The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

One of the dead giveaways I’m old, old, old is that I cheerfully part with my money to gain information I’d have sacrificed a limb to avoid in high school. Hands up if Figures of Speech sends a cold wave down your front, with the memory of similes, not metaphors–or is this all hyperbole? Anyway, last week, I sought out, and hugely relished Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. It’s full of useless, joy-sparking explanations of  rhetorical devices;  I can now tell you what hendiadys, epizeuxis and aposiopesis are even though I can’t pronounce them. The book starts off with a boring preface, warms up in Chapter 1, Alliteration, and then takes off in Chapter 2, Polyptoton, which sounds like a growth where no growth should occur, but is, in fact, “the repeated use of one word as different parts of speech.” Forsyth notes that one of the best known examples of Polyptoton is a song sometimes said to be about oral sex–“Please Please Me” by The Beatles, where the first please is an interjection, and the second a verb. Who knew grammar could blow you away like that?


Forsyth, who looks and sounds as though he spends his hours reading the dictionary aloud to Pippa Middleton on a punt, doesn’t actually set out to teach you how to coin a perfect phrase. This book’s primary aim is to make you chuckle when you recognize the particular stratagem at work–and to then render you unable to read Wodehouse without gleeful ejaculations of adynaton! and diacope! There’s also much satisfaction in understanding why some phrases work “instinctively” better than others, and in putting a name to a hitherto-unknown rule. Take the hyperbaton for instance, which is the deliberate flouting of the rule for adjective order. Did you know that adjectives in English must be in a certain order?  I would never say that I have a literary brown old little odd blog, because it sounds weird and somehow off, but I could never explain why. But now I’ve learnt that it must be opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun, so I’ll own to sporadically updating my odd little old brown literary blog. And oh, Forsyth informs us that the only person who has carried off consistent hyperbaton “lived a long long time ago in a  galaxy far away. In Dagobah, to be precise.”

One of this book’s most appealing qualities is Forsyth’s careful choice of examples to illustrate the rules. There’s plenty of quotes from the usual suspects–Jesus, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker–and some delightfully unexpected ones. Sting, in stalker mode, showcases the periodic sentence in “Every Breath You Take”.   Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty” is an example of a chiasmus, but in the same chapter you also learn that T.S.Eliot insisted on the middle initial because he was “painfully aware” of what T.Eliot spelled when read in the reverse. The most extreme example of litotes is perhaps when Emperor Hirohito announced, after the two atomic bombs had been dropped, that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” “Space: the final frontier” works so much better than “This is Space, which is the final frontier” because scesis onomaton sets a scene.  In all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and can’t recommend it enough for the reader in your life–especially if it happens to be you. Buy it!


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