The Elements of Eloquence

I have just finished a book from the library ‘The Elements of Eloquence’ by Mark Forsyth. It is a collection of Greek rhetorical figures of speech – that probably doesn’t sound so interesting hmmm? Well, