Check Out that Figure!
May 5, 2016
Review of “The Elements of Eloquence”
Sure, you know what a rhetorical question is and perhaps using alliteration is a particular personal preference. But did you know those are two of the figures of rhetoric? I didn’t, and I certainly never learned the names and definitions of the other 37 figures. I even attended Catholic high school (supposedly known for old-school methods, rote memorization, and emphasis on English) but neither Sister Mary Donald nor Sister Marie Immaculata ever brought up rhetoric. Until I read “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth, rhetoric was Greek to me. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The figures of rhetoric have delicious Greek names, many of which are essentially unpronounceable to your average American. Epizeuxis or aposiopesis, anyone?)
I won’t spoil your enjoyment of reading Forsyth’s delightful and funny examples to illustrate each of the figures—he draws on classical and modern literature, the Bible, recent movies, and lyrics from pop songs. But here are a couple of my favorites to whet your appetite.
An old friend used to say that when you want to make something sound important, you should say it twice. Say it twice. Various forms of repetition loom large in “Eloquence.”
We encounter anadiplosis, well illustrated by Yoda: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, hatred leads to suffering.” In this figure, you begin each phrase with the last word of the previous phrase. “There’s simply a satisfaction, half logical and half beautiful, in seeing the same word ending one phrase and coming back to life at the start of the next,” Forsyth says. St. Paul did it, Jesse Jackson did it, and Shakespeare did it.
And like my repeated use of “did it” just now, which brings up our next figure, epistrophe, Forsyth cleverly ends each chapter with an example that links to the next figure. Another player on Team Repetition, epistrophe happens when you end each of several sentences, clauses, or paragraphs with the same word.
When you begin and end with the same word, that’s epanalepsis. John Lennon used this in his song that starts “Yesterday…” and then ends, “…yesterday.” Forsyth says this figure’s act of taking us back to where we began “gives the impression of going nowhere, and it gives the impression of time moving inexorably on.” For circularity and continuation, use epanalepsis.
Forsyth works his way through all 39 figures of rhetoric, with a brief nod to scholars who dispute precisely how each figure is defined. “Eloquence” is not a textbook and won’t leave you with ready-to-use figures to whip out at your keyboard. The jacket promises to reveal stylistic secrets and show you how to write like Shakespeare or deliver the perfect one-liner. I wouldn’t go that far. Rather, this book is a linguistic dessert, an exploration of these ancient techniques that can enhance modern writing. We use many of these without realizing it—at least, when we’re writing well—and it’s fun to spot them in your own work.
For me, a special side bonus was the source of this book. That my not-quite-21-year-old son thought to pick out an entertaining language book for his editor mom warms my heart. The fact that he found the book amusing himself gives me hope for future generations of language lovers.