How do we talk when we talk about talk?
More words in the dictionary are there to describe the nature and quality of other people than are there for any other single purpose. But the subject next in line, even ahead of the weather, must be language. And if you consider that almost any word used to describe a person can also be used to describe language (he's an idiot/that's an idiotic statement) and vice versa (that's edgy talk/he's an edgy guy), then we have a draw.
In fact, a professional vocabulary of words used to describe words had built up over the centuries, and if you plan to be serious about writing you should probably be serious about learning at least some of the key technical terms that describe the nature and the quality of discourse.
Talk related to the quality of discourse tends to be emotional and subjective. We 'like' or 'love' this poem, but we are left 'cold' by that story. Along side of our emotional reactions to language, there is a whole vocabulary of terms that are intended to be crisper and more objective, even technical. These come from disciplines like grammar, rhetoric, psychology, and linguistics. Professionals in these disciplines stand up there lexicons against the vivid and precise taxonomies and nomenclature of the physical sciences, and hope that no one remembers that language always has one foot in the murky and immeasurable waters of the human heart.
Still, the effort to drain the swamp and reveal the articulated bones of the creatures of language that live there has been an ongoing project for as many centuries as words have found their way onto flat surfaces, and perhaps even centuries or eons before then. Hard to know.
The oldest work that sought to dissect and classify language was done by the ancient and medieval grammarians and rhetoricians in India, China, and Europe. Panini, the 4th Century BCE Indian scholar wrote the oldest know work of descriptive linguistics. It isolated 3,959 syntactical rules of Sanskrit grammar. Scholars in China and Greece, at nearly the same time as Panini, explored the philosophic and moralistic implications of semantics, in particular, questions related to the tendency of words to change their meanings over time. Sadly, these achievements are not widely valued by current language professionals. Translations of texts dealing with language and languages pose particular problems. Also, that most of this early work was done with an eye towards its practical applications to public speaking and personal style does not endear it to today's idealistic professoriate. Yet, it is really impossible to get at the complex patterns and mechanisms that team right on the surface of language without recourse to this ancient vocabulary which has been passed down in handbooks and grammars over the centuries.
For English speakers, almost all of this ancient tradition comes to us in the form of Greek and Latin words that have failed to find their ways out of the rhetorical forests of antiquity into even the remote suburbs of modern usage. For example, our familiar categories of redundancy and repetition and tautology, all more or less referring to the same situation (I redund!), were sliced, diced, and hung out for us to try in subcategories within subcategories by ancient scholars.
To get a taste of this, let's use a line from an old Terminix commercial as a base: “Roaches check in but they don’t check out.” (Picture the scene when the cartoon Roach family checks in to the motel with smiley faces and little suitcases, but then they miss check out because they have been exterminated in their flip-flops and bathrobes by the Terminex man.) Now for example, Anaphora occurs when the beginning of a sentence is repeated in the next sentence. (Roaches check in. Roaches don’t check out.) When the ends repeat it’s epistrophe. (Roaches check in? I don’t check in.) When both the beginning and the end of a sentence repeat in the next sentence, it’s symploce. (Roaches check in. Roaches wish they hadn’t checked in.)
Today’s grammarians have reached back to the old rhetorical term for repeating the beginning of a sentence, anaphora (literally “said again” in Greek), and now use it to mean any of the many pronoun/noun agreement issues that occur in or between sentences. So the subject noun in the first clause of the sentence (Roaches) relates to the subject pronoun in the second clause of the sentence (they) as an instance of anaphora: they both refer the same thing (which, of course, is not actually present in the sentence), the Roach family, and that is a repetition. The pronoun, in a sense “says again” what the noun represented. They both point to the same object outside the sentence. Those dirty bugs!
Teachers habitually mark up student papers with cautionary ejaculations like “agreement!” “antecedent!” “wrong pronoun!” Indeed, smooth, accurate, and unequivocal pronoun selection, which is in essence dealing with repetition (anaphora, in modern terminology), is a hallmark of good prose. Though, like almost all rhetorical devices, one that should slide by unrecognized as by the reader as a mechanical property.
A strangely large number of rhetorical terms, in the end, describe issues of repetition in one form or another. I will treat several of these on the pages devoted to tropes.