Name that literary device
March 9, 2017 7:18 AM   Subscribe

I've had the great soul ballad "Rainbow Road" caught in my head all morning and it's bugging me that I don't know the proper name for the device used in one of the verses. "Then one day a man with a knife / Forced me to take his life / Though I pleaded with him so desperately / The judge showed no mercy when he passed his sentence on me." "Him" could refer to either the judge or the man with the knife. What is it called when you intentionally use an ambiguous pronoun for rhetorical effect? Is there a specific name for doing this between two other nouns that it could refer to?
posted by vathek to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd call this implied or ambiguous antecedent.

See also zeugma and syllepsis as related double-duty concepts in rhetoric.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:31 AM on March 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Google reveals 'anaphoric ambiguity' to be a term used by linguists, and which would apply to your case. Like here, scroll down a little.

But the concept of 'anaphor' looks to be different in rhetoric than in linguistics. So perhaps speaking of anaphoric ambiguity would cause confusion in a discussion about rhetoric.
posted by bertran at 7:34 AM on March 9, 2017

I actually don't read that line as referring to the victim at all. It's clearly about the judge. But if you think it's ambiguous, the figure of speech is called a lexical ambiguity or polysemy.
posted by beagle at 7:38 AM on March 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I browsed Silva Rhetoricae (careful; it's like TV Tropes), and syllepsis gets my vote, too.
posted by notyou at 7:41 AM on March 9, 2017

I don't think calling it a 'lexical ambiguity' is correct, because, as the article beagle links to explains, lexcial ambiguity has to do with unclear choice between multiple dictionary definitions of a word. Here, the dictionary sense of 'him' is unambiguous, but its reference is ambiguous, both to the world and to earlier in the sentence. It's closer to a syntactic ambiguity, actually, as described later in the same article. But 'anaphoric ambiguity' or 'ambiguous antecedent' are correct and more precise.
posted by bertran at 7:48 AM on March 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Syllepsis looks like a very cool figure, but it's not a figure of ambiguity in assigning a reference. In syllepsis, one word is interpreted, accurately, as being grouped with two other words, but each of the groupings involves somewhat different (dictionary) semantics for the main word. Consider Silva Rhetoricae's example: "Rend your heart, and not your garments." 'Rend' applies to both 'heart' and 'garments' but in slightly different ways. It applies metaphorically to 'heart' and literally to 'garments', perhaps. In the OP's example, 'him' refers either to 'judge' or 'man' but only to one of them -- and in the same sense of 'him' to whichever of them -- but we don't know which one it is.

(I hope my commentary on these responses isn't excessive! I'm just fascinated by these sorts of questions.)
posted by bertran at 8:07 AM on March 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

(Did some more reading on wikipedia and came back to correct what I had written initially, but Swiss Meringue Buttercream has explained perfectly.)
posted by bertran at 9:42 AM on March 9, 2017

I concur that the ambiguity is temporary and the "him" obviously refers to the judge as soon as the last clause is processed. I don't think there was any poetic intention to ambiguate here either, just an intention for the rhyme scheme to predominate over syntactic or referential clarity, as is very typical in popular music lyrics (and blues lyrics even more so).

Not that a listener couldn't note and take pleasure in the momentary lack of clarity (it's not even ambiguous since the judge hasn't been introduced as an antecedent yet) of an anaphoric pronoun. Chomsky in fact called examples such as this primary evidence for deep syntactic structures, meaning that we can proces two alternate meanings at once and decide from context how the sentence is actually constructed in phrase structure. In effect we know both syntactic models in advance in which "him" could refer to the antecedent subject in the prior independent clause (the opponent) or a forthcoming subject in an independent clause (the judge).

But the ambiguity in question (if we want to call it that) doesn't accomplish anything semantically in relation to this canonical narrative form that has a long history in blues verse and folks songs (forced to fight and kill, required by the law to pay a price, insisting on the honor of the act despite that). So an experienced listener with a knowledge of the genre knows a judge or a cop is about to enter the story before he (it's always he) is even mentioned.
posted by spitbull at 10:40 AM on March 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

(I know it's not syllepsis, I said it was related :D)
I'm pretty sure it's also not polysemy- that's the "seme" of semantic, related to multiple distinct senses (like milking a cow vs a gallon of milk) , not distinct or multiple antecedents. "Him" still unambiguously means "that guy I was talking about", even if that phrase could mean a few different people.

