I have sold many, many copies of Mark Forsyth’s previous books (The Etymologicon and The Horologicon) – they are part of that group of ‘surprise’ bestsellers which seemed to start way back in 2002 with Schott’s Miscellany and which publishers have been trying to replicate ever since – but I have not read either of them. Yet. Based, however, on my reading of his latest work, The Elements of Eloquence, I am certainly going to read them both in the very near future.
This book is a modern guide to the ‘figures of rhetoric’. Which didn’t help me much when I started it since all I could think of was the term ‘a rhetorical question’ – and who can say what that really means? It turns out that these figures are ways of making language more memorable – a kind of grammatical monosodium glutamate if you will. Or as Mark Forsyth describes it ‘formulas for producing great lines’. Some of them I had heard of – alliteration, assonance, hyperbole and personification – and some I had no clue about at all. In fact some of them sounded more like dinosaurs than anything to do with grammar. Anadiplosis anyone?
I hope this doesn’t make the book sound boring, however, as it is anything but. The best part is that the examples we are given come from such a wide range of sources. Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible feature heavily (naturally) but I’ll admit I didn’t expect to see so much of the Beatles, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Although I shouldn’t be surprised, should I? These are, after all, people who are known for writing memorable lines – phrases which we can’t get out of our heads.
What this book does best is show that all these fancy sounding tricks – with names like hendiadys, epizeuxis and congeries – are just ways of defining things many of us do every day. My personal favourite is aposiopesis…