WARNING: In the following post Jenny exposes the nerd she is, plus The Beatles.

Throughout Wodehouse you will find descriptions like this: “I waved a sombre fork.” ~P.G.W. The Luck of the Bodkins

According to Robert A. Hall Jr. in his 1973 essay “The Transferred Epithet in P.G. Wodehouse” this type of construction is called a (and the title of his essay gives it away) transferred epithet. “In traditional rehetorical analysis, this type of expression is termed the ‘transferred epithet’. In the instances cited, we might interpret the adjective, in the construction Adjective + Noun as equivalent to an adverb transferred from it’s position modifying the verb of the clause.”~Hall “The Transferred Epithet in P.G. Wodehouse”

Meaning: The adjective (sombre) really describes the verb (waved) and not the object (fork)–meaning that sombre is really an adverb. So the true meaning of the sentence is something along the lines of “I sombrely waved the fork.”

The effect of the transferred epithet is humorous. It’s just not as funny to read “I sombrely waved the fork.” Waving a sombre fork gives the inanimate object a shade of emotion and exaggerates the character’s emotion. Which is funny.

Yes, something called “transferred epithet” is used for purposes of funny.

When I look at the term “sombre fork” I harken back to my elementary school days where I was introduced to the literary term “personification.” It’s easier for me to understand this broad concept rather than the very specific syntactic concept of “transferred epithet.” Seems to me that Wodehouse’s sentence construction is a specific instance that falls under the broader umbrella of personification.

Personification is just like it sounds: you give person characteristics to things that aren’t persons. “The angry ocean crashed upon the unsuspecting shore.” Now, an ocean can’t be angry and a shore can’t be unsuspecting. A fork cannot be sombre. Therefore: personified!  

Wodehouse’s examples are all humorous. But personification pops up everywhere and can be used to great literary, moving, and musical effect.

Which brings me to The Beatles (since we’re always talking about mentors, seems silly not to bring them up somewhere). More specifically, George Harrison. Some of you may have watched the recent American Idol where contestant James Durbin covered “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Here is an Example Of The Wonderousness Use Of  Personification To Move People.

So, when you’re going through your manuscripts and looking for all kinds of metaphorical/humorous/moving ways to improve your words don’t forget about transferred epithets and listen to George Harrison, the man his-own-self, personify guitars (because guitars don’t really weep–but you should!):

**In the interest of academic citation:
Hall, Robert A. Jr. “The Transferred Epithet in P. G. Wodehouse.” Linguistic Inquiry. Vol 4. No. 1. (Winter 1973). pp. 92-94.




5 responses to “Personificating”

  1. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    Another great post! I wish I could see things that way – I love reading about sombre forks. But just can't seem to write that way…

  2. Ajay Avatar

    The beauty about having a “mentor” like Plum (PGW) is you not only steal from him, but also Shakespeare, Kipling, Dickens, Keats etc…

  3. Jenny Maloney Avatar

    Ajay – Absolutely the best thing about the mentors…is their mentors! And you get a lot of sidekicks too because great writers tend to write together.

  4. Ajay Avatar

    I recently read in an interview by Tobias Wolff (whose work I am not familiar) that “imitation is the first step to achievement” ( It is a strangely two-headed sentence-while achievement may or may not come later, it gives the rest of us hope.

  5. Jenny Maloney Avatar

    Oh, Ajay, I think you just helped me a lot more than you think! What a great article. Thanks!

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