An epigram is a stylistic device akin to a proverb, the only

difference being that epigrams are coined by individuals whose names

"we know, while proverbs are the coinage of the people. In other words, we are always aware of the parentage of an epigram and therefore, when using one, we usually make a reference to its author.

Epigrams are terse, witty, pointed statements, showing the ingen­ious turn of mind of the originator. They always have a literary-book­ish air about them that distinguishes them from proverbs. Epigrams possess a great degree of independence and therefore, if taken out of the context, will retain the wholeness of the idea they express. They have a generalizing function. The most characteristic feature of an epi­gram is that the sentence gets accepted as a word combination and of­ten becomes part of the language as a whole. Like proverbs, epigrams can be expanded to apply to abstract notions (thus embodying dif­ferent spheres of application). Brevity is the essential quality of the epigram. A. Chekhov once said that brevity is the sister of talent; Brevity is the soul of the wit' holds true of any epigram.

Epigrams are often confused with aphorisms and paradoxes. It is difficult to draw a demarcation line between them, the distinc­tion being very subtle. Real epigrams are true to fact and that is why they win general recognition and acceptance.

Let us turn to examples.

Somerset Maugham in "The Razor's Edge" says:

"Art is triumphant when it can use convention as an instru­ment of its own purpose."

This statement is interesting from more than one point of view. It shows the ingenious turn of mind of the writer, it gives an indirect definition of art as Maugham understands it, it is complete in itself even if taken out of the context. But still this sentence is not a model epigram because it lacks one essential quality, viz. brevity. It is too long and therefore cannot function in speech as a ready-made language unit. Besides, it lacks other features which are inherent in epigrams and make them similar to proverbs, i.e., rhythm, alliteration and often rhyme. It cannot be expanded to other spheres of life, it does not gener­alize.

Compare this sentence with the following used by the same author in the same novel.

"A God that can be understood is no God."

This sentence seems to meet all the necessary requirements of the epigram: it is brief, generalizing, witty and can be expanded in its application. The same applies to Byron's

"...in the days of old men made manners; Manners now make men" ("Don Juan") or Keats'

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

Writers who seek aesthetic precision use the epigram abundantly; others use it to characterize the hero of their work. Somerset Maugham is particularly fond of it and many of his novels and stories abound in epigrams. Here are some from "The Painted Veil."

"He that bends shall be made straight." "Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurk­ing place of failure..."

"Mighty is he who conquers himself."

There are utterances which in form are epigrammatic — these are verses and in particular definite kinds of verses. The last two lines of a sonnet are called epigrammatic because according to the semantic structure of this form of verse, they sum up and synthesize what has been said before. The heroic couplet, a special compositional form of verse, is also a suitable medium for epigrams, for instance

"To observations which ourselves, we make.

We grow more partial for th' observer's sake." (Alexander Pope)

There are special dictionaries which are called "Dictionaries of Quotations." These in fact, are mostly dictionaries of epigrams. What is worth quoting must always contain some degree of the generalizing quality and if it comes from a work of poetry will have metre (and sometimes rhyme). That is why the works of Shakespeare, Pope, Byron and many other great English poets are said to be full of epigrammatic statements.

The epigram is in fact a syntactical who le (See p. 193), though a syntactical whole need not necessarily be epigrammatic.

As is known, poetry is epigrammatic in its essence. It always strives for brevity of expression, leaving to the mind of the reader the pleasure of amplifying the idea. Byron's

"The drying up a single tear has more

Of honest fame, than shedding seas of gore,"is a strongly worded epigram, which impresses the reader with its generalizing truth. It may of course be regarded as a syntactical whole, inasmuch as it is semantically connected with the preceding lines and at the same time enjoys a considerable degree of independence.


A q и o t a t i o n Is a repetition of a phrase or statement from a book, speech and the like used by way of authority, illustration, proof or as a basis for further speculation on the matter in hand.

By repeating a passage in a new environment, we attach to the utterance an importance it might not have had in the context whence it was taken. Moreover, we give it the status, temporary though it may be, of a stable language unit. What is quoted must be worth quoting, since a quotation will inevitably acquire some degree of generaliza­tion. If repeated frequently, it may be recognized as an epigram, if, of course, it has at least some of the linguistic properties of the latter.

Quotations are usually marked off in the text by inverted commas (" "), dashes (—), italics or other graphical means.

They are mostly used accompanied by a reference to the author of the quotation, unless he is well known to the reader or audience. The reference is made either in the text or in a foot-note and assumes var­ious forms, as for instance:

"as (so and so) has it"; "(So and so) once said that"...; "Here we quote (so and so)" or in the manner the reference to Emerson has been made in the epigraph to this chapter.

A quotation is the exact reproduction of an actual utterance made by a certain author. The work containing the utterance quoted must have been published or at least spoken in public; for quotations are echoes of somebody else's words.

