This is a great book if you are at all interested in English and the resonance particular phrases have had and continue to have down the ages. Forsyth wears his knowledge lightly and what could have been a turgid over-serious tome turns out to be a bright, easy to read and absorbing piece of work. I have to admit to reading it today in virtually one sitting it takes such a hold on you. Don't be put off by the chapter titles, which are obscure (in the most part) grammatical terms or the "flowers of rhetoric" as they've been called. On the contrary, accept the challenge of finding out what they all mean, what relevance they have in literature and life, and prepare to be educated almost without realising it. Writers from Lennon and McCartney to Blake, from Shakespeare to George Lucas all get a look in here, so If you enjoyed Forsyth's previous 2 books in a similar vein then you will know what to expect. For those new to the author this will open your eyes in a most entertaining way.
I very much enjoyed Mark Forsyth's fluffy but inspiring earlier books on words, notably The Etymologicon, and his new title The Elements of Eloquence is equally enjoyable (and anything but a hard read). But it is also a book that makes you stop in your tracks. Because this stuff really matters.
Forsyth has revealed a startling truth that should have been obvious - in all those hours spent in English lessons we aren't taught how to write well. Yet there is a way to do this that has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks and that was, until it went out of fashion, a major part of the school curriculum - rhetoric.
Now, if you told me a couple of weeks ago that I would wax lyrical about a book on rhetoric, I would not have believed you. 'Rhetoric' just sounds really dull. As a subject, it sounds as if it would make politics look engaging. Yet, as Forsyth so ably demonstrates, rhetoric is simply the key tools and techniques of getting something across in words in a way that will catch the attention and engage the reader. Although originally aimed primarily at speeches, these techniques are equally important for the written word.
A couple of hundred years ago children were taught rhetoric - now we have to pick it up by osmosis as our English teachers rabbit on about 'what the author was feeling when she wrote this' or 'what the author really means.' How much more valuable to teach us 'what techniques and tricks the author is using to reel the reader in.'
Admittedly the whole field could do with a bit of a work over. If their science was anything to go by, I can't believe the ancient Greeks had the last word on rhetoric - there are probably key tools and techniques they weren't aware of. And the current terminology is horrendous. Forsyth points out that experts can't agree on what the rhetorical terms mean - but even if they could, many of them are obscure Greek words that are almost impossible to remember. If we were to teach rhetoric again, I'm sure we could come up with more memorable terms than aposiopesis, polysyndeton and epizeuxis (to name but three). But the fact remains that rhetoric is a treasury that most modern writers have never consciously explored - and our writing life would be much richer if they had. It's a brilliant conceit to do this, Mr Forsyth.
Is the book perfect? No. I find Forsyth's writing style a little too jovial and jokey, while some of the approaches he uses (cramming paragraphs full of the rhetorical technique covered by that chapter, and ending each chapter with an example of the next technique, for instance) are irritatingly clever-clever. For me, some of his examples of hendiadys just don't make sense (though to be fair, he says you can never really be sure this technique has been used.) But I can forgive anything for a book that has educated me more about the use of English than several years in English classes at school.
if writing were building construction, grammar and vocabulary would give us the raw materials and the basic skills to assemble them, but rhetoric provides the abilities of the architect. To write without an awareness of these tools and techniques is like expecting a bricklayer to create a cathedral. Anyone with the faintest interest in writing, or the English language, should be rushing out and buy this book.
on 23 November 2013
Well OK that is a bold statement! what about Trainspotting, The Bible, Shakespeare? well they all owe a little to the writing techniques explained in this book. Some say that Shakespeare was a genius but would he have been quite so lauded if he didn't have his little bag of tricks? from Alliteration to Anaphora its all here beautifully and wittily explained and bang up to date with quotes ranging from all the major works, oh and Yoda and Katy Perry. The scales will fall from your eyes as each trick is revealed. I can't put it down.
on 16 December 2013
One of the best books I've read on 'turning the perfect English phrase'. And don't we all want to be able to do that! Mark Forsyth tells you things you didn't know about the English language and keeps you turning the page. I have many grammar books including the inimitable Strunk and White which I cannot be without — but this book is different. I recommend it to any serious or wannabe-serious writer of fiction, non-fiction or drama.
