The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

By Mark Forsyth

“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.”

This is a very clever and funny book about the wonders of rhetoric. This book is to be enjoyed for the overall appreciation it will give you for the myriad ways great writers wrote and why they were effective and why we remember their thoughts, sentences, lyrics, and paragraphs today. A little tweak here and there and many immortal passages would have perished in the ashes of time. If your goal is to learn specific vocabulary words and be able to give examples of each and every type of rhetorical conceit, you will be disappointed unless you have a photographic memory. My advice is: don’t even try to memorize the elements in order to, what? pull erudite and esoteric knowledge out at cocktail parties? Just enjoy. The great strength of the book is the many examples, perfectly chosen, of each trick and technique great writers used to get their point across. From the Bible to the Beatles; from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll and Bob Dylan, Mr. Forsyth leaves no secret or subtlety unrevealed. His tone is full of fun, irreverent, and even joyful, even as its scholarship is impeccable. I’ll include one more long quote:

“John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote his first story aged seven. It was about a “green great dragon.” He showed it to his mother who told him that you absolutely couldn’t have a green great dragon, and that it had to be a great green one instead. Tolkien was so disheartened that he never wrote another story for years.
The reason for Tolkien’s mistake, since you ask, is that adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.”

I also want to include a remarkable review by another reader which ably and cleverly summarizes the books contents:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

June 17, 2015

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