William Shakespeare was perhaps the most eloquent writer in the English language, but according to Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase, he was not a natural genius. He achieved his eloquence by mastering—through painstaking practice, time and sheer hard work—simple, well-known tools. Well, actually they were well-known tools in his time, because back then students still learned rhetoric in schools. No one learns rhetoric anymore, which is why the world is awash in crap, cliché and corporate communication.
Why do some combinations of words sound so much better than the ordinary? In that previous phrase, everyone will recognize alliteration. I don’t think anyone knows why we like to hear words in succession that start with the same sound, but we do. You may have also recognized the use of tricolon: we like things in threes, especially when the last one is the longest.
Forsyth’s contention is that eloquence is a skill that can be improved by knowledge of the classic elements that were first catalogued by the Greeks and Romans so long ago. It’s like the difference between basic dinner fare and a gourmet meal. An amateur chef can produce a tasty meal, but a professional, with the right ingredients and long experience in combining them just so, can turn out great meals consistently. But eloquence is harder than cooking, because you have to produce a different meal every time you speak or write.
I love this book and strongly endorse it even though it contradicts two of my favorite themes.
The first is that content is king, so my first inclination was to disagree with Forsyth’s other main point: poets succeed not because they express profound ideas, but because they express ordinary ideas exquisitely. But it really is true. Sometimes we hear a phrase that just sounds so right that it’s easy to assume it’s a profound or novel thought. But when you strip away the eloquence and consider the idea, you might find it’s quite ordinary, or even nonsensical. Shakespeare could have said “your dad’s body is thirty feet deep”, but he instead said, “Full fathom five thy father lies.”
Ian Fleming deliberately gave his main character a nondescript name, yet when he said, “Bond. James Bond”, he spoke one of the most memorable lines in movie history. He used diacope, which is a verbal sandwich in which you say a word or phrase, insert an interruption, and then repeat the word or phrase.
It’s easy to assume that I have a suspicion of superficial elements that dress up an untrue or inferior idea. Yet I love a well-turned phrase at least as much as the next person.
There are three ways to read this book. First you have to read it and enjoy it. That’s easy. Then you have to study it. That’s tough but useful. Finally you can practice, practice, practice. (Parataxis with epizeuxis thrown in) You can simply enjoy it, which is easy to do because Forsyth has not only done a great job in compiling examples of the various elements, he has also come up with plenty of his own. You can also study and learn the elements so that you can recognize them when you read or hear them. Don’t worry, it won’t ruin your appreciation of good phrasing—understanding how the effect was created does not make it any less impressive. The third way is to do what Shakespeare did: actively practice. This is risky, as it’s easy to create a lot of crap that just misses the mark, but over time you might just improve the quality of your expression.
The difficulty in writing a review of a book like this is that everything sounds so pedestrian. Anything you write pales in comparison to the greats, so does that mean that one should not aspire to occasional flights of fancy? Is there a place for the elements of eloquence in ordinary business communication, or are they reserved for writers and other creative types? (Rhetorical questions)
I personally believe that while simple, plain and clear expression is perfectly fine most of the time, if you can occasionally slip in something that makes people sit up and take notice, or to repeat what you said afterward, the effects on your personal credibility and reputation may not be to your dissatisfaction. (Litotes) They make you sound smart, the elements do. (Prolepsis)
Hyperbole is something that corporate communication does a lot of, but not well. When everything is awesome or world-class, nothing is. For comparison, note how Dashiel Hammett described the skills of a detective: “(he) could have shadowed a drop of salt water from golden Gate to Hong Kong without ever losing sight of it.”
Another of my themes is the importance of efficiency and concision in speaking and writing, of cutting out unnecessary words, but religiously sticking to that would rule out merism and eliminate lines such as,
“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them…”
which could have more concisely said by, “Cannon all around them.”
Of course, King could have shortened his speech by not saying “I have a dream…” so many times. (anaphora)
So, it’s OK to use more words than mere efficiency would dictate, but if that bothers you, you can even out the balance through zeugma (leaving out a verb) or syllepsis (using one word in more than one way), as demonstrated by,
“Sir Edward Hopeless, as guest at Lady Panmore’s ball, complained of feeling ill, took a highball, his hat, his coat, his departure, no notice of his friends, a taxi, a pistol from his pocket, and finally his life. Nice chap. Regrets and all that.”
There are two things this book may do for you–make you a better speaker, or make you a worse speaker. It could be easy to overdo it, or to get so carried away with your own wordcraft that you produce more of the aforementioned crap, which is why you should, when preparing for a speech that is one of the most important of your life, one that will determine the subsequent arc of your personal success, such as a keynote to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, or to your own CFO, who by the way despite her reputation for terseness and brevity is not immune to the power of eloquence, try out your lines on a trusted friend, one who can provide a fresh ear, sounding board, and impartial opinion. (That was hypotaxis, which has probably mercifully gone out of fashion, but was fun to write.)
It’s your choice. You can buy this book and work hard on becoming more eloquent, or you can ignore this and keep producing… (aposiopesis)