intend to be either distracting or comical).
In case anyone needs a refresher course: alliteration is a poetic device that involves capitalizing on music created by repeating the initial sound in a series of words. An example of an effective alliteration is: “I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me.” George Orwell, “A Hanging” (an essay); or even more artful: “The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life." F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
Shakespeare consciously produced both lovely, lyric alliterations and instances of comical (quasi-accidental) alliteration. First, consider this from the Prologue to R & J:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes;
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.

And compare that with Bottom’s speech as the distraught “Pyramus” in Midsummer’s hilarious play-within-the-play:
Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams;
I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright;
For, by thy gracious, golden, glittering gleams,
I trust to take of truest Thisby sight.
But stay, O spite!
But mark, poor knight,
What dreadful dole is here!
Eyes, do you see?
How can it be?
O dainty duck! O dear!
Thy mantle good,
What, stain'd with blood!
Approach, ye Furies fell!
O Fates, come, come,
Cut thread and thrum;
Quail, crush, conclude, and quell!
(Midsummer, V.1)
In other words, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about alliteration and was well aware of the treacherously fine line between poetic trope and bloviated bluster and knew how to exploit both sides of that line.
Legal writers can learn from this luminous line. Composing without listening for accidental alliteration or clunky word repetitions can mean work product burdened with distracting or, worse, downright comical formulations, e.g.: “The statute’s speech restrictions restrict speech unrelated to the government’s asserted interest” and “The Court could contort to conclude the clause is unconstitutional only by concluding it is content-based.”
So I proffer: prepare to perceive your own non-purposeful­ purple prose and purge before going public­.

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