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The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, by Mark Forsyth

review published on January 30, 2014. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

In his newest non-fiction offering, Mark Forsyth – author of the popular books The Etymologicon and The Horologicon – sets out to explore the ‘big subject’ of rhetoric. In The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, he focuses particularly upon the figures of rhetoric – ‘not by saying something different, but by saying it in a different way’ – and the ways in which each can be used.

Forsyth has touched upon the foundations of English language, detailing the history of how rhetoric techniques came about and how they have been used since. He weaves his way from obvious things like alliteration and antithesis, to the more obscure aposiopesis and adynaton. He states that his aim is to ‘explain the figures of rhetoric’, informing his readers that he has ‘simply adopted the rule of Humpty-Dumpty: When I use a rhetorical term, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.

Forsyth has split up the text in his new book into short chapters, all of which link into one another. The theme of connection which is central in The Etymologicon has been used here to good effect, giving the book a great structure.

Examples are given throughout, and Shakespeare is a common figure of focus. His writing is cited through the entire book to give examples of almost every rhetorical technique which can be used within the English language, demonstrating everything from paradox to iambic pentameter. In his characteristic chatty style, Forsyth states such things as: ‘Shakespeare simply knew that people are suckers for alliteration and that it’s pretty damned easy to make something alliterate (or that it’s surprisingly simple to add alliteration)’. Forsyth also uses examples from a wealth of different sources in the fields of literature and music, from Dickens, Austen, Keats, Tennyson and Wilde to John Lennon, Neil Armstrong and Mick Jagger.

Each entry in The Elements of Eloquence is quite short – bitesize, almost, which makes it a great volume to read a little at a time. Throughout, Forsyth practices what he preaches. When writing about parataxis – or ‘Farmer’s English’ – for example, where everything is directly stated in separate, non-linking sentences, he adopts the same style in his description. When he moves on to speak of how conjunctions can be used to ‘keep your sentence going and going forever’, he demonstrates how this is done.

The Elements of Eloquence is sure to delight word nerds the world over, and it will also greatly appeal to anyone who is interested in the many ways in which our great language can be put together. It is fascinating and informative, and even grammarians are sure to learn something.

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Call of the Undertow, by Linda Cracknell

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All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld

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