ifferisms: An Anthology of Aphorisms that begin with the word if is the full title of the book.
I have as a rule to my reading selections that one book per year is picked on the subject on either writing or language. As you can tell from my blog, I love reading and writing. I try to improve on my writing, and, contrary to some opinion, you don’t become a good writer from osmosis; you have to learn and work at it. And so to ensure I’m always learning, I read one book per year to expand my ability. Such books can be dry. This year I stumbled across this really funbook.
This is a book about the use of aphorisms by using the conjunction, if. An aphorism, as the author of the book points out, is “a tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion; an adage.” For instance, “The heart has reasons that reason knows not of” is an aphorism by Blaise Pascal. It is to the observation of Dr. Grothe that “while most aphorisms do not begin with the word if, there are many thousands that do.” Here are some common ones that float general parlance: “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” “If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”
Dr. Grothe dubs the aphorism using if as an ifferism, and his book collects some of the “most compelling quotations” using the “if” structure. It’s a fun read, as you’ll see by the various quotes I pick out. The book is organized into subjects of ifferisms, such as Words to Live By, Wit and Wordplay, Age and the Stages of Life, Gender Dynamics, Sports, Politics, Business, and so on.
If I were writing the book, I might re-organize it into rhetorical types of ifferisms—that is, types of communicative devices—and types of sentence structures that aid in rhythm or emphasis. The rhetorical devices I found—I’ll conflate them down to four but there are technically many devices— in perusing the book are analogy, contrast, undercut, and reasoning. The sentence types are those that delay, those that balance, those that are front half loaded, and those that are second half loaded.
I’m going to provide some of Dr. Grothe’s examples to show how powerful a technique an ifferism can be and hopefully to sharpen your writing by inspiring you to use it.
First let’s look at the rhetorical devices.
Analogy in its simplest definition is a comparison through similarity. Here is a comparison by Bob Hope between lack of charity and heart trouble:
If you haven’t any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.-Bob Hope
The movie and drama critic, Rex Reed, used an ifferism to vividly describe Tennessee Williams’, the great playwright, voice:
If a swamp alligator could talk, it would sound like Tennessee Williams.-Rex Reed
And then the great wordsmith H.L. Mencken had a particular anatomical comparison for the city of Los Angeles:
If Los Angeles is not the one authentic rectum of civilization, I am no anatomist.-H. L. Mencken
And Johnny Carson used a remarkable ifferism to demonstrate the unfairness of life by comparing it to Elvis and his impersonators.
If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.-Johnny Carson
Contrast on the other hand is a comparison to accentuate differences. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a wonderful contrast between standing and falling for those with values and those without.
If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bill Safire, another great wordsmith, used the contrast of feelings and thoughts to compare poor and good communication.
If you want to get in touch with your feelings,” fine—talk to yourself, we all do. But if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts.
The writer Michael Crichton had this contrast of self awareness and without with this ifferism to show the importance of learning history.
If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.-Michael Crichton
The Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci created one of the most hilarious ifferisms to contrast New York and Hollywood, though I’m not exactly sure what he means.
If New York is the Big Apple, then Hollywood must be the Big Nipple.-Bernardo Bertolucci
By undercutting I mean to say that a high ideal or paragon or pride is brought down to ridicule, derision, or is just simply razzed. Here’s another one poking fun at California, which seems be a pattern in the book.
If you stay in California, you lose one point of IQ every year.-Truman Capote
Dennis Miller had a great way to make a serious point with this one.
If you’re saying you didn’t know cigarettes were bad for you, you’re lying through the hole in your trachea.-Dennis Miller
Ann Coulter, the political commentator actually titled one of her books using an undercutting ifferism.
If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans-Ann Coulter, title of book.
And this form is just made for comedians and undercutting jokes. Here are two by two old comedians.
If you want to see a baseball game in the worst way—take your wife along.-Henny Youngman
And finally under rhetorical devices I conflate a number of types with “reasoning.” By reasoning I’m referring to the process of a logical flow of deduction, induction, or development of thought. The great ancient Roman, Cicero, constructed an ifferism to sum up the requirements to a perfect life.
If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.-Marcus Tullius Cicero
The football head coach, Vince Lombardi, reduces why you play to this.
If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?-Vince Lombardi
I have no idea who Ruby Manikan was, but she came up with an ifferism for the ages.
If you educate a man you educate a person, but if you educate a woman you educate a family.-Ruby Manikan
The actress Candice Bergman used an ifferism to deduce why God is not a woman.
If God were a woman, She would have installed one of those turkey thermometers in our belly buttons. When we were done, the thermometer pops up, the doctor reaches for a zipper conveniently located below our bikini lines, and out comes a smiling, fully diapered baby.-Candice Bergen
And finally this simple ifferism placed in the jury all the doubt required to judge OJ Simpson not guilty.
If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.-Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr.
I will need to preface the sentence types. Great writers employee strategies to their sentence syntax. There are times you want to place the emphasis toward the beginning of a sentence and there are times you want to place it at the end. There are times you want the sentence to reflect balance and times you want to have it sort of appear lopsided or project movement. The ifferism has a natural schism in its if-then structure, a sort of split that allows manipulation for these types of sentence structure effects.
1. Front half weighted sentences:
If you want to place the emphasis at the beginning part of the sentence, you can build the verbiage around the “if” half of the sentence. Here’s Martin Luther King Jr. again. Notice how the onus is built up in the first half, the part where self assessment is being probed.
If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.-Martin Luther King, Jr.
The key point of the author, Somerset Maugham, in this ifferism is built by expanding the details in the first half of the schism.
If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter how you write.-W. Somerset Maugham
If a man is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.-Norman Mailer
2. Back half weighted sentences:
A back half weighted sentence blooms with fullness from the germ implanted in the first half. One of my favorite writers, D. H. Lawrence, does it masterfully here:
If only we could have two lives: the first in which to make one’s mistakes, which seem as if they have to be made, and the second in which to profit from them.-D. H. Lawrence
And Benjamin Franklyn constructs this very dramatic metaphor which blooms into meaning.
If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.-Benjamin Franklyn
And George Orwell in his Animal Farm constructed this notable gem.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.-George Orwell
There are times when a writer wishes to present the reader with balance, suggesting harmony and classical unity. The best sentences that are crafted for balance not only give equal weight to the two halves, but have either an echoing effect or a mirroring effect.
Napoleon Hill, writer of personal success books, penned this gem using the echo effect. Notice how “conquer” and “self” echo between the two halves of the schism.
If you do not conquer self, you will be conquered by self.-Napoleon Hill
And the Native American writer, Chief Dan George, illustrates how a mirror effect can create a memorable quote. Here “old” mirrors “young” and “remember” mirrors “listen.”
If the very old will remember, the very young will listen.-Chief Dan George
Finally if you can combine both echo and mirror effects into one ifferism, then you really have a powerful statement. Notice how Oprah Winfrey and novelist Elizabeth Von Armin do both in their respective ifferisms.
If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.-Oprah Winfrey
If you have once thoroughly bored somebody it is next to impossible to unbore him.-Elizabeth Von Arnim
And finally, still another sentence technique is to create anticipation by delaying the completeness of meaning. Margret Thatcher, always the combatant politician, gave this advice in the form of an ifferism by delaying the punch late in the sentence.
If you are guided by opinion polls, you are not practicing leadership—you are practicing followship.-Margaret Thatcher
German poet, Rilke, gave this sage critique of those who did not find magic in life.
If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.
-Rainer Marie Rilke
In one of the most beautifully constructed sentences using an ifferism, Ernest Hemingway opened his memoir of his life as a young expatriate in Paris with this perfection of delay.
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.-Ernest Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast
And finally Jonathan Swift, ever the curmudgeon, used delay to zing the French, who perhaps were the Californians of his day, in this surprise twist.
If a lump of soot falls into the soup, and you cannot conveniently get it out, stir it well in, and it will give the soup a French taste.-Jonathan Swift
So can you come up any ifferisms? Here are a few I’ve thought up.
If your son cries in the night, and you’re too tired to get up, does he actually make any noise if you tighten your eyes shut and let the wife get up to take care of him?
If crickets crick all night, they will croak by daylight.
If a Californian dude with a ponytail walks by you with a wink and a surfboard, he’s looking to board your surf.
If you forget your wedding anniversary, best to open up the handiest umbrella, because the shit is most definitely going to hit the fan.
If you sit on a beach at the foot of the surf
waiting for the morning sun
to peak over the horizon,
and if you wait for the rays to find
an opening through the clouds
silhouetting morning birds across the sky,
and just as the waves speak
their ever humble prayer
and the light finds its way to your feet,
praise the Lord, Jesus Christ,
for morning glory is upon you.