There are many different ways that solecism is used. In some instances, it’s used purposefully, while in others, it’s a mistake the writer didn’t notice. Catachresis and malapropism are two possible ways the broader literary device is used. These literary devices are explored below, as are others. Readers should always consider how purposeful examples of solecism are going to be received. If a writer uses it, will a reader know they’ve done so on purpose, or will it seem like a mistake?
Definition of Solecism
The word “Solecism” was original used by the Greeks to refer to mistakes in their writing. It has also been used to refer to perceived mistakes—for example, dialectic choices and archaic phrases. One of the most common types of solecism is a double negative. Meaning that while writing, someone uses two negative words together, which should, if taken literally, negate one another. For example, “I don’t know no one with that name.” If this phrase is used, the person likely means they don’t know “anyone with that name.” But, if taken literally, they’re actually saying they do know someone with that name.
Examples of Solecism
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
A malapropism is a perfect example of solecism. With these examples, a writer character or other source uses a word incorrectly, usually rendering the sentence nonsensical. These are usually mistakes, but there are a few select occasions in which someone might want to use a malapropism on purpose. Consider these lines from Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. They serve as a good example of how malapropisms can be used on purpose:
Our watch, my lord, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.
This passage is spoken by Dogberry, a classic of Shakespearean drama. He’s well-remembered for his use of phrases like this and his confident delivery of malapropisms. Rather than saying “apprehended” in this line, he uses “comprehended.” This changes the meaning of the sentence entirely.
Discover William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
In this well-loved novel, Carroll includes several different examples of solecisms. In the following passage, consider how Alice uses the word “curiouser.”
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).
Here, she exclaims, and in her surprise, she coins a new word, “curiouser.” This is a great example of how new words can be used that seem wrong at first but are used intentionally by the author.
Explore Lewis Carroll’s poetry.
Catachresis is another example of how solecism is used. It comes from the Greek, meaning a misuse or error. It is usually used when writers mix metaphors inappropriately. It is a rhetorical device (when used purposefully) that creates a unique, never-before-seen image or expression. When used, it often appears as though the author has used something incorrectly, but with further interpretation, it becomes clear that the metaphor is far more impactful than it initially seemed. For example, these lines:
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
Here, Cummings uses a very strange comparison between “eyes” and “roses,” “rain,” and hands. The poet is known for these strange, linguistic moments. This is a good example of how a seemingly wrong or meaningless metaphor is revealed to be more.
E.E. Cummings’ other poems demonstrate similar examples.
Readers can also find examples of solecism when examining litotes. This literary term includes a phrase in which a negative word is used in order to express something positive. In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ T.S. Eliot uses this technique. Here are the lines:
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
In the second line of this excerpt, he sues the phrase, “I am no prophet— and here’s no great matter.” The “no great matter” he refers to is, in fact, far greater than the line suggests. He’s confronting his mortality and the surety of his eventual death. He admits his fear in the face of this in the following lines.
Explore more of T.S. Eliot’s poems.
Why Do Writers Use Solecism?
As noted above, solecism can be used on purpose or on accident. When used purposefully, it is usually part of a character’s dialogue. For example, it’s easy to imagine a character who thinks they’re smarter than they are and continually misuse words. Or, a situation in which a writer coins a new and surprising metaphor that takes time to understand.
The use of grammatically incorrect language and syntax in a passage of writing.
These lines from Much Ado About Nothing “Our watch, my lord, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.”
You could say: “There is a solecism in this sentence he wrote,” or “Do you know that you used solecism there?”
Related Literary Terms
- Coherence: the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
- Colloquial Diction: is conversational in nature and can be seen through the use of informal words that represent a specific place or time.
- Hypotaxis: the arrangement of constructs in grammar. It refers to the placement of functionally similar although unequal constructions.
- Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Inference: a literary device that occurs when logical assumptions are made.