“Program or program not: there is no try.”

By Sarah Hertz


As a novice programmer, I am reminded of Yoda’s words to Luke Skywalker on the swamp-planet Dagobah: “You must unlearn what you have learned.” During the course of this project, I’ve had many surprises; and the relevance of Star Wars quotes is one of them. Since grade six, I only ever thought of Yoda’s proverbs as playful inversions of syntax—some of which took a few too many trips through the Google translator (like “around the survivors a perimeter create”). What I didn’t know then—and what I realize now—is that Jedi Knights are trained to fight with words as well as lightsabers. Indeed, Yoda’s most famous maxim, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering” is a classic example of climax or gradatio.

Studying rhetoric is like crashing on Dagobah and getting tangled in Greek and Latin homonyms, steaming bayous, and sinkholes. This week, when Adam James Bradley and I spoke about programming our first rhetorical figure, gradatio, our discussion of classical rhetoric sparked a debate on clauses, parenthetical statements, and versification. My map of English syntax had to be thrown, so to speak, out the X-wing window. As it turns out, contemplating in code affords new perspectives on prose and poetry.

A long time ago, in a schoolroom far, far away…

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In most rhetoric manuals, gradatio is used synonymously with climax and is defined as “the arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in an order of increasing importance, often in parallel structure.”1 The word gradatio comes from the Latin gradus, meaning ‘step,’ and is part of George Puttenham’s family of ‘mounting figures’ or figures of amplification. While gradatio is a figure of amplification (or incrementum), anadiplosis is the figure of repetition that most often accompanies it, where “the last word (or phrase) from the previous line, clause, or sentence” is repeated “at the beginning of the next.”2 Splayed like a deck of cards, the properties of members in a gradatio series overlap, with the “nth member of the series sharing one property with n − 1 and another property with n + 1, but not the same property and in differing degrees with both.”3 Gradatio has a long history, spanning from the King James Bible,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.4

To Shakespeare,

For your brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed, no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason, no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage.5

To American presidential campaigns:

One voice can change a room. And if it can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change a world.6

Its effects are equally varied. The amplification-repetition of Obama’s rhetoric (from room to city to state to nation to world) epitomizes “the conceptual configuration known as emboîtement or nesting, a containments strategy like a Russian doll where the little doll fits inside the middle-sized doll, the middle-sized doll fits in the big doll, and the big doll fits in the giant-sized doll.”7 Alternatively, reading gradatio is like playing on a tire-swing: the first word in a series comes full circle and repeats itself at the end. Though no definition of gradatio accounts for this circular subspecies, it is best described as a combination of gradatio and the rhetorical figure antimetabole. Like the multicolour spaghetti-wires of a Renaissance Rubik’s Cube, gradatio and antimetabole are intertwined:

Without a healthy economy we can’t have a healthy society and without a healthy society the economy won’t stay healthy for long.8


You admit that twenty grains are a heap; if you admit twenty, you must admit twenty minus one; if you admit twenty minus one, you must admit twenty minus two, etc., until one is lead to assert that twenty minus nineteen form a heap.9

Gradatio not only occurs alongside antimetabole, but also zeugma,

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.10

And anaphora:

Since wailing is a bud of causeful sorrow, / Since sorrow is the follower of ill fortune.11

Such variations produce different rhetorical effects, and call for literary-critical, as well as computational, distinctions. What effects do these have on readers/receivers? Ultimately, are they programmable?

Programming Poetics: Unlearning What You Have Learned

We agreed at the outset to define our terms before programming. After agreeing upon gradatio as “essentially, anadiplosis—except the words are arranged in order of increasing importance” and anadiplosis as “repetition at the end of one clause and the beginning of the next” (not necessarily in order of increasing importance), we decided to program anadiplosis, leaving the more semantically-complex gradatio behind—for now. We waded into the swamplands of Dagobah, but hit a few technical glitches:

Q. What is a clause?

A. Initially defined as “punctuation followed by a space”—unless, of course, you’re Laurence Sterne:

—And pray who was Tickletoby’s mare?—’tis just as dis-creditable and unscholar-like a question, Sir, as to have asked what year (ab. urb. con.) the second Punic war broke out.—Who was Tickletoby’s mare!—Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! read,—or by the knowledge of the great saint Paraleipomenon—I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once…12

This passage forced us to redefine the clause, in that it contains a question mark immediately followed by an m-dash and an apostrophe.13 According to our original instructions, the computer wouldn’t recognize “mare? —’tis” as a new clause; so we redefined ‘clause’ in our protocol as “punctuation followed by anything that’s not punctuation.” When I first sent this example to Adam (pulling it out of the book, over Google+) I confidently asserted that there was “no anadiplosis whatever.” Upon closer inspection, we realized that “Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader!” was, according to our ontology,14 the most basic form anadiplosis could take. Neither of us would have highlighted it as anadiplosis in a critical paper, without having been forced to program it.

Q. Can anadiplosis skip a clause?

All the rest is silence

On the other side of the wall;

And the silence ripeness,

And the ripeness all.15

            A. No. The repetition of ripeness in Auden qualifies, but the repetition of silence does not. The program we’re writing will locate ripeness as anadiplosis, but not silence by looking for repetition in three tokens, or words, to the left and right of any line breaks or punctuation. Silence won’t be highlighted because the surrounding tokens “rest is silence” | “On the other” contain no repetition.

“Much to learn you still have…”

Q. Does anadiplosis ever occur between a clause and a (parenthetical statement)?

Q. How do you delineate a phrase? One of the most challenging aspects of anadiplosis is repetition at the phrasal level:

What I present here is what I remember of the letter, and what I remember of the letter I remember verbatim (including that awful French).16

The computer will recognize ‘,’ as the marker of the new clause, and duly check three tokens to the left and right of the breaker. There it will find “of the letter” | “and what I”—failing to highlight Nabokov’s repetition.


Anwers? Queries? Trained in the art of rhetoric? Tweet us @TheZeugmatic.

  1. See Gideon O. Burton’s definition on Silva Rhetoricae. []
  2. There are subtler distinctions. For instance, gradatio is often grouped under the family of ‘mounting figures,’ which includes auxesis. In A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, Richard A. Lanham makes the following distinction between auxesis and gradatio: that though auxesis is “usually not listed by theorists as synonymous with the Climax/Anadiplosis cluster of terms…the difference between auxesis…and climax is a pretty fine one…[it] seems to be that in the climax cluster, the climactic series is realized through linked pairs of terms. One might therefore say that the auxesis cluster is a figure of amplification and the climax cluster a scheme of arrangement…we can call a climactic series a climax only when the terms are linked” (27). Though Gideon O. Burton’s Silva Rhetoricae (on which Ashley Rose Kelley’s Rhetorical Ontology is based) separates anadiplosis from climax, the figures are related. Their proximity makes them difficult to disentangle—something we aspire to, at a later stage. []
  3. See Jeanne Fahnestock’s Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion, p. 96. []
  4. KJV Joh. 1:1 []
  5. AYLI 5.2.31-7 []
  6. Barack Obama, presidential campaign speech in Des Moines, Iowa, November 5, 2012. []
  7. See Jeanne Fahnestock’s Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion, p. 246. []
  8. Margaret Thatcher []
  9. This fallacy was created by Eubulides or Chrysippus. []
  10. Romans 5:3-5 []
  11. Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia []
  12. Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy []
  13. This extract is from the Penguin edition; text files may be equally variable. []
  14. As “repetition at the end of one clause and the beginning of the next.” []
  15. W. H. Auden, The Sea and the Mirror []
  16. Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, Lolita []