on 23 July 2015
This is a wonderful book. Contemporary writers are taught to use simple language, simple syntax and simple concepts, avoiding long sentences and any lack of clarity. Unfortunately this destroys much of the beauty of English and diminishes the reading experience. Contemporary writers are also taught that creative writing cannot be taught; that the only way to learn is to practice and emulate other writers. And yet, there is a wealth of wisdom that has its roots all the way back in the Greek study of rhetoric. Mark Forsyth unlocks, in simple and light-hearted ways, a range of rhetorical tools that can be used to enhance prose and poetry.
It is a fantastic book, full of inspiring summaries of various rhetorical tricks. These summaries are kept fresh by contemporary examples from music, poetry and prose that reinforce the importance of rhetoric. I wish I had had this book a long time ago.
This 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 of Eloquence in terms of entertainment. 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’.
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 catchy sentence but most times not so much.
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!”
I think Forsyth’s main point 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 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!
on 14 January 2014
I previewed this book before buying it and was encouraged by the style and pace of the sample. Rhetoric may not seem like a particularly relevant skill in modern times but this book illustrates clearly how adepts in the art can turn a run-of-the-mill idea into an apparent gem of wisdom. If you think these concepts have fallen out of use, check out the latest political sound-bite to change your mind!
The book itself is a circular tour of a catalogue of rhetorical devices, entertainingly described and illustrated with examples from everyone from Plato (if memory serves) to The Beatles and Bob Dylan. The author defines each construction, then describes how it's been used by writers down through history. Using proverbs and quotations, he makes a case for the use of the construction, often offering alternative phrasings that, quite simply, don't cut the mustard like the original. At the end of each chapter, he finishes with a final example that's also an example of the device described in the next chapter (and, by the end, he arrives back where he started).
I was particularly taken with his opening passage, which starts with a denial of Shakespeare's genius (how often do you find someone going public with that?) No, says Forsyth, what Shakespeare did was to work at his art and get better at it with years of practice. He applied many of the concepts described later in the book and, when he did, he came out with his most memorable quotations. (Would anyone remember "Can anyone lend me a horse, please?" in comparison with what he actually wrote?)
If you have any love of language, this is a book you should read. If you ever have to speak in public, ditto. But please don't expect a dry, turgid exposition of rhetoric. This is a good read and something you could keep by the bedside to dip into whenever you get the urge.
on 21 April 2014
This truly is a beautifully written book which is not only entertaining to read, thanks to Forsyth's innate humour, but is also vastly educational. It's cleverly put together, with each 'chapter' covering a particular technique linked to the next, and every section is peppered with examples from a wide range of literature, media and political speeches.
There are common techniques which anyone who's sat through GCSE English lessons will know, such as alliteration, however there are dealt with in such detail and with such well put together explanations that they still offer something new. Then there are techniques which many readers will already know but just won't have names for them - I know the rule of three but had never heard it was called a 'tricolon'. Or I already knew repetition can work brilliantly, but I had no idea that if you start sentences using repetition, it's known as prolepsis. Naturally, there are also techniques which are entirely new to me, such as the gorgeously named 'scesis onomaton' (if you want to know what this is, then think about the dead parrot speech from Monty Python).
If you want to become a more knowledgeable reader or a better writer or appreciate good prose or like a good laugh then buy this book. I'll certainly be buying more of Forsyth's books in the future.
on 2 December 2013
A very entertaining adventure through many words,and phrases, and not, on any account, to be read too quickly. I am enjoying it.
on 25 June 2014
What a great read.
I did have to keep back tracking and rereading whole sentences, even swathes of this book in order to be sure I had read what I thought I had read.
I wish I was witty and clever enough to employ one of Mark Forsyth's grammatical tricks in writing this review. Sadly I am not. I only hope I have not dropped any proverbial clangers in doing so.
For all I simply want to say is if you love literature, song and the English language please do read this book.