Mark Forsyth – The Elements of Eloquence

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth is perhaps the most entertaining book about the English language I have read this year. I added the qualifier ‘perhaps’ because I am currently reading his book The Etymologicon which might eclipse Elements in terms of entertainment. I read Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss recently which was also very amusing but was concerned with punctuation rather than use of words.

Elements explains why great writers (of speeches, poetry, songs, advertising copy and so on) use certain phrasing to make what they have said more memorable than writing without knowledge of what makes things ‘pop’, or as a colleague of mine calls it, ‘crispy’. I have to say I have a vested interest in this kind of thing nowadays as this is, at least to some extent, what my day job involves. I’m not likely to write a poem about new methods of carbon capture, but I hope that I can at least throw a few neat sentences together to grab people’s attention.

Forsyth provides his definitions of each of the ‘figures’ of rhetoric and is quite candid that there is a lot of disagreement among scholars about these definitions. He provides the definition which he thinks makes the most sense and has the support of the majority, and provides excellent and entertaining examples of their employment.

Some of the figures are in common use and I, a humble ‘self-taught’ writer, like a lot of people manage to use some of them without really thinking about it. For example I am an ardent admirer of alliteration – often employing it to the edge of overuse. I also use tricolon a lot – if only from listening to Del la Soul repeatedly enforcing the coda that three is the magic number. There’s a few others (personification was obviously part of my ‘O’ level education in terms of how they relate to simile and metaphor and allegory) but I have to agree that I have been ‘baking blindfolded’ as Forsyth puts it – sometimes I luck out and write a crispy sentence but most times not so much.

I’m not going to sit poring over the book and then write sentences in a certain way – that’s artificial and not my style. I’m a straightforward kind of guy when it comes to my use of language. However, when it comes to giving a character a voice in a novel where the character is of a certain mind-set and prone to flowery language then I’ll probably pay more attention and at least peek under the blindfold at a few choice figures, and if I’m asked to help with a speech or video voice-over at work then I’ll risk it for a biscuit. Sometimes sentences simply ‘don’t work’ and that’s where I can employ a little craftiness to remedy the situation.

Since reading the book I have been keeping an ear out for the use of these figures when listening to film dialogue and of course songs which are as close as I get to reading poetry – lyrics are full of assonance, alliteration, isocolons, anaphora, diacope, smatterings of epanalepsis and lots of other things I have already unfortunately forgotten the names for, and the lines in films are generally memorable because of the use of one figure or more. A great example recently is “if we burn, you burn with us!”

Forsyth’s main point I think is that great writers such as Shakespeare and Dickens were not necessarily happy to settle on using the talents they were born with but in practicing their craft and learning how to employ the figures to great effect. He bemoans the usual edict to ‘delete unnecessary words’ that a lot of modern writers follow and this is something I will ponder as I continue to write. It is obviously a matter of personal choice or taste when and when not to be succinct or meander into the realms of pleonasm.

Finally it was great to finally find out what the iambic pentameter was and also read about all the other meters that are out there in the wondrous worlds of poetry and prose in Forsyth’s divagation concerning versification. When I have written poems in the past I have always looked at how many syllables each line contained and then struggled to make sense of the flow (or meter!) when what I should have been looking for was in fact something called ‘feet’ (of which there are four types including the iamb) to then fit to a consistent meter line by line. The iamb is a te-TUM and if you put five in a row then you get the iambic pentameter te-TUM- te-TUM- te-TUM- te-TUM- te-TUM. Simples! And much used by Shakespeare – perhaps something I was taught and have since forgotten. Anyway thanks goes to the @inkyfool Mark Forysth for running me through it again.

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