Literature, lines and the tricks of rhetoric

It was illuminating and hilarious, Mark Forsyth’s third book. The Elements of Eloquence is a writer’s tool-kit, recipe book, palette, clay-carving scalpel.

I delight in picking a part language. I delight in picking a part novels. And so I delighted in picking a part this novel that picks a part language.

Mark gathers all the rhetoric figures (e.g. alliteration, assonance, paradox, litotes, prolepsis, rhetoric questions) and then separates them into insightful chapters revealing the secrets behind the lines we remember.

The book works its way through these hidden and clever devices that we apply liberally to language today but without much knowledge of exactly what we are doing. Ever wondered why you remember those one-liners from said film, show or book? It’s all in the rhetoric, reader, all in the rhetoric.

From the beginning Mark goes forward into the past to seek out perfect examples for every rhetoric figure, which he admitted was a tad trying at times.

The book’s ethos is that great writers are not born but taught. I think the idea goes: rhetoric figures can make a great writer, a great writer applies these with precision, precision makes for memorable lines, and memorable lines stand the test of time. Not too difficults, or so it would seem.

I loved reading this book, in fact I sped through it, though carefully, cover to cover, it must have taken me fractions of a second to finish.

And so before Mark arrives at Steyning Bookshop, West Sussex, to discuss his book I questioned him with questions about rhetoric figures, writing and his love of language.

(Mark’s talk will be in Steyning not next Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday.)

Can you introduce your book and tell me the decision behind writing it?

Basically the Ancient Greeks noticed beauty in particular sentences or phrases and so tried to classify these. Rhetoric figures make up a small part of rhetoric. They were taught in schools for 2,000 years and Shakespeare knew these and applied them deliberately to his work. He knew exactly what he was doing and what effect would be achieved. Now we will use rhetoric figures but usually without realising we are doing so. I wanted to uncover and highlight the tricks of rhetoric.

My favourite lost word is groke, which means to gaze at somebody while they are eating in hope they will give you some food, is it exactly what my dog does. What is yours?

Wamblecropt has to be my favourite. It’s amazing to say aloud. It means overcome with indigestion. Your stomach could be wambling if you had eaten a lot but when you couldn’t move you were wamblecropt.

I enjoyed playing around with diacope, the word sandwich and why Bond James Bond is so much better than James Bond, which rhetoric figure do you enjoy the most?

They are all good for different times and places but I think anaphora is powerful (repeating the same word or pattern of words at the beginning of every sentence) it gets crowds roaring, that’s why Churchill and Martin Luther King used it.

But I also like hendiadys (apparently the most elusive rhetoric figure. You take an adjective and noun and turn the adjective into a noun so you have a noun and noun. Noisy city becomes noise and city) it has a funny, subtle effect and it makes language strange and beautiful.

Is there any rhetoric figures you would get rid of?

I would get rid of none of them. A lot of the time assonance doesn’t work although it can sometimes but the rest have their place in language.

I’m sure all eyes will enjoy reading this book but what did you enjoy about writing the book (if in fact you did)?

What I enjoyed the most was the biggest difficulty and also the least enjoyable part; a paradox I know. Nobody really has attempted to write this book before and so all the examples I use from pop songs to speeches I had to think up, alone. So I basically spent a lot of time in the British Library staring up at the ceiling thinking through every line there ever was.

It was frustrating but then it was a ‘yes!’ moment when I found the right example and that was a fantastic moment. Usually though I would think of them after writing the chapter.

In fact I was giving a talk recently and explaining hendiadys and saying often you can use an ‘and’ in an unusual place often where an ‘in’ might be. After the talk some one came up to me and said isn’t Sex and the City an example of hendiadys? and I just thought dammit why didn’t I come up with that!

Can you pick out one line from a poem/ speech/ novel that you find particularly inspiring or that is a favourite?

I don’t know if I have a favourite but I do love the To be, or not to be speech in Hamlet. It is beautiful but shows many examples of rhetoric.

To be, or not to be (diacope) that is the question (rhetorical question)
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune (hendiadys)

I noticed when reading the book examples would pop up comparing English to other languages and also how English can have quite a rigid structure. The adjective rule is a strange but true one. Do you speak any other languages?

A little French and German but nothing fluently. It depends on the language if the adjective order can be changed or if like English it is set.

I mean I found out the adjective rule when researching for the book and I was surprised. I have been speaking English for roughly 36 years and meant to be an expert but I was shocked to discover this rule that we all use but don’t realise and when you change that rule the sentence sounds very odd.

‘Green great dragon’.

(The adjective rule is: opinion- size- age- shape- colour- origin- material- purpose- noun.)

How did your love of language develop?

I was given the Oxford English Dictionary as a christening present and I have never recovered from that. Language is so familiar but we know so little about it, about the rules hidden in it. It is kind of like finding the criminal records of a work colleague and thinking oh really that’s what he’s been up to.. interesting…

It’s the secrets of language that makes me love language.

Up until your first book The Etymologicon what were you up to?

I studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University and then before I wrote my books I was a hack writer writing everything and anything I could, TV listings, whatever, so I am really just a fraudster.

You are giving a talk at Steyning Bookshop (West Sussex) on December 10, and you have been there before, a year ago, are you looking forward to going back?

I’m very much looking forward to going back to Steyning. It is a beautiful bookshop with wonderful people, a great crowd and it is so encouraging when little towns have independent bookshops.


I admit this piece is littered with rhetoric figures. I decided to write this interview with as many rhetoric figures as I could stuff in without it being glaringly obvious or nonsense. I hope I have struck this balance. It was fun, fun, fun. Though they did start to take on a life of their own. All along I thought it was me in charge of rhetoric figures but it seems rhetoric figures were actually in charge of me.

Great game: find how many rhetoric figures I’ve used in this piece. What fun? To be honest I would rather sing opera, naked, from the top of a multi-storey car park in Brighton town centre than meet a person who does not find counting rhetoric figures a thoroughly entertaining task.

mark elements