What's notable about 'a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife'? 

You'll learn about litotes, synecdoches, zeugmas, isocolons and the right way to order your adjectives in Mark Forsyth's The Elements of Eloquence

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

The Elements of Eloquence Mark Forsyth

Icon Books, pp.208, £12.99

In the reminiscences of Bertie Wooster we find this:

As I sat in the bathtub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, ‘Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar’, it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy.

The sentence is quoted for its use of ‘meditative foot’, in the Winter 1973 issue of the learned journal Linguistic Inquiry, by Robert A. Hall in his ‘Transferred Epithet in P. G. Wodehouse’, now as well-thumbed as any article can be that is perused principally online. Stephen Fry is always citing it. Mark Forsyth, however, quotes the sentence as an example of litotes — affirming something by denying its opposite. Orwell was wary of that figure of speech, advising writers tempted by it to think of the sentence, ‘A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.’ Economically, Forsyth also points out that in Bertie Wooster’s remark ‘Pale Hands’ is an example of synecdoche.

To find three rhetorical figures of speech in one sentence by Wodehouse fits our knowledge of him as a rather artificial writer. Nowadays that sounds like a pejorative categorisation, but it was not always so. In the times of Sir Thomas Browne (whom Forsyth, somewhat hyperbolically, calls ‘the first English prose writer’), to be ingenious and artificial was the bee’s knees for a writer. But for the past couple of centuries, the author explains, the intentional practice of rhetorical figures has been eschewed, partly because of the Romantic fallacy that ‘you could learn everything worth learning by gazing at a babbling mountain brook’.


The boast on the cover is, ‘How to turn the perfect English phrase’, and Forsyth admits that his book ‘is about one tiny, tiny aspect of rhetoric: the figures of speech’. Being able, like Peter Simple’s fantasy ‘apodosis turner in the conditional clause shed’, to produce a smooth example of epizeuxis or epistrophe will not, to be sure, make you Shakespeare (about whose use of figures we hear much to our advantage in this short book). But Forsyth’s chief and admirable ambition is to demolish ‘the bleak and imbecile idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible’.

It is good news that the popular author of The Etymologicon (the ‘threepenny bit in the plum pudding’ of Christmas publishing in 2011) should now potter round the rhetorical warehouse at our elbow, commenting on the choicer goods on view, for he is well-informed and amusing. The shiniest piece of information I picked up is that, in English, adjectives go in this order:

Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.

This knowledge is implicitly mastered by all native speakers; to see it made explicit is an enjoyable revelation, like learning to carry a tray on the flat of your hand.

Forsyth concedes that zeugma is seldom useful, isocolon can sound silly and syllepsis show-offy, and he struggles to find good examples in English of enallage. Even the name sounds to me like either an allergy or analogy, so that to refer to it in speech is likely to meet the response: ‘What?’ It means a deliberate use of a grammatical error.

Is there a word for deliberate misquotation? Perhaps the examples here are not deliberate, but Wordsworth did not write ‘A host of dancing daffodils’. The Three
Musketeers’ motto was not, ‘One for all and all for one’ (the name of a recent dubstep number by Razihel and Virtual Riot), but, ‘All for one, one for all’ (Tous pour un, un pour tous), though it does remain an example of chiasmus. Nor did Blake write, ‘And was the countenance divine / On England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ And who told Mark Forsyth that an ell was an old measure of 1.1 miles?

I hope the publishers, having let those through, will mend them in the many future printings the book deserves.

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Show comments
  • MarcusJuniusBrutus

    I bought the book, I read the first page, and I was hooked.

    I want to capture this elegance in my own writing and speaking.

  • Jeeti Johal-Bhuller

    Word power, words have incredible power, they arouse many thought processes, fire neurons, stir the senses, invoke great ideologies wandering the unconscious highway awaiting their time to become, see the light of day. Language has spirit, is the spirit of a people, the deeper the soul the greater the eloquence, the sublimes the sense the higher the level of articulation. Linguistics is a fabulous science, and for a society seemingly soulless, the plea to reignite a love of waxing lyrical, of florid speech, of language as an art form neither imitable nor tolerated in any pretentious attempt to appear more than what one is. Communicating understanding and sense daily is initself a liberation.

    • Daniel Maris

      Boxes have sides not walls, don’t they? Or is that an Americanism?

      • Jeeti Johal-Bhuller

        Containers have sides or panels, rooms have walls I think

      • Jonathan_Briggs

        That rather depends on whether the contents are there by choice…

    • a_ha81

      What a load of Bhull.

      • Jeeti Johal-Bhuller

        You’re not suppose to capitalise the B in Bhull if you disagree silly

    • salieri

      So you didn’t read the book, then?

  • Fergus Pickering

    A rather artificial writer? Stop blathering, fellow. All good writing is artificial. Tell me a writer who is not artificial and I’ll tell you a writer who is not worth the time of day.

  • Eddie

    Already know all of these and own a dictionary of such literary terms (well I do have an English lit degree from a top uni).
    But why would anyone bother using these terms at all, except in tedious literary criticism essays, unless they wanted to be tedious wiseacre show off bores at dinner parties?
    Writers do what they describe without knowing it anyway. I know I do.

    Zeugmatically, I am taking the p-ss and taking my leave now. Bye.

    • amonduul3

      Dear Mr. Top University:

      We know you’re an instinctive genius, get your impulses from vernal woods and so on…but whatever your last sentence is, it sure isn’t zeugma.

      You do manage to provide a negative affirmation of the value of knowing literary figures and knowing how to use them, though. Thanks!

  • salieri

    I can safely assume, can I, that Mark Forsyth is not related to James?

  • CharlesCrawford

    P G Wodehouse was an incredibly precise writer, tuning words and sentences with great care to achieve certain subtle effects. He of course had the huge benefit of learning Latin and so understanding grammar (and the way English works as it does) to a far higher degree than most people now:

    “And in two shakes of a duck’s tail Gussie, with all that lapping about inside him, will be distributing the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School before an audience of all that is fairest and most refined in the county.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “It seems to me, Jeeves, that the ceremony may be one fraught with considerable interest.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “What, in your opinion, will the harvest be?”

    “One finds it difficult to hazard a conjecture, sir.”

    “You mean imagination boggles?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    I inspected my imagination. He was right. It boggled.

    Every word tone-perfect.
    I agree with Eddie below – good writers these days achieve results by using clever phrasing without necessarily knowing the Greek or other technical terms for them.
    Writing is like painting – the more brushes and techniques you master, the subtler the range of effects you can create and the wittier the way you can play with language/grammar forms. But don’t try to write like PGW. It won’t work.

    • Jonathan_Briggs

      An interesting point; my tutor at Birkbeck said to me “You must have learned Latin”, I asked her how she knew, she replied that she knew because of how I handled long sentences. Mind you, I was not very good at it, Latin that is, and was sent to the metalwork class from the IV form onwards…
      Wodehouse is one of those writers who can make me smile just by the construction of a sentence, never mind the content.