The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth (Book Review)

Here’s something for anyone who really wants to go beyond the basics of English. Having recently released Advanced Writing Skills for Students of English, I’ve had a few readers share comments that while they see the value in a clear and simple writing approach they also love long sentences and creative use of English. Once you’re able to write flawless advanced English, what structures and styles can be used to really stand out? How do turns of phrase and idiomatic or poetic language that doesn’t fit the rules work? The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth is an excellent introduction to such ideas.

Forsyth aims to revive a study of rhetoric, the many rules (or, rather, recorded patterns) for very specific, very advanced language techniques. His starting point is the suggestion that Shakespeare was not merely a very talented writer, but a diligent student of the language. Shakespeare used rhetorical devices very deliberately and would have studied them as strategic rules, much as foreign learners have to study the basic rules of English.

Some of the ideas The Elements of Eloquence expand on concepts found in my ELB books, referring to the flexibility of rules and matters of style. Rhetoric puts names to these ideas, such as hyperbaton, the practice of creating sentences that do not fit the usual word order expectations. Some are structural, others more poetic, such as synaesthesia, the cross-application of senses  (e.g. Hanslick’s quote, criticising Tchaikovsky, “this music stinks to the ear”). There are some 39 such rhetorical devices covered in the book.

This book is lightly written, making the subject accessible and giving an easy summary of the ideas. It goes beyond the ordinary in English writing (and general usage) to explain why many supposed errors may actually be deliberate (particularly consider enallage, a deliberate grammatical mistake), and how very unusual sentences work. It won’t necessarily tell you exactly when you can get away with using these devices, as they are very nuanced, but it will raise your awareness of them.

Such incredibly specific techniques in English are ideas I would like to explore myself, as a future instructive guide for foreign learners, but it makes me happy that a book like this already exists, providing a window into a fascinating and rarely discussed area. If you’d like to give it a read, check out The Elements of Eloquence here.

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