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I was watching the Sound of Music and the song "How do you solve a problem like Maria" was playing and then they say "How do you keep a wave upon the sand" and "How do you catch a moonbeam in your hand"

I am just wondering if there exists a term from the realm of logic to describe the connection between the latter two "How do you"'s and the first.

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If there is a relationship there, it is that all of them are (supposedly) impossible. – John Y Dec 27 '10 at 6:33
Yeah, the relationship is that if you can do A "Catch a moonbeam in your hands" then you can do B "keep a wave upon the sand" and you can do C "Solve a problem like Maria" I'm looking for a big fancy "modus potens"ish word. If it doesn't exist, that's obviously an answer too. – Peter Turner Dec 27 '10 at 6:42
Ordinary logical implication, perhaps? – Jon Purdy Dec 27 '10 at 9:04
up vote 6 down vote accepted

If the relationship you're looking for is that the impossibility of A is illustrated by mentioning an impossible thing B (and C), then the rhetorical device is known as an adynaton. (A phrase frequently used as example is "when pigs fly"; there are other idioms of impossiblity like "until hell freezes over".)

"I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one of his cheek." — Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2

In the "How do you solve a problem like Maria" case, the relationship is not explicitly made with a connective like "when" or "only if", but the rhetorical device is still an adynaton. The structure — all sentences begin with "How do you [verb]" — that implicitly makes the connection clear is simply parallelism.

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This is the right answer. – Jon Purdy Dec 27 '10 at 9:05
+1 That pretty much captures exactly the relationship the OP is describing (and i learnt a new word :-)) – InSane Dec 27 '10 at 9:08
Impressed ===>> – Cerberus Dec 27 '10 at 10:09
Awesome, there's always a word. Thanks a lot, I promise I won't abuse this knowledge! – Peter Turner Dec 28 '10 at 2:28

By "unconnected", I guess you mean that they're not joined into a single statement, such as:

To solve a problem like Maria is like catching a wave upon the sand.


To solve a problem like Maria is to catch a wave upon the sand.

Because the lyrics are in verse, there is some room for interpretation, but I'd say it's just an ordinary metaphor. It's a comparison between Maria and various supposedly impossible things to describe the impossibility that she represents, and that's basically the textbook definition of a metaphor: describing one thing in terms of another.

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@InSane: The first is simile, and the second is metaphor. I argued that the parallel structure could be counted as metaphor as well. – Jon Purdy Dec 27 '10 at 9:08
Fair enough!! I was just nitpicking, i guess :-) – InSane Dec 27 '10 at 9:09

These statements constitute a rhetorical device expressing the impossibility of a task. In a sense they are non sequiturs, but in actuality they are repetitive statements of absurdity, which taken together underscore the impossibility of the original query.

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