Utterances, when quoted, undergo a peculiar and subtle change. They are rank and file members of the text they belong to, merging with other sentences in this text in the most natural and organic way, bearing some part of the general sense the text as a whole embodies; yet, when they are quoted, their significance is heightened and they become different from other parts of the text. Once quoted, they are no longer rank-and-file units. If they are used to back up the idea expressed in the new text, they become "parent sentences" with the corresponding authority and respect and acquire a symbolizing func­tion; in short, they not infrequently become epigrams, for example, Hamlet's "To be or not to be!"

A quotation is always set against the other sentences in the text by its greater volume of sense and significance. This singles it out particularly if frequently repeated, as an utterance worth committing to memory generally is. The use of quotations presupposes a good knowledge, o.f the past experience of the nation, its literature and culture. ^ The stylistic value of a quotation lies mainly in the fact that it comprises two meanings: the primary meaning, the one which it has in its original surroundings, and the applicative meaning, i.e., the one which it acquires in the new context.

Quotations, unlike epigrams, need not necessarily be short. A whole paragraph or a long passage may be quoted if it suits the purpose. It is to be noted, however, that sometimes in spite of the fact that the exact wording is used, a quotation in a new environment may as­sume a new shade of meaning, a shade necessary or sought by the quoter, but not intended by the writer of the original work.

Here we give a few examples of the use of quotations.

"Socrates said, our only knowledge was "To know that nothing could be known" a pleasant

Science enough, which levels to an ass

Each man of Wisdom, future, past or present.

Newton (that proverb of the mind) alas!

Declared with all his grand discoveries recent

That he himself felt only "like a youth

Picking up shells by the great ocean — Truth." (Byron)

"Ecclesiastes said, "that all is vanity" — Most modern preachers say the same, or show it By their examples of the Christianity.:." (Byron)

Quotations are used as a stylistic device, as is seen from these examples, with the aim of expanding the meaning of the sentence quo­ted and setting two meanings one against the other, thus modifying the original meaning. In this quality they are used mostly in the belles-lettres style. Quotations used in other styles of speech allow no modifications of meaning, unless actual distortion of meaning is the aim of the quoter.

Quotations are also used in epigraphs. The quotation in this case possesses great associative power and calls forth much connotative meaning.


An a I I и s i o n is an indirect reference, by word or phrase, to a historical, literary, mythological, biblical fact or to a fact of every­day life made in the course of speaking or writing. The use of allusion presupposes knowledge of the fact, thing or person alluded to on the part of the reader or listener. As a rule no indication of the source is given. This is one of the notable differences between quotation and allusion. Another difference is of a structural nature: a quotation must repeat the exact wording of the original even though the meaning may be modified by the new context; an allusion is only a mention of a word or phrase which may be regarded as the key-word of the utterance. An allusion has certain important semantic peculiarities, in that the meaning of the word (the allusion) should be regarded as a form for the new meaning. In other words, the primary meaning of the word or phrase which is assumed to be known (i.e., the allusion) serves as a vessel into which new meaning is poured. So here there is also a kind of interplay between two meanings.

Here is a passage in which an allusion is made to the coachman. Old Mr. Weller, the father of Dickens's famous character, Sam Weller.

In this case the nominal meaning is broadened into a generalized con­cept:

"Where is the road now, and its merry incidents of life!.. old honest, pimple-nosed coachman? I wonder where are they, those good fellows? Is old Weller alive or dead?" (Thackeray)

The volume of meaning in this allusion goes beyond the actual knowledge of the character's traits. Even the phrases about the road and the coachmen bear indirect reference to Dickens's "Pickwick Pa­pers."

Here is another instance of allusion which requires a good knowledge of mythology, history and geography if it is to be completely under­stood.

"Shakespeare talks of ihe-herald Mercury

New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;

And some such visions cross'd her majesty

While her young herald knelt before her still.

'Tis Aery true the hill seem'd rather high.

For a lieutenant to climb up; but skill Smooth'd even the Simplon's steep, and by God's blessing

With youth and health all kisses are heaven-kissing." (Byron)

Mercury, Jupiter's messenger, is referred to here because Don Juan brings a dispatch to Catherine II of Russia and is therefore her maj­esty's herald. But the phrase "...skill smooth'd even the Simplon's steep..." will be quite incomprehensible to those readers who do not know that Napoleon built a carriage road near the village of Simplon in the pass 6590 feet over the Alps and founded a hospice at the summit. Then the words 'Simplon's steep' become charged with significance and implications which now need no futher comment.

Allusions are based on the accumulated experience and the know­ledge of the writer who presupposes a similar experience and knowledge in the reader. But the knowledge stored in our minds is called forth by an allusion in a peculiar manner. All kinds of associations we may not yet have realized cluster round the facts alluded to. Illustrative in this respect is the quotation-allusion made in Somerset Maugham's novel "The Painted Veil". The last words uttered by the dying man are "The dog it was that died." These are the concluding lines of Gold-smith's "Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog." Unless the reader knows-the Elegy, he will not understand the implication embodied in this quotation. Consequently the quotation here becomes an allusion which runs through the whole plot of the novel. Moreover the psychological tuning of the novel can be deciphered only by drawing a parallel between the poem and the plot of the novel.

The main character is dying, having failed to revenge himself upon his unfaithful wife. He was punished by death for having plotted evil. This is the inference to be drawn from the allusion.

The following passage from Dickens's "Hard Times" will serve to prove how remote may be the associations called up by an allusion.

"No little Grandgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow that swallowed Tom Thumb; it had never heard of those celebrities."

The meaning that can be derived from the two allusions, one to the nursery rhyme "The House that Jack built" and the other to the old tale "The History of Tom Thumb" is the following:

No one was permitted to teach the little Grandgrind children the lively, vivid nursery rhymes and tales that every English child knows by heart. They were subjected to nothing but dry abstract drilling. The word cow in the two allusions becomes impregnated with concrete meaning set against the abstract meaning of cow-in-a-field, or cow-in-general. To put it into the terms of theoretical linguistics, cow-in-a-field refers to the nominating rather than to the signifying aspect of the word.

Allusions and quotations may be termed nonce-set-expres­sions because they are used only for the occasion.

Allusion, as has been pointed out, needs no indication of the source. It is assumed to be known. Therefore most allusions are made to facts with which the general reader should be familiar. However allusions are sometimes made to things and facts which need commentary be­fore they are understood. To these belongs the allusion -par a-dox, for example:

"A nephew called Charlie is something I can't Put up with at alt since it makes me his aunt."

The allusion here is made to a well-known play and later film called "Charlie's Aunt" in which a man is disguised as a woman.

Allusions are used in different styles, but their function is every­where the same. The deciphering of an allusion, however, is not always easy.. In newspaper headlines allusions may be decoded at first glance as, for instance:

" 'Pie in the sky' for Railmen"

Most people in the USA and Britain know the refrain of the workers' song: "You'll get pie in the sky when you die."

The use of part of the sentence-refrain implies that the railmen had been given many promises but nothing at the present moment. Linguistically the allusion 'pie in the sky' assumes a new meaning, viz., nothing but promises. Through frequency of repetition it may enter into the word stock of the English language as a figurative synonym.

Decompositionof Set Phrases

Linguistic fusions are set phrases, the meaning of which is un­derstood only from the combination as a whole, as to pull a person's leg or to have something at one's finger tips. The meaning of the whole cannot be derived from the meanings of the component parts. The stylistic device of decomposition of fused set phrases consists in re­viving the independent meanings which make up the component parts of the fusion. In other words it makes each word of the combination acquire its literal meaning which, of course, in many cases leads to the realization of an absurdity. Here is an example of this device as em­ployed by Dickens:

"Mind! I don't mean to say that I know of my own know­ledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our an­cestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it or the Country's done for. You will, therefore, per­mit me to repeat emphatically that Marley was as dead as a door-nail." (Dickens)

As is seen in this excerpt, the fusion 'as dead as a door-nail' which simply means completely dead is decomposed by being used in a dif­ferent structural pattern. This causes the violation of the generally recognized meaning of the combination which has grown into a mere emotional intensifier. The reader, being presented with the parts of the unit, becomes aware of the meaning of the parts, which, be it repeated, have little in common with the meanings of the whole. When as Dickens does, the unit is re-established in its original form, the phrase acquires a refreshed vigour and effect, qualities important in this utterance because the unit itself was meant to carry the strongest possible proof that the man was actually dead.

Another example from the same story:

"Scrooge had often heard it said that money had no bowels, . but he had never believed it until now."

The bowels (guts, intestines) were supposed to be the seat of the emotions of pity and compassion. But here Dickens uses the phrase 'to have no bowels' in its literal meaning: Scrooge is looking at Marley's ghost and does not see any intestines.

In the sentence "It was raining cats and dogs, and two kittens and a puppy landed on my window-sill" (Chesterton) the fusion 'to rain cats and dogs' is refreshed by the introduction of "kittens and a puppy,"

which changes the unmotivated combination into a metaphor which in its turn is sustained.

The expression 'to save one's bacon' means to escape from injury or loss. Byron in his "Don Juan" decomposes this unit by setting it against the word hog in its logical meaning:

"But here Г say the Turks were much mistaken. Who hating hogs, yet wish'd to save their bacon."

Byron particularly favoured the device of simultaneous materiali­zation of tмю meanings: the meaning of the whole set phrase and the independent meanings of its components, with the result that the independent meanings unite anew and give the whole a fresh significance.

Here is a good example of the effective use of this device. The poet mocks at the absurd notion of idealists who deny the existence of every kind of matter whatsoever:

"When Bishop Berkley said: "there was no matter" And proved it — 'twas no matter what he said."



  1. Galperin I.R. “Stylistics” Higher School.Moscow,1977.
  2. Kukharenko Y.A.”A book of practice in stylistics”.Высшая школа.Москва 1986.
  3. Screbnev. The fundamentals of English stylistics.Moscow,2000.
  4. Znamenskaya T.A.Stylistics of the English Language.

5. А. В. Гвоздев. Очерки по стилистике русского языка. М., 1952, стр. 8.

6. See F. L. Lucas. Style. London. 1962.

Lecture #8

Syntactical EMs and SDs: