There are many things that have changed my life. The internet. Budget airlines. The mocha pot. Living in Amsterdam. All of these are sublime examples. But, I marvel at, and value, my Kindle more.
Because, I just so happened to be browsing an absolutely mind blowing abundance of books available in the Kindle store sitting on a beach in Bali, sipping a coconut, when I stumbled upon Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.
The truth is this book caught my attention for a rather superficial reason. Mark Forsyth, among the surf babes and beach bums, sounded like a really stand up chap. He struck me as someone that would definitely wear a cravat, even in bed. I pictured a man, drinking tea and crumbling biscuits in a grandiose yet dusty library, pouring over literary legends and muttering to himself as he marvelled at great works.
That, in my mind, automatically made him an authority over the English language.
When I eventually broke from this fantasy long enough to read the description I discovered Forsyth claimed not only to decipher some of the most celebrated phrases in history but give you the formula to create your own too.
Now some people will tell you that great writing cannot be learnt. Such people should be hit repeatedly on the nose until they promise not to talk nonsense any more.Mark Forsyth
I reasoned anything that promised to reveal ‘how you too can write like Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde’ was worth reading and could even be revealing.
In Forsyth’s words, ‘Whether you’re aiming for literary immortality or just an unforgettable one-liner, The Elements of Eloquence proves that you don’t need to have anything to say — you simply need to say it well. This is a book on the importance of pure style.’
As a self-confessed, word-obsessed, self-taught writer, that sounded rather spiffing to me. (Please appreciate spiffing is not part of my everyday vocabulary but between the British Racing Green book cover and its blurb this book made me want to be more English.)
To be honest I’ve always felt a little intimidated by English grammar and saw its complexities as something to wrestle rather than work with. Yet when I started to read this book I began to feel my anxiety ebb away and a certain curiosity emerged in its place.
He begins ‘Genius, as we tend to talk about it today, is some sort of mysterious and combustible substance that burns brightly and burns out. It’s the strange gift of poets and pop stars that allows them to produce one wonderful work in their early twenties and then nothing. It is mysterious. It is there. [Then] It is gone.’
He continues ‘This is, if you think about it, a rather odd idea. No-one would talk about a doctor or an accountant or a taxi driver who burnt out too fast. Too brilliant to live long. Pretty much everyone in every profession outside of professional athletics gets better as they go along, for the rather obvious reason that they learn and they practise. Why should writing be different?’
Through these clarifying and encouraging words I felt like Forsyth and I were having a cosy, fire side chat. He helped me to understand writing with a fresh perspective. One where memorable writing doesn’t always have to come from an infinite pool of creative inspiration, but arises from effort and a formulaic equations that craft success.
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.Mark Forsyth
Shakespeare and Wilde weren’t just gifted. They were educated to use the figures of rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive writing by crafting a single phrase that is striking and memorable. The figures are just formulas for producing great lines.
I don’t remember my English teacher introducing me to these techniques in school. Either because a) he didn’t or b) I was too busy tipp-exing my pencil case (read: extremely bored).
Although it might be tricky to introduce anyone, least of all an absent minded teenager, to Polypton or Antithesis it’s likely this perspective on writing simply wasn’t part of the syllabus.
The trouble with grammatical technique is its dull. An education in English Language is generally pre-occupied with de-constructing what a poet meant as opposed to understanding how his prose is phrased. We’re asked to write essays on (and I quote) ‘what William Blake thought about the Tiger[sic]; despite the fact that William Blake was a nut job whose opinions, in a civilised society, would be of no interest to anybody apart from his parole officer.’
Luckily I’m no longer an absent minded teenager and Forsyth, with his witty, charismatic and often funny writing, has found a way of breathing life into an otherwise dead subject.
My overall opinion is that this book gave me insight into uncharted grammatical territory in a very charming and entertaining way that’s easy to read. What I like about it the most is it’s littered with stories, historical titbits and examples of where the figures of rhetoric were used in popular songs to slogans, making them feel more relevant and less abstract.
Forsyth also cleverly applies the formulas in his chapters as he explains each technique, which is not only fun but helpful, enabling you to grasp new concepts effortlessly.
A ham sandwich is better than nothing. Nothing is better than eternal happiness. So eternal happiness is beaten by a ham sandwich.This is Anadiplosis.
(Anadiplosis takes the last word of the previous sentence and repeats it as the first word of the next.)
To conclude, while this book may have given me a new perspective on ‘Please, please me’ (The Beatles) it hasn’t changed my life. Nor will it change the way I write.
It was interesting, amusing and insightful but I don’t feel inclined to adopt these practices, even if that means forfeiting penning stellar one-liners like Shakespeare’s. I have come to realise I am quite content haphazardly glueing words together until something sticks.
Does that mean I wouldn’t recommend it? Absolutely not. If you possess a healthy curiosity about your craft and are a secret grammar geek you will undoubtedly get a kick out of reading The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase. Even if you’re not, you may very well find it entertaining anyway.
And, you know something? I Google Mark Forsyth and found a wonderful YouTube video of his discussing this book. He was almost exactly as I imagined.
- 4 / 5
- 3 / 5
- 4 / 5