I finished reading The Elements of Eloquence today. Over the last couple of weeks, this book provided a pleasant respite from the day-to-day rush of life, and grew into being one of my favorites.
It is about the figures of rhetoric. As Mark Forsyth, the playful and deeply knowledgable author, puts it: these "are the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the wording. Not by saying something different, but by saying something in a different way."
I found myself at times amused by the clever explanations, at times laughing along with the hilarious commentary, and at times simply blown away by the intricacies of the English language.
If you have any interest in the written or spoken word, I'd recommend you check this book out.
As Mark puts it towards the end, this book battles the "bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility."
I don't know if I would have agreed with that statement before I started reading. Now I do.
I've gathered a few of my favorite notes and highlighted passages here so you get a taste. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!
- It can be the exact depth in the sea to which a chap’s corpse has sunk; hardly a matter of universal interest, but if you say, “Full fathom five thy father lies,” you will be considered the greatest poet who ever lived. Express precisely the same thought 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.
Oscar Wilde was the master of these, with lines like, “The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.”
“Journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read,”
“Those who can, do: those who can’t, teach” and you sound as though you have sliced the world neatly into two and squeezed it out as an epigram.
On the Periodic Sentence:
The trick of the periodic sentence is that, until you’ve got to the end, until you’ve found that clause or verb that completes the syntax, until you’ve finally got to the period of the period, you can’t stop. Kipling forces you along to the climax. Read the first line of “If” and you have to read on until line 31 before you’re grammatically satisfied. And by that time you might as well read line 32, just so you can say you have.
In the song “Every Breath You Take,” even in the midst of a jealous rage, Sting still maintained the self-control to save his main verb for the end of the verse: Every breath you take, Every move you make, Every bond you break, Every step you take, I’ll be watching you.
- So just to recap, one of the greatest lines in the history of cinema is a man saying a name deliberately designed to be dull. The only possible explanation for the line’s popularity is the way it is phrased. Would the line have been remembered if he had said “My name is Mr. James Bond,” or “Bond, first name James,” or “Bond, but you can call me James,” or “James Bond”? Wording, pure wording. Diacope (pronounced die-ACK-oh-pee) is a verbal sandwich: a word or phrase is repeated after a brief interruption. You take two Bonds and stuff James in the middle. Bingo. You have a great line. Or if you like you can take two burns and stuff a baby in the middle, and you’ve got a political slogan and disco hit: burn, baby, burn (“Disco Inferno”).
- You can always, always connect two dots with a straight line. But add another word and they’re tricolons. Eat, drink and be merry. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Truth, justice and the American way. With a tricolon you can set up a pattern and then break it. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is a simple example.
- It’s very hard to work an extended isocolon in subtly. It’s strictly for the moment when you’re addressing the crowds in Rome or Washington, or trying to win the Second World War over the radio. It’s not the sort of trick you can use down the pub or try over dinner. If you do, Shakespeare makes fun of you thus: I praise God for you, sir: your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affection, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy.
- Let’s start with Oscar Wilde, master of inversion. Most of Wilde’s paradoxes are not paradoxes at all. They are simply simple thoughts expressed in a terribly surprising way. 'In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.' —Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892
There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it. —George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, 1903
Really, there’s no paradox here. You or I might have said “screwed either way,” but not Wilde.
- Over the centuries and over the classes, consonants tend to stay roughly the same, while vowels slip around like eels. As long as the consonant is there, the word is still recognisable. A middle-class Englishman ate lunch, the Queen et lunch, and a Cockney street urchin ite it. So nobody is utterly sure how Shakespeare pronounced his vowels. Shakespeare makes a habit of rhyming love with prove. That may be because Shakespeare pronounced prove as pruv, or it might just be that Shakespeare pronounce love as luve. If he did, then “If music be the food of love, play on” has an awful lot of assonance in it: muse, fude, luve. But as Shakespeare didn’t have a tape-recorder we’ll never know. The point for this chapter is, I’m afraid, that Shakespeare’s works may have been filled with lovely assonances that are now lost forever.
On Transferred Epithet
- A transferred epithet is when an adjective is applied to the wrong noun. So instead of writing “The nervous man smoked a cigarette” you write “The man smoked a nervous cigarette.” Cigarettes, of course, do not have feelings; yet we understand immediately what that second sentence means.
“The king is dead; long live the king” sums up both sides of epanalepsis. On the one hand it announces that the old monarch is dead and gone, and that there is a new king on the throne. On the other hand, it curtly tells republicans that there will always be a monarch. Everything has changed, and everything has remained the same.
It sounds so like “A lie begets a lie” or “Nothing will come of nothing” that we can’t help feeling that there’s an unending inhuman circle of dog eat dog eat dog eat dog.
On Scesis Onomaton:
And it’s quite possible to write without main verbs. You can’t do it forever, but you can have a go. No verbs. Only fragments.
When Winston Churchill wrote his history of the Second World War he had a lot to say about the events of 1939–45, events that he had in large part brought about. But the book begins with a simple, verbless heading: “The Moral of the Work.” And underneath that is written:
In War: Resolution.
In Defeat: Defiance.
In Victory: Magnanimity.
In Peace: Good Will.
But scesis onomaton works for even the pettiest rule. “Finders keepers” does not deign to tell us whether they were, are, will be or should be. It’s a rule, a verbless rule (and was actually an underlying principle of parts of the British Empire). The same goes for “Each to his own,” “Like father, like son” and “Third time lucky.”