Complicating the issue is that multiple/ambiguous antecedents often comes up as a problem to be avoided in young writers and second language learners, so that stands out much more strongly than any intentional literary/rhetorical usage.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:50 AM on March 9, 2017

The great linguistic anthropologist and poet Paul Friedrich coined the term "polytropy" to explain the way poetic and rhetorical tropes could be embedded within such other, and with irony as the sort of master trope of sustained ambiguity. His famous essay "Polytropy," which requires a fair knowledge of Peircian semiotic theory to read, appears in 1991 *Beyond Metaphor,* edited by James W Fernandez, Stanford U Press.
posted by spitbull at 11:07 AM on March 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

The whole clause could belong to either the preceding one or the following one, depending on punctuation. Without commas and periods visible to the eye, its ambiguous, but the phrasing of the music might make it clear.

I think it's arguable that it is not just the pronoun that's ambiguous.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:01 PM on March 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Building on what SemiSalt said, the poetic phrasing makes the meaning ambiguous. Consider:

"Then one day a man with a knife forced me to take his life, though I pleaded with him so desperately. The judge showed no mercy when he passed his sentence on me."


"Then one day a man with a knife forced me to take his life. Though I pleaded with him so desperately, the judge showed no mercy when he passed his sentence on me."

You could even make a case that "his sentence" could mean the judge's sentence or, figuratively, the man with the knife's sentence, though the distance between the pronoun and that antecedent makes it somewhat less likely.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 12:31 PM on March 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

The rhymes (knife/life, desperately/on me) suggest the pleading was to the judge.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:39 PM on March 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes it's crucial that the musical form interacts with syntax and sentence intonation and vocal stance to produce the primary version of this poetry, which is sung. It is possible to add many extra-linguistic markers of syntactic articulations and boundaries by means of musical parralelism and vocal personae. That is a crucial point obscured by reading the words transcribed. See Simon Frith, "Why Do Songs Have Words?" In his collection "Music for Pleasure" on this.
posted by spitbull at 1:35 PM on March 9, 2017

Just coming back to express puzzlement about the accuracy of the lyrics quoted. Various lyrics sites list them differently. As sung by Joan Baez:
Then one night a man with a knife
Pushed me till I had to take his life
Fast as fallin' all my friends were gone
That old judge traded me a sentence for a song
Same lyrics as sung by Kris Kristofferson.
Same lyrics as performed by Steve Goodman.
Ditto, Percy Sledge.
Donnie Fritts and Dan Penn
I can find no version containing the line "Though I pleaded with him so desperately".
posted by beagle at 1:53 PM on March 9, 2017

Interesting suggestion about the musical phrasing possibly disambiguating a text such as this. I went and listened to Bill Brandon's recording of the song. (Version with desperate pleading.) And the way the lines are sung there, it sounds very ambiguous, to my ear, even after the 'judge' is mentioned, whom is being pleaded with. More than with the text alone. And creating more than a momentary lack of clarity.

Whether that ambiguity is structurally important for the song, I don't know...

(And yeah, what a good song/recording!)
posted by bertran at 1:55 PM on March 9, 2017

argh, who is being pleaded with. ;(
posted by bertran at 2:12 PM on March 9, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers. Yes, I was thinking of the Bill Brandon version. I'd heard a few other versions, but I had no idea there were so many and I had forgotten that there was a lyrical variation. Many of the others have appealing elements but the Bill Brandon version is one of those songs so perfect you wonder why anyone else bothered to record it, a bit like another Dan Penn classic, James Carr's "The Dark End of the Street." The Percy Sledge version I've heard has the "desperately" lyric, though, I'm not sure why the lyric site doesn't reflect that.

I think the ambiguity is undeniable in the Bill Brandon's recorded version. One first hears, "Then one night a man with a knife / Forced me to take his life / Though I pleaded with him so desperately." At that point it doesn't even sound ambiguous. It seems to expand on the idea that the singer is "forced" to kill the man, since he makes it sound as if he tried to talk his way out of the situation and was unable to. It's only when he sings the next line that one realizes that perhaps he's not pleading with the man he killed.

I'm not sure that it's particularly important to the message of the song, but I think the surprise of the ambiguity is emotionally effective, though I'd be hard pressed to describe just how or why.
posted by vathek at 2:43 PM on March 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

DrAstroZoom: "You could even make a case that "his sentence" could mean the judge's sentence or, figuratively, the man with the knife's sentence, though the distance between the pronoun and that antecedent makes it somewhat less likely."

This is actually what I thought at first, which made it seem particularly brilliant to me. The man with the knife received an (extrajudicial) sentence: death. The perpetrator-protagonist may very well have received that exact same sentence from the judge, thus the knife-man's "sentence" got passed on to him.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:29 PM on March 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

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