Book Review: The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

Elements of Eloquence

Elements of Eloquence

Which sounds better?

An obnoxious, little old circular red European paper flying kite


An obnoxious, old little European red flying circular paper kite

Ignoring the fact that it is a strange, strange sentence (and neither sound particularly good), anyone well versed and comfortable with the English language will naturally feel pulled toward the first sentence. It just sounds better. It sounds more complete, more normal. Even if you can’t quite figure out why.

And for those of you who are ok with that, who are happy to just go through life not knowing why, whether that be why the sky is blue*, where the hendiadys is located in Hallelujah**, or what Juliet really meant when she said “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”***, then stop reading right now. For everyone else, I suggest The Elements of Eloquence.

Ok, so maybe that particular book won’t tell you why the sky is blue (see the bottom of this article), but it does answer the two later questions. In this book, Mark Forsyth, author, takes the reader on a journey through thirty-nine different rhetorical devices that can be used to, as mentioned on the vividly coloured, elegant front cover, turn the perfect English phrase.

Mark entertains the reader with entertaining descriptions of every technique you knew but didn’t know you knew, every technique you thought you knew but didn’t actually know, and every technique you didn’t even know you didn’t know. It’s one of several that Mark has written concerning the English language, his forte, including The Etymologicon (brilliant, but not as good), and The Horologicon (next on my list).

Breaking down the various different devices, it explains, in decidedly humorous vernacular, why dozens of the famous lines we know are actually famous, why “Tiger, tiger, burning bright” is brilliant, and why a zeugma (my personal favourite) is incredible and difficult to pull off. (Curiously enough, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, sexist as it may be, has nuzzled its way into our phrase book under rather interesting circumstances. But I’ll let you read the book to find out why.)

It can get somewhat Shakespeare-heavy with the 205 pages and thirty-nine chapters (I’m sure not a chapter in this book doesn’t reference him), but you quickly realise just how much this linguaphile knows, using a variety of examples and authors to explain his point. And almost every chapter connects; starting with the first example, that first example then connects somehow to the next example, the next example connects to the next, the next to the next, and the book just flows through until the final point.

The chapters are kept short, and can be read in many sitting or just the one. It’s informative. It’s funny. What’s not to love about it? A good way of describing it is saying that it reads the way a stand-up show runs; fast-paced and funny, with lots of different stories and snippets in there.

The book is, simply put, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. It is the necessary accompaniment to any nerd (as a baseball fan must own The Boys of Summer, a linguaphile this book). So let us better our English together, you and I, sounding grand and glorious as we do. Read on, fellow nerds, read on.

Before I go, I must take the time now. My writing of this review might seem strange. A few lines of it don’t quite seem to fit. You see, I thought it only appropriate to try my hand at the various rhetorical devices Mark Forsyth has laid out in this book. I’ve managed, I believe, 36 of the 39, though some have worked better than others. A few only work in poetry, and I am simply not good enough to pull off some of them. Others take time, practice, the right temperament, and your life if you aren’t careful (I’ve been at this screen several hours as my hands type and my fingers ruffle through the chapters of this book looking for devices I’ve missed).

Actually, I think I’ve got them all now (that last paragraph helped). My heart is happy as Buckingham Palace on the Queen’s birthday (now I have them all). Except the blazon, which is when a poet writes a bunch of similes in a row. It’s usually about a girl, describing her beauty in strange ways that seemed all the rage back in the day. For an example, read Songs of Solomon (or any work by a love-stricken poet). I was going to give it a shot, but it might be a little awkward. Well… yeah, no, it’s too awkward.

Next book, please.

* The sky is blue because the molecules in the air scatter blue light, some of which reaches your eye, making it visible. When you look at the sun, the opposite happens. The blue light that was scattered scatters away from your eye, and what’s left is what we perceive as the colour of the sun.

** The line “Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you,” is the hendiadys, though for you to truly appreciate that you need to first know what a hendiadys is. Read the book.

*** Commonly mistaken as “Where art thou Romeo?”, Juliet instead asks “wherefore” which, in yonder years, meant why, as in, “Why are you ROMEO, the one man in this kingdom I am forbidden to love?