So What’s Hyperbole Got to Do with It?

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If you haven’t taken a look at the September 2015 issue of College Composition and Communication, take a minute to check it out. I’ve been continually impressed with the journal under the editorship of Jonathan Alexander, and this is certainly no exception. There’s a fine lead essay by Patrick Sullivan on stressing the creative potential of all writing (though the odd title of “The UnEssay” obscures its real focus on multimodal composing), along with Jacqueline Preston’s essay on writing as assemblage (related to Krista Kennedy’s concept of writing as curatorial), three terrific literacy narratives, and an instructive review essay on four volumes addressing language difference by Brian Ray. All good reads.

But what caught my eye in particular in this issue was Zachary Beare and Marcus Meade’s “The Most Important Project of Our Time! Hyperbole as a Discourse Feature of Student Writing.” While I got bogged down a bit in some of the details of their study of hyperbolic moves in student essays, I loved thinking about the role of hyperbole and appreciate the authors’ timely reflections on it. Along the way, they show that hyperbole can be a powerful and useful trope, one that students can employ to good effect. I agree and, in fact, John Ruszkiewicz and I define hyperbole (in Everything’s an Argument, Seventh Edition) as a “special effect, a kind of fireworks in prose” and go on to offer an example of Rex Reed using hyperbole effectively in a film review.

As I thought about my own relationship to hyperbole, two memories surfaced: one was of a class report I wrote as an undergraduate on Richard Altick’s The Scholar Adventurers. (I would go on in grad school to study with Altick and to appreciate his enormous gift for storytelling, much on display in this book.) I was enthralled by Altick’s narrative, and my report showed it: I remember making comments that Beare and Meade would definitely label as “inflation.” My teacher was having none of it: while I didn’t get an awful grade, I got a reprimand: “don’t go overboard,” he said: “keep your critical wits about you.” I was definitely taken down a peg or two and endeavored to keep all such inflationary language out of my academic prose, a “rule” I lived by through most of my graduate education but then soon tried to move beyond.

My second memory is of my teacher, mentor, and advisor, Edward P. J. Corbett, author of Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student and the person who introduced me to rhetoric and writing studies and hence changed my life. He was nothing if not a devotee of hyperbole: a film was always “the absolute best” or “hideous beyond endurance.” As the editor of CCC (I was his erstwhile assistant), he was usually generous, holding such hyperbolic explosions as “this piece is simply, my dear, STUPID.” But the tendency toward hyperbole was still there. I recall one snowy day during winter break when we were toiling on getting the next issue ready for print. After several hours, Ed called for a break and said, “I will take you to the best lunch place in Columbus,” and then headed resolutely for McDonald’s. What a guy!

Today, of course, hyperbole is all around us: we can see plenty of it, from the election debates to advertisements to dinner menus. Today, even punctuation is hyperbolic: look at the proliferation of exclamation marks!!!! So it’s instructive, I think, to give hyperbole its due, to seek out uses that are powerful and effective, and to share them with our students. Hyperbole can be particularly successful in humorous writing and speaking, as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert made very clear, along with others such as Amy Sedaris and David Sedaris. Even in everyday life, a little hyperbole can go a long—and good—way. During a particularly tedious department meeting a year or so ago, a witty and wonderful colleague raised his hand and said, “Can we just vote . . . before I lose the will to live?”

So here’s to hyperbole, well used, and to Zachary Beare and Marcus Meade for their engaging exploration of it.

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Source: Sean Frese, Hyperbole | Flickr - Photo Sharing! 

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.