ôô

Double Dactyl Poetry

Write a double dactyl poem in honor of National Grammar Day.

By
Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #557

In addition to being about a person or thing with a double-dactylic name, and having at least one line that consists of a single, double-dactylic word, there’s one more requirement for a double dactyl: The first line has to be nonsense—for example, jiggery-pokery, the title of Hecht and Hollander’s book. They should have titled the book higgledy-piggledy, because that was by far the most-used piece of double-dactylic nonsense in their poems. They only used jiggery-pokery once. Occasionally they used pattycake, pattycake, and one poem in the book uses pocketa pocketa, which is an allusion to James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” If you’re curious about that allusion, read the story; it’s a classic. I’ve also seen hickory dickory in double dactyls elsewhere. The name Babbitty Rabbitty in J. K. Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard has the distinction of being both a suitable subject for a double dactyl and a piece of double-dactylic nonsense. I bent the rule about starting with a line of nonsense, because I didn’t like completely throwing away a line by not having it carry any meaning. Plus, I was sick of reading higgledy-piggledy. Instead, I figured an exclamation would be close enough to nonsense, and went with Holy infinitives!

So much for the anatomy of a double dactyl. Since I’ve spotlighted syntax and semantics in the fifth line of my double dactyl, this is a good time to give a quick and dirty distinction between the two. Syntax is about the structure of a string of words, and semantics is about the meaning. Sometimes, the same string of words can have different invisible structures, which correspond to different meanings. These are the “strange ambiguities” of the sixth line of my poem. A good example is the ambiguity of Make me a sandwich, the classic grammar joke that was the subject of episode 442. Do I want someone to assemble a sandwich for me or turn me into a sandwich? There are also stranger ambiguities, in which you get multiple meanings even without different structures. For example, there’s the sentence Every year, somebody’s dog gets killed by a deer, which Gretchen McCulloch wrote about in episode 422. It had eight possible meanings! And though opinions can differ, my opinion is that this is the fun stuff about grammar.

Tell us what you think grammar’s all about in your own double dactyl! Leave it in a comment on this page, or tweet a screenshot of it to us at @GrammarGirl and @LiteralMinded with the hashtag #GrammarDay.

Neal Whitman is an independent researcher and writer on language and grammar. He blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com, and tweets @LiteralMinded

Single-word double dactyls used in Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls. 

antediluvian
anthropomorphically
balletomania
characteristically
cosmetological
decalcomania
erotogenesis
etymologically
gubernatorial
gynecological
heliocentrically
heterosexual
historiography
hypocoristically
incomprehensible
irritability
Machiavellian
metalinguistically
mythopoetically
Neo-Dravidian
non-navigational
organizational
parachromatically
parliamentarian
parthenogenesis
philolinguistically
plenipotentiary
polysyllabically
practability
propagandistically
psycholinguistical
quasiacceptable
sesquipedalian
uncomplimentary
un-Dostoevskian
ungeriatrically
unjustifiable
unmetaphysically
unsuitability
valedictorian

Hand image courtesy of Shutterstock. Quill image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Pages

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.