Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Review: 'Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn a Perfect English Phrase' by Mark Forsyth

As you may know, I was an English student and thus spent much of my time reading English literature. Through the years you learn how to read books in such a way you both analyse their style and get a sense for their "feel". What are they trying to tell you and how. Forsyth's book is a great guide for learning how to do the latter. Thanks to Netgalley and Icon Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. date: 7/11/2013
Publisher: Icon Books
The idiosyncratic, erudite and brilliantly funny new book from Mark Forsyth, bestselling author of The Etymologicon and The Horologicon.
In an age unhealthily obsessed with substance, this is a book on the importance of pure style.
From classic poetry to pop lyrics and from the King James Bible to advertising slogans, Mark Forsyth explains the secrets that make a phrase - such as ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright’ or ‘To be or not to be’ - memorable.
In his inimitably entertaining and witty style he takes apart famous lines and shows how you too can write like Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde. Whether you’re aiming for literary immortality or just an unforgettable one-liner, The Elements of Eloquence proves that you don't need to have anything to say - you simply need to say it well. 
The point of The Elements of Eloquence is not, necessarily, that you sit down with a pen and paper and make furious notes so you remember all the names of the different literary devices Forsyth describes. Rather, this is a book meant to open your eyes to the possibility of language but also to how you yourself are affected by language. As you read through the different literary devices and realize that most of your favourite lines, whether its from books or songs, actually have some king of literary device behind them, you can't help but admire your favourite writers even more. It takes some skill to be clever with language but the first thing to do is enjoy language. Forsyth makes it very easy to both understand and enjoy the different literary devices in his book.

Mark Forsyth must've realized that you can't write about eloquent and beautiful language without trying to write thusly as well. He writes with a wit and intelligence that make you interested in what a chiasmus is and why American Presidents find it so effective, or how to pronounce and use the zeugma. It may not sound spontaneously fascinating but Forsyth pulls you in and makes it fun. Not only is this a clever way on his end to make you read his book, it also allows him to show exactly what eloquence and clever language does. Were it not for his writing, The Elements of Eloquence would be another one of the many available dictionaries of literary devices which torture students. This is actually a fun book. You won't read it in one go, you'd go cross-eyed. But it's a fun book to pick up here and there, leave through and appreciate.

I think books like The Elements of Eloquence should be read a lot more. Although they're not exactly page-turners they are, when done right, utterly funny and interesting. Writing has become something standard that we all do and learn in primary school, but we're never truly taught how inventive one can be with language. I myself was taught English in high school and all my teachers were very big on "good English" without realizing that most of Shakespeare's best sentences wouldn't have fit into their narrow category of "good English". Writing should be fun and when an author takes the time to discover Shakespeare's and others' tricks for him- or herself it immediately shows in a novel.

I give this book...

3 Universes.

Forsyth's The Elements of Eloquence is very enjoyable, especially if you already love language. It's the kind of coffee table book that'll make you forget there's guests for coffee. And with some luck you'll walk away from this book being able to write like Shakespeare!


  1. I might give this a go, although I am no real fan of learning english in depth

    1. The great thing about this book is that it doesn't take itself too seriously! You're basically learning by accident, so definitely give it a try :)