The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase

by Mark Forsyth

The Elements of Eloquence is about “the figures of rhetoric, which are the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable… They are the formulas for producing great lines.” Mark Forsyth writes with a sense of humor and he quotes examples from The Beatles, John F. Kennedy, Shakespeare, and Yoda.

Some of the figures of rhetoric are familiar, such as alliteration, antithesis, hyperbole, paradox, personification, and rhetorical questions. The book covers these as well as more than 30 others.

Synaesthesia is where one sense is described in terms of another. “Synaethesia reaches its purest form, though, when, rather than shuffling the senses, a sense is given to something completely abstract,” such as the smell of victory.

Hyperbaton is when you put words in an odd order” such as Richard Lovelace’s line, “Stone walls do not a prison make.” Forsyth notes that this is difficult to do. “Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose noun… Green great dragons can’t exist.” He also notes, “When you repeat a word with a different vowel, the order is always I A O… So politicians may flip-flop, but they can never flop-flip.”

Yoda is known for hyperbaton, but he also used anadiplosis, the repetition of the last word of one clause as the first word of the next: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Diacope is a verbal sandwich: a word or phrase is repeated after a brief interruption. You take two Bonds and stuff James in the middle. Bingo. You have a great line… Crisis? What Crisis?… Sunday Bloody Sunday… Human, all too human… Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last.”

Epistrophe is when you end each sentence, phrase, or paragraph with the same word. And that is “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Tricolon is a set of three. “Eat, drink, and be merry… The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly… Tricolons sound great if the third thing is longer…. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… It is always three and never four. Estate agents do not rely on the rule location, location, location, location, although that would still be an example of epizeuxis… [which is] repeating a word immediately in the same sense.”

Syllespis is when one word is used in two incongruous ways. In fact, it can be more than two.” The Rolling Stones song Honky Tonk Woman uses this technique: “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”

Isocolon is “two clauses that are grammatically parallel” or “two sentences that are structurally the same” such as ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “The isocolon is particularly useful to advertisers. The parallelism can imply that two statements are the same thing even if they aren’t. ‘Have a break. Have a Kit Kat’ is a clever little line because it uses isocolon to try to make two rather different things synonymous.”

Enallage… is a deliberate grammatical mistake… Any child could tell you that the words should be ‘love me tenderly, love me truly,’ but they aren’t and it’s much better that way. The chap who wrote those lyrics, Ken Darby, had the tune to contend with.” A similar example is Alexander Pope’s line “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Chiasmus [is] where the words of the first half are mirrored in the second… ‘Tea for two and two for tea.’” John F. Kennedy used the technique is his inauguration speech: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” And then there is the rumored Dorothy Parker line, “I’ve been too fucking busy, and vice versa.”

Catachresis is rather difficult to define, but it’s essentially when a sentence is so startlingly wrong that it’s right,” such as the Alice in Wonderland line, “Curiouser and Curiouser!”

Litotes is affirming something by denying its opposite… ‘Would it be awfully wrong to tempt you with a drink?’  ‘I wouldn’t say no.’” Forsyth explains that litotes is a form of understatement-by-negative and advises that it “isn’t the best figure to use when you’re trying to be grand. Litotes does not stir the soul, it’s more suited to stirring tea.”

“The extreme form of metonymy is synecdoche, where you become one of your body parts… All eyes were on government… All hands on deck… They had their top brains working on it.”

Epanalepsis is beginning and ending with the same word. “Robert Burns wrote of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ … The phrase wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable if Burns had written ‘Man’s inhumanity to others.’”

Aposiopesis, Greek for becoming silent, “is signaled in English punctuation by three dots.” Examples include “Tidy your room, or else…” and “If only…”

Prolepsis is Greek for anticipation. It is a technique for using a pronoun before introducing what it refers to. The author cites Ernest Dowson’s Vitae Summa Brevis (1896): “They are not long, the weeping and the laughter…”

Congeries is Latin for a heap, and in rhetoric it applies to any piling up of adjectives or nouns… List means exactly the same thing, but it has none of the exoticism of congeries, no spice, no adventure, no derring-do, no whiff of the palm tree and the jungle, no pizzazz, no fairy-dust, no magic.” Forsyth notes that “the technical name for a heap of insults is bdelygmia.” I wonder if Groucho Marx knew that?

“I do not believe that The Beatles had any idea what anadiplosis was, any more than I believe that the Rolling Stones knew about syllepsis. They knew what worked, and it did.”

Other rhetorical figures covered in this book include: adynaton, anaphora, assonance, blazon, hendiadys, hypotaxis and parataxis, merism, periodic sentences, pleonasm, polyptoton, scesis onomaton, transferred epithets, and zeugma.

As someone who was generally bored with English classes, I thought this was an interesting commentary. “English teaching at school is, unfortunately, obsessed with what a poet thought, as though that were of any interest to anyone. Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, schoolchildren are asked to write essays on what William Blake thought about the Tiger; despite the fact that William Blake was a nutjob whose opinions, in a civilized society, would be of no interest to anybody apart from his parole officer… A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is the one and only difference between the poet and everybody else.”

The author notes that the subject of rhetoric consists of far more than the figures of speech covered in this book. Other aspects include “arguing, proving, inventing, memorizing, and delivery.”

Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. New York: Berkley Books, 2013. Buy from

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