Exploring the Uses of Polyptoton

Polyptoton (etymologically from the Greek combination ‘poly’ (many) and ‘ptotos’ (falling), or ‘ptosis’ grammatical case), is a stylisticOpens in new window device for the repetition of words with same etymonOpens in new window in a sentence, each time with a different inflectionalOpens in new window ending, so as to add to the sentence a rhetorical effect.

In polyptoton, the collocationOpens in new window of the same etymons, often signifies a close conceptual relationship between two referents.

1.   Reciprocal Relationship

Polyptoton may be used with the variant form of active and passive verb to signify the performance of a single action by one and to the other. An effective repetition of the inflectional ending of a word merely ties the wording of a sentence together in such form that denotes the same reciprocal relationship.

Examples include:

  1. Judge not, that ye be not judged

    — (Mathew 7:1)

  2. Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed

    — (Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude )

  3. Our knights are thinking only of the money they will make in ransoms: it is not kill or be killed with them, but pay or be paid.

    — Shaw, Saint Joan (1923)

  4. It clearly would not be well for the world that we should always beat other nations and never be beaten.

    — (Trollope, North America)

2.   Signifying the Actor and the Act.

This figure has its usefulness in many ways, one of such, is: signifying the “doer” or “actor” of the act, and the doing of the act.

This is possibly achieved by using the same etymon to develop the subject and verb form. This form of repetition goes a long way to define the actor by clarifying the act.

Examples include:

  1. “With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder.”

    — (Richard II, 2, I)

  2. “I followed him; if I was seduced into error, or into unjustifiable opposition,
    there sits my seducer.”

    — (Webster, Speech in the Senate)

  3. “I cannot understand why all solicitors did not leave off soliciting, all doctors leave off doctoring, all judges leave off judging, all benevolent bankers leave off lending money at high interest, and all rising politicians leave off having nothing to add to what their right honourable friend told the House about eight years ago.”

    — (Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men)

3.   Using Two Nouns.

Similar to the examples examined above, two forms of noun from the same etymon may be used to signify the actor, and the actor's area(s) of interest.

Examples include:

  1. “No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations, and of kings, sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them.”

    — Johnson, Milton (1794)

  1. “On any other occasion I should think myself justifiable in treating with silent contempt anything which might fall from that honorable member; but there are times when the insignificance of the accuser is lost in the magnitude of the accusation.”

    — Grattan, speech in the Parliament (1800)

  2. “We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the Gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen!”

    — Douglas, My Bondage, My Freedom (1855)

  3. Note that two nouns derived from the same etymon can be used to refer to the doer of an act and the receiver of the act or other object to whom the act is done. The end result would be to emphasize upon their relationship or dependent quality:

  4. “The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?”

    — (Measure for Measure, 2,2)

  5. “When Byron divided humanity into the bores and the bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself.”

    — (Chesterton, Heretics)

  6. Sometimes these constructions also express relations of superiority or priority, as when one party is subservient to another. The different endings on the words produce opposite roles for the players, the symmetry of which is stressed by the common root. Instances below:

  7. “We are all born in subjection – all born equally, high and low, governors and governed, in subjection to one great, immutable, preexistent law, prior to all our devices, and prior to all our contrivances.”

    — (Burke, argument in the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings)

  8. This is what the blood of the innocent Lamb of God, shed for the redemption of sinners, trampled upon by the vilest of the vile, insists upon.

    — (Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

4.   Using Adjective & Adverb as Modifier.

Polyptoton can be used with different forms of modifier: the adjective and adverb close paired. A typical feature of this construction is to show a match between act and response:

Examples include:

  1. Unheedful vows may heedfully be broken; . . .”

    Two Gentlemen of Verona, 2,6

  2. The noble Brutus
    Hath told you Caesar was ambitious;
    If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
    And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

    Julius Caesar, 3,2

    Antony's use of the common root makes the fault and the penalty sound congruent.

5.   Combining Modifier & Verb.

This is especially instrumental in such circumstances, where the speaker wants to mention the possibility of doing something and the act of doing it.

Examples include:

  1. “I have never been able to love what was not lovable or hate what was not hateful out of deference for some general principle.”

    — (Conrad, Some Reminiscences)

  2. “Let us suppose – for the case is supposable, possible, and probable – that you happen to deal those powers to unworthy hands.”

    (Henry, speech at Virginia Rastifying Convention)

  3. This very concept is also instrumental when stating contrary views, as when referring to the doing of that which cannot be done. Polyptoton in this aspect can serve a paradoxical purpose:

  4. “The honest man is he who is always trying to utter the unutterable, to describe the indescribable; but the quack lives not by plunging into mystery, but by refusing to come out of it.”

    (Chesterton, The Mystagogue.)

  5. “I acknowledge it is difficult to form a constitution. But I have seen difficulties conquered which were as unconquerable as this.”

    — (Henry, Speech at Virginia Rastifying Convention)

6.  Combining Modifier & Noun

Examples include:

  1. “They do not talk bookishly about clouds or stones, or pigs or slugs, or horses or anything you please. They talk priggishly about pigs; and sluggishly, I suppose, about slugs; and are refreshingly horsy about horses. They speak in a stony way of stones; they speak in a cloudy way of clouds; and this is surely the right way.”

    — Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (1910)

  2. “If we are only a commercial and manufacturing people, all must admit that commerce was thriving and that manufactures flourished.”

    — Disraeli, speech on Laws (1846)

  3. The effect is the now-familiar one: polyptoton stresses the match between traits and events.

  4. “All one can say is, roughly, that the homelier the home, and the more familiar the family, the worse for everybody concerned.”

    — (Shaw, A Treatise on Parents and Children)

    Putting the two pairs next to each other produces euphony by varying the alliterated sounds.

  5. “It is the same with all the powerful of to-day; it is the same, for instance, with the high-placed and high-paid official. Not only is the judge not judicial, but the arbiter is not even arbitrary.”

    — (Chesterton, The Man on Top)

  6. “In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people.”

    — (Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

7.   Adjacent Words

Memorable cases of polyptoton can be achieved by putting the words with the same root – usually a verb and its object – side by side. Meeting the twin words in succession is arresting and amplifies their effect.

Examples include:

  1. All form is formless, order orderless.
  2. They think me mad – Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!

    — (Melville, Moby-Dick)

  3. He had incurred the ridicule of having to have his explanation explained.

    — (James, The Ambassadors)

Important Hint! 

Polyptoton, like all repetitive devices, tends to mark an utterance as stylish and oratorical, an excessive use of the device will only make an awkwardly momentary theme. It must be used with sensitivity to the occasion; hence to avoid Shakespearean reproach: “I praise God for you, sir: your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affection, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy.” It’s much better to use it judiciously as proved relevant to the given occasion.

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