Tag Archives: language

Review of “The Elements of Eloquence

EloquenceSure, 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.

What is the topic of most of the non-fiction books you’ve bought and read? Is it Mediterranean cooking, or managing your time, or being a better parent? You might be surprised when you take a close look at your shelves. What you actually seek out and read reveals your true interests.

For me, this came to light as I was turning over in my mind a book idea that is related to music, singing, and community. When I look to my bookshelves, though, those are not the subjects that dominate. Instead, my books point to a person obsessed with language in general and English in particular. This is the kind of stuff, according to the evidence, that I read for fun:

The Elements of EloquenceBooks

Thesaurus of American Slang

The Unfolding of Language

The Story of Ain’t

Is That a Word?

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

The Power of Babel

On Writing Well

Lapsing into a Comma

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Reading the OED

Library: An Unquiet History

The Trivium

Shady Characters

The QPB Guide to Word and Phrase Origins

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1959 edition

The Mechanics of the Sentence, 1955 (by my great-grandmother Alice Hyde Hupp!)

Founding Grammars

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture

The Professor and the Madman

The Meaning of Everything

Word Freak

The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, 4th edition

This list exposes the nature of my heart: I am a quintessential word nerd, a shameless lover of our English language in all of its glorious complications, regionalisms, and contradictions. Stemming from my word love is my love of punctuation, dictionaries, libraries, and type. On Twitter, I follow lots of editors, old manuscript people, libraries, and linguists.

I find myself wondering whether I have anything new to say about this much-covered topic. I certainly have every intention of continuing my self-indulgent immersion in the structure of languages, the origin of the manicule or interrobang, and the official birthday typeface of some city or other. But perhaps I can also use the powers of my personal obsession for good.

Therefore, I’ll be writing each month for the next year or so about one of these books and how it might be relevant for normal, non-word-obsessed people.

Meanwhile, I’m refusing to be discouraged by the fact that my current library is not what’s needed for my future book about singing and community. That topic will require a lot of learning and research, and that’s a big part of the appeal.

Words matter. Every communication that you send—e-mails, letters, reports—influences others’ impressions of you, for better or for worse. We keep this in mind when we’re interviewing for jobs, but we tend to become less careful over time. We’re busy, we’re working quickly, and maybe we don’t have someone on hand to run an eye over our words before they go out into the world.

Your words matter.Some of the shortest and simplest work I do for clients is also some of the most important. I call this service document review. I read over clients’ important e-mails, proposal cover letters, or PowerPoint presentations and make sure the grammar, spelling, and punctuation is correct. Do their plurals and singulars agree? Are their commas in the right places? Did they leave out a word?

Without getting paralyzed by worry that your grammar is making you look unprofessional, you can take some easy steps to feel confident about your writing—both in everyday work and for more important projects.

  1. Read it out loud. They tell the kids that in middle school and it works for any of us: if you want to catch a wording error, read that e-mail or letter right out loud.
  2. Don’t try to be fancy. Use simple language and make your points clearly. If your sentence goes on and on, break it up into separate sentences. Impressive words won’t make you look smart if you use them incorrectly.
  3. Curb your enthusiasm. Use exclamation points sparingly (and only one at a time!) and save emojis, text smiley faces, and LOL for Facebook.
  4. Read over your titles. Now do it one more time, slowly. So often, even professional editors miss obvious errors in titles, headings, headlines, teasers, or captions. Double-check everything—and read it out loud just to be sure.
  5. Make a style cheat sheet for yourself. Do you regularly misspell certain words? (I can never get recommend or embarrass right the first time.) Are there rules you can’t remember? (One Post-it on my desk says “Toward not towards.”) Look them up, write them down, and keep the list where you can see it. Spell check helps, but it won’t catch everything.
  6. Apostrophes cause trouble for a lot of people. Here’s a handy (and funny) guide to using them.
  7. If you need help, hire an editor to put together a short style guide (or cheat sheet) just for you. Have him or her read through a few of your letters, e-mails, or other short items you’ve written, note your common errors, and make a list for your reference. And for those times when a project really matters, working with an editor can help your writing shine.

I hope these steps will make you more confident in the writing your business requires and help your words work for you rather than against you.