The Elements of Eloquence

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my series on rhetorical devices. Figures of rhetoric such as anaphora, epistrophe, epizeuxis and others, when used properly, can set a speech on fire so that it blazes in the memories of those who heard it long after the speaker has left the stage.

ForsythThus, I was delighted when the good people at Icon Books sent me a complimentary copy of Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence. In his book, Forsyth takes us through 39 chapters, each one devoted to a specific rhetorical device. Now, you might be thinking: “Thirty-nine chapters of rhetoric? I’d rather have bamboo shoots shoved under my fingernails.” But you’d be mistaken.

Forsyth has a writing style that make you feel as though you are having a chat with a good friend over a beer. (And when good friends get together for a beer, what else do they talk about besides rhetoric?) He also has a wry, and often wicked, sense of humour. Take, for example, this commentary on alliteration:

You can spend all day trying to think of some universal truth to set down on paper, and some poets try that. Shakespeare knew that it’s much easier to string together some words beginning with the same letter. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It can be the exact depth in the sea to which a chap’s corpse has been sunk; hardly a matter of universal interest, but if you say, “Full fathom five your father lies”, you will be considered the greatest poet that ever lived. Express precisely the same thought in any other way – e.g. “your father’s corpse is 9.144 metres below sea level” – and you’re just a coastguard with some bad news.

Or this remark on syllepsis (when one word–often a verb–is used in two different ways, or applied to two different things):

But the commonest form [of syllepsis] is the simple contrast of the concrete and the abstract. When the prophet Joel told the people of Israel to “Rend your heart and not your garments” he was using the same trick that the prophet Mick Jagger employed when he talked in one song [Honky Tonk Woman] about a lady who was not only able to blow his nose, but his mind, although for rather different purposes. Indeed, one suspects that Mr Jagger was planning another syllepsis based on blow that would have got the song banned on radio.

Although Forsyth frequently draws on examples from the usual suspects such as the Bible, Shakespeare and Churchill, he also welcomes rhetorical devices from singers, such the Beatles, Supertramp, Leonard Cohen, INXS and Alanis Morissette, and movies such as Dirty Harry, Pulp Fiction, Austin Powers and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

You might think that a 39-chapter book on rhetoric makes a good reference guide that sits on your shelf until you need of inspiration or clarification, and you certainly can use it that way. However, with a writing style that is so light that it borders on the conversational, and with chapters that average only four to five pages in length, The Elements of Eloquence can easily become a page turner. Indeed, Forsyth cleverly ends each chapter with an example of a new rhetorical device that is the subject of the ensuing chapter. So the reader is always tempted to read just a little bit more.

I highly recommend The Elements of Eloquence to anyone who is looking to spice up his speeches (or writing) and to anyone appreciates seeing the English language stretched to its full potential. Will I refer refer to Forsyth’s book in future posts on rhetorical devices? Indeed I will; of that you can be certain; indeed I will. (And that’s hypophora and diacope.)

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Book Review, Rhetoric and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Elements of Eloquence

  1. Pingback: Rhetorical Devices: Syllepsis – Spectacular Speaking

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  4. byrdwords says:

    I enjoyed this very much and am glad of the book (you can feel the ‘however’ coming, can’t you?) but I am, I confess. reminded of Bertrand Russell. ‘To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy.’ Though his quote is in itself eloquent, it reminds me not to become so enamored of the beauty of words that I forget content. That said, I’ll probably get a copy. Thanks.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Bob. Indeed, eloquence, when taken to its extremes, can beguile us to the point that where we fail to realise that there is no point! Worse still is when eloquence leads us down a road which, with hindsight, we will bitterly regret. Still, a speech that wraps great content in great language is the best kind of speech.



  5. Liv says:

    It’s been on my shelf for a number of years John. Thanks for reminding me to get it down.

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