Transferred Epithets


A novel way to freshen up your writing

I am reading The Trick to Time By Kit de Waal. It’s so wonderful, I don’t want it to end. She understands people, and grief, so well and her prose is poised and poignant. Without giving too much away, there is a scene by a gravestone where de Waal refers to ‘the weeping grasses.’ Now, it’s November at this stage of the story, and the grasses could well be wet with dew, but we sense it is as if nature is grieving along with the character. Technically speaking, this is a transferred epithet. The participle ‘weeping’, used adjectivally, would normally apply to a person, but it’s been transferred to the grasses, to powerful effect.

            Dylan Thomas does this too, in his ‘Play for Voices’, Under Milk Wood. In the prologue, the first voice describes the ‘dogs in the wetnosed yards; and the cats … in the slant corners.’ Normally it's the dogs who would be ‘wetnosed,’ not their environment, and cats have ‘slant’ eyes, yet here the adjective is applied to the corners where they sit. The result is unusual but effective.

            An interesting exercise is to write a piece of description, circle all the adjectives, then move each one on a place so they describe different nouns. Some of them won’t make any sense at all, but one or two might, and that could just give us a new and fresh way of describing something.


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