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“‘I wandered lonely as a cloud …’ Clouds are not lonely. Especially in the Lake District where Wordsworth wrote that line. In the Lake District clouds are remarkably sociable creatures that bring their friends and relatives and stay for weeks. … It’s not that Wordsworth didn’t know about meteorology, it’s that he did know about metaphor.” (Mark Forsyth)


I distrust books that have blazoned on the cover, “I laughed out loud”. But in the case of The Elements of Eloquence – How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, I did too. My fellow travellers on the train to Rochester pretended not to notice.

In this book Mark Forsyth explains figures of speech (39 in all) used by writers good and not-so-good over the last 500 years, with examples and comment. Shakespeare, the Bible, William Blake, Leonard Cohen – they’re all here. This is a great read in its own right, and also a mine for the writer aspiring to write better.

Take Merism. This is when you don’t say what you’re talking about, but instead name all of its parts, as in “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health”, when you could just say “in all circumstances”…

Or Polyptoton, the repeated use of one word as different parts of speech or in different grammatical forms, eg Lennon & McCartney’s Please Please Me. Or the Bard in Richard II – “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle”.

Enallage, a deliberate grammatical mistake – “Love me tender” works where “Love me tenderly” wouldn’t. Unadverbial Elvis.

When Mick Jagger, singing of his honky tonk woman, tells us that “She blew my nose, and then she blew my mind,” he is demonstrating his use of Syllepsis, where one word is used in two (or more) incongruous ways.

There are Transferred Epithets, when the adjective is applied to the wrong noun, as in Wodehouse: “His eyes widened and an astonished piece of toast fell from his grasp.”

We all know Hyperbole: Dashiel Hammett on a private eye: “He … could have shadowed a drop of salt water from Golden Gate to Hong Kong without losing sight of it.”

Philip Larkin’s most famous line, we learn, is an example of Prolepsis, when you use a pronoun before saying what it stands for. We don’t know who They are, until we’re told they’re Your Mum and Dad. Doesn’t work the other way round, does it?

‘The Fourteenth Rule’ – Mark Forsyth’s own term – is that a number can give an apparent significance. The “sixteen vestal virgins” in Whiter Shade of Pale work so much better than “several vestal virgins”.     The Spirit that follows the Ancient Mariner’s doomed ship does so “Nine fathoms deep”.  (What was so special about 54 feet down?)

And many more, as they used to say on compilation albums …

Great entertainment, and you’re learning while you laugh! Published in 2014 by Icon Books Ltd, ISBN 978-184831733-8 RRP £7-99