The Elements of Eloquence (notes on Forsyth’s book)

Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase (Icon, London 2013) is not likely to be on many songwriters’ shelves, but I think it makes a great contribution to any songwriter’s reference library. This a very entertaining read that shows how memorable (not necesarily ‘great’) quotations and lines become memorable because of the linguistic tricks that writers through the centuries have used. Forsyth gives lots of famous examples, and manages to demonstrate each of the linguistic devices in the way he explains each one. A great teacher!

Preface (On Cooking Blindfolded)
  • 2 We improve by practising
  • 3 Rhetoric is anything to do with persuasion
  • 4 Rhetoric is formulae
  • 4 Rhetoric doesn’t have to be ethical, logical or true
  • 5 Memorable lines probably use a rhetorical device
7 Alliteration
  • using several words that begin with the same consonant
  • alliteration persuades a listener regardless of the argument’s merit
  • makes a phrase memorable
  • [“bewitched, bothered and bewildered”, in ‘Bewitched’, Hart / Rodgers, 1940, Pal Joey]
  • use it but don’t overdo it
14 Polyptoton
  • using the same root word for two or more different parts of speech
  • Please, please me’ (Beatles)
  • ‘There are songs to be sung’
19 Antithesis
  • state something, and then contrast with something else
  • more compelling if comparison takes an unexpected twist, e.g. ‘Wicked women bother one. Good women bore one.’ [Also, note alliterations of ‘w’ and ‘b’.]
  • Works well in songs [mimics regular phrase lengths balancing each other]
23 Merism
  • Name the parts [especially opposites or extremes] to convey the whole, and include what is in between or left out
  • ‘from head to toe’ [names parts at opposite ends of the body, and therefore implies the whole body]
  • Night and Day
  • note that this is a particular type of antithesis
28 Blazon (A Merism Too Far)
  • an overly long list to describe essentially one thing / person
  • [trying to be superlative?]
  • [a blazon is also a kind of congeries or list]
32 Synaesthesia
  • one sense described in terms of another
  • ‘silky voice’
  • ‘warm blue’
34 Aposiopesis
  • an unfinished phrase or sentence, because the speaker / writer a) can’t go on, b) doesn’t need to go on, c) wants to leave things hanging
  • Ellipsis: three dots (…) is a form of aposiopesis
39 Hyperbaton
  • words in the wrong order (like the character Yoda in the Star Wars movies)
  • prepositions should often end sentences
  • the order seems instinctively to be: opinion, size, age, colour, origin, material, purpose e.g. “lovely, little, old, rectangular, green, French, silver, whittling knife” [because of this, it can be effective to subvert this order, e.g. ‘it’s raining dogs and cats’]
  • As a child, Tolkien told a story to his mother about a ‘green, great dragon’; she criticised the word order which knocked his storyteller’s confidence for years!
  • Vowel order: i-o-a, e.g. hip-hop-hap [tip top]
43 Anadiplosis
  • ‘fear leads to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to suffering” (Yoda, Star Wars) – this can lead to the ‘fallacy of four terms’ [in which we believe the final term logically and inevitably results from the first]
  • anadiplosis sounds true even when it isn’t
  • the repetition gives power in a way that non-repetition does not
  • “wake me up before you go – before you go, you must sign my book”
47 Periodic sentences
  • avoid or delay the main verb, to build up long sentences with sub-clauses
  • like Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’, a 294-word sentence with 273 sub-clauses (Wikipedia entry) [Joni Mitchell song (‘If’, 2007, YouTube) – Roger Whittaker song (‘Song for Erik’, 1972, YouTube)]
  • Every breath you take’ Sting
51 Hypotaxis, Parataxis, Polysyndeton, Asyndeton
  • Parataxis – Parataxis is using short, simple sentences.
  • Hypotaxis – Hypotaxis is a string of sentences, and it is in a sequence, and these sentences are linked by conjunctions (Polysybdeton), or they are linked by commas – they are also linked by dashes (Asyndeton). [That last sentence demonstrates all three.]
58 Diacope
  • repetition of a word or phrase, with a word or phrase in between
  • ‘Bond, James Bond’; “You will, Oscar, you will”; ‘crisis, what crisis?’; ‘from sea to shining sea’; ‘Captain, my Captain!’; ‘To be, or not to be’; “They told me, Heroditus, they told me you were dead”; “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance”; “Infamy, infamy – they’ve all got it in for me!”; “Mud, mud, glorious mud” [note this last has the form of aaba]
64 Rhetorical question
  • although this phrase is often used by people, there is no clear definition of it
  • Erotesis – an implied question
  • Epiplexis – a version of erotesis, but an implied insult or lament
  • Anacoenosis – appeal to common interest, and assumed agreement
  • Hypophoria – question that you immediately answer yourself
  • Antihypophoria – a string of hypophorias
  • Subjectio – the answers are obvious, the questions designed to intimidate
  • Aporia – a question where you don’t know the answer – “Are you lonesome tonight?” “Will you love me tomorrow?” Might not even expect an answer.
66 Procatalepsis
  • ‘foreseeing and answering a possible objection’
74 Hendiadys
  • a ‘two-for-one’ device, where two nouns are used when the first could have been an an adjective / qualifier for the second
  • “I’m going to the noise and the city” = “I’m going to the noisy city”
  • 2 adjectives for an adverb and adjective
  • 2 verbs joined by ‘and’ rather than ‘to’ [“go and see”, rather than “go to see”]
  • the nouns could be the other way around, describing each other [although city noise is not, of course, the same as a noisy city]
  • King Lear “the image and horror of it” [Does this mean an imagined horror, or a horrific image, or both? Hendiadys might be sloppy thinking and writing, or could be deliberate blurring of ideas.]
79 Epistrophe
  • When each clause, sentence or paragraph ends with the same word(s)
  • “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”
  • often implies opposition or defiance
  • “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”
  • draws us inexorably back to the same point
  • Songs with choruses always bring us back to the same point [Unless you make the chorus mean something different on its return. A verse bringing new information can make us find new meaning in a subsequent chorus. A singer or an instrumentalist or arranger can sometimes do this.]
  • Repetitions give a feeling of closure and inevitability, a good point to then open up an unexpected exit, escape route or alternative e.g. Lord of the Rings film ‘Return of the King’: “it is not this day … it is not this day … this day, we fight!”
  • [“Wise at last, / my eyes at last / are cutting you down to your size at last” in ‘Bewitched’, Hart / Rodgers, 1940, Pal Joey]
84 Tricolon
  • “I came, I saw, I conquered”; “sun, sea, and sex”
  • a pair makes us look for a pattern or connection – the third element can therefore be an effective surprise if it then breaks the expected pattern (jokes use this). Can alliterate as well: wine, women, and song. Can rhyme: ready, steady, go.
  • 3rd element can have the most syllables or words, but is not necessarily the most important
  • “Friends, Romans, countrymen”; “mad, bad, dangerous to know”; been there, done that, got the t-shirt; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; “Life, the Universe and Everything
  • the 3rd element must complete the list – a tetracolon (4 elements) is less effective
89 Epizeuxis
  • repeating a word / phrase in the same way
  • “Education, education, education”
  • Girls, girls, girls!
  • “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness)
94 Syllepsis
  • use one word, several times in close proximity, in different ways
  • “she made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door”
  • “Mr Pickwick took his hat, and his leave”
  • ‘offer tea and sympathy’
  • ‘make love, not war’
  • makes us notice the writer / speaker
  • ‘out of your mind, out of a job’
99 Isocolon
  • “two clauses that are grammatically parallel, two sentences that are structurally the same”
  • float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
  • ‘marry in haste, repent at leisure’
  • ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done’
  • Have a break, have a Kitkat
  • The future’s bright, the future’s Orange
  • isocolon is useful in songwriting, because it is similar to musical structures [Egan & Kahn / Whiting (‘Ain’t We Got Fun’, 1921) “the rich get rich, and the poor get children” – This neatly combines several rhetorical devices, with a delightful twist. The first phrase is a straight diacope. The rich are then contrasted with the poor (antithesis). The second phrase mirrors the grammar of the first, making an isocolon, but instead of getting the diacope we expect (‘the poor get poor’), our expectations are cleverly confounded with a joke.]
103 Enallage
107 A Divagation Concerning Versification
  • stress difference between a verb and noun e.g. rebel, present
  • iamb [.-] trochee [-.] Anapest [..-] dactyl [-..] pentameter [5 stresses / feet], tetrameter [4 stresses / feet], trimeter [3 stresses / feet]: there are 12 combinations of these. Amphibrach [.-.]
  • ballad meter = 4/3/4/3 feet e.g. House of the Rising Sun. A few occasional extra syllables make a ballad meter sound folksy and natural
  • trimeters make us pause for a 4th beat [for example, 3 iambs in a row make us want to wait for a moment at the end, before continuing]
  • rhymes complete a sequence or idea
  • iambic pentameter rhymed in abba = ‘In Memoriam’ form
  • all tetrameters have to rhyme
  • end a line with either a beat or a rhyme
  • iambic pentameter [the favourite of Shakespeare] doesn’t have to rhyme, can be conversational, comic, part lines being shared between characters, varied by adding syllables or subtracting a foot, or adding an extra foot
119 Zeugma
  • a verb used once to serve several subject-object pairs
  • ‘I’ll have coffee, Mary tea, Jim milk’
  • we prefer an isocolon to a zeugma
123 Paradox
  • veridical paradox appears false, but is ‘true’
  • a pun paradox is not a paradox: ‘the Left is right’, ‘don’t it make my brown eyes blue’, ‘back to the future’
  • a true paradox is false, a contradiction of itself
  • can be used in mystical statements
  • Sound of Silence
127 Chiasmus
  • same meaning, in reflection
  • can be a subtle change in meaning “tea for two, and two for tea / me for you, and you for me” (Two for Tea, 1950)
  • [“All we need is love. Love is all we need!, ‘Love is all you need‘ Beatles]
  • ‘all for one, and one for all’ [‘The Three Musketeers’, Dumas]
  • ‘eat to live, not live to eat’
  • [“Who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”, Genesis 9:6]
  • ‘when the going gets tough the tough get going’
  • [sounds true even when it isn’t]
  • ‘it’s not the men in my life, but the life in my men’ (Mae West)
  • grammatical: “I see trees of green, red roses too” [plant-colour, colour-plant]
  • chiasmus of vowels / assonance: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan” (a-a-u-i-u-a-a) “beneath the thunders of the deep” (ee-ee-u-u-u-o-u-ee)
  • “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind” (John F. Kennedy)
134 Assonance
  • Repeated vowel
  • Blue Moon’, ‘high as a kite’, ‘happy as Larry’, ‘how now, brown cow?’, ‘nine lives’
141 Catachresis
  • a sentence that is so wrong, it works!
  • ‘dance me to the end of love’
  • ‘curiouser and curiouser’
  • ‘Thunderbirds are go’
  • ‘a green thought in a green shade’
143 Litotes
  • affirm something by denying its opposite
  • it’s not unusual (to be loved by anyone)” [Tom Jones]
  • often a deliberate understatement
  • “we are not amused” [Queen Victoria]
  • a double negative is not litotes, because it is not an understatement
  • ‘I would be deceiving you if I said yes’
149 Metaphor and Simile
  • Metaphor and simile: have at least two shared characterstics, the 1st being obvious, the 2nd less obvious, but more important in expressing the comparison. [A simile is a comparison that uses “like” or “as” in the comparison. A metaphor is a comparison that says something is something else. So a simile could be considered a type of metaphor.]
149 Metonymy and Synecdoche
  • Metonymy: something that is physically touching serves as a noun to represent the whole e.g. ‘Downing Street says …’, ‘the suits are in charge’, ‘blue stocking’
  • Synecdoche: part of something to express the whole e.g. ‘was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ (Marlowe, ‘Dr Faustus’), ‘And did those feet in ancient times’, ‘fall of the Berlin Wall [ie collapse of political separation between East and West]’
153 Transferred Epithets
  • Applying an adjective to the wrong noun
  • ‘he smoked a nervous cigarette’
  • ‘an astonished piece of toast fell from his grasp’
  • ‘disabled toilet’
  • ‘The ploughman homeward plods his weary way’
  • ‘lonesome road’
  • ‘restless hotel’
  • tends to give our surroundings human qualities
  • Guilty Secret’, ‘dizzy heights’, ‘Happy Days’, ‘lonely nights’
157 Pleonasm
  • using more words than are necessary
  • ‘most unkindest cut’
  • ‘I will lift up mine eyes / from whence cometh my help’
  • ‘dearly beloved’ ‘gathered together’
  • examples of laziness: added bonus, free gift, safe haven, mutual comparison, foreign imports, general public, past history
  • deliberate, for effect: ‘A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh
162 Epanalepsis
  • begin and end with the same word / phrase / line / sentence
  • Beatles song ‘Yesterday
  • ‘The king is dead; long live the king’
  • ‘a lie begets a lie’
  • ‘nothing will come of nothing’
165 Prosopopeia
  • Personification
171 Hyperbole
  • Gross exaggeration to the point of impossibility
175 Adynaton
  • [a statement of impossibility]
  • ‘pigs will fly’, ‘get blood from a stone’, ‘hell will freeze over’
  • Meaning no, by stating an impossibility: ‘You might as well try to …’, ‘Not until …’
180 Prolepsis
185 Congeries [singular noun]
190 Scesis Onamaton
  • a sentence with no verb
  • “Space: the final frontier” [Star Trek]
  • ‘Drink? Thanks. Your round. Really? Yes. Damn.’
  • Good for setting a scene [e.g. in a novel]
  • Can be used for ‘timeless rules, such as ‘like father, like son’, ‘each to his own’, ‘third time lucky’
196 Anaphora
  • Starting every phrase or sentence with the same word(s)
  • Very effective; the phrase is remembered, but, the content of the speech is often forgotten, drowned out by the power of the anaphora
  • Ecclesiastes [and Pete Seeger / Byrds song …] ‘A time to …’
  • “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender …” (Winston Churchill, 4 June, 1940)
201 Peroration
  • Conclusion designed to inspire
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