Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth
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Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

Book notes on a guide to using rhetorical figures of speech.
Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

Rhetoric is a big subject. It consists of the whole art of persuasion. Elements of Eloquence does a wonderful job creating an accessible list of tricks and techniques which, quite frankly, should be taught at school.

One minuscule part of this massive subject are rhetorical figures, which are the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the wording.

All that the Greeks were doing was noting down the best and most memorable phrases they heard, and working out what the structures were.

And it is absolutely relevant to this day: just sit down after reading this book and watch any Barrack Obama speech and you will understand the force of these little techniques.

Below are just a few examples of rhetorical figures of speech included in the book that can add power to your writing and speaking.

Alliteration

Simply using words with the same first letter/sound:

It takes two to tango, but it takes two to waltz as well. There are whole hogs, but why not pigs? Bright as a button. Cool as a cucumber.

Polyptoton

It involves the repeated use of one word as different parts of speech or in different grammatical forms.

The Beatles' 'Please Please Me’ is an example.

The first please is please the interjection, as in ‘Please mind the gap’. The second please is a verb meaning to give pleasure, as in ‘This pleases me’. Same word: two different parts of speech.

Dr. Seuss was a big fan of the polyptotonic phrase: "Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You."

Antithesis

Oscar Wilde was the master of these, with lines like, ‘The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.'

So you start with a simple statement - life is sweet - and then add an unexpected inversion - death is sour.

Even Katy Perry used it to great effect: "You're hot then you're cold, you're yes when you're no. You're in then you're out. You're up then you're down."

Synaesthesia

This is a rhetorical device where one sense is described in terms of another. If colours are harmonious or a voice is silky, that is synaesthesia.

Sight and sound are interchangeable, touch can be applied to sound and sight, such as 'gravelly voice' and warm colours. Rarely does it work the other way around.

But when it does, it's rather fun: "Music that stinks to the ear," said Eduardo Hanslick on Tchaikovsky's violin concerto.

Anadiplosis

Yoda announces that fear leads to anger. He then takes the last word of that sentence and repeats it as the first word of the next: anger leads to hatred. He then takes the last word of that sentence and repeats it as the first word of the next: hatred leads to suffering.

This gives the illusion of logic, seemingly strong, structured and certain. But, that doesn't mean that's always the case: A ham sandwich is better than nothing. Nothing is better than eternal happiness. So eternal happiness is beaten by a ham sandwich.

Diacope

This is a verbal sandwich - a word or phrase repeated with a small interruption.

'Events, dear boy, events' said Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when asked what the biggest problem for government was.

Epistrophe

When you end each sentence with the same word, that’s epistrophe. When each clause has the same words at the end, that’s epistrophe. When you finish each paragraph with the same word, that’s epistrophe.

Probably the most famous example of this in modern rhetoric is Barack Obama’s various epistrophic speeches, in which he always ended up with Yes we can.

Tricolon

Three is the magic number of literary composition.

Eat, drink and be merry. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Truth, justice and the American way.

Tricolons sound great if the third thing is longer: ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’.

Barack Obama packed 21 tricolons into his short victory speech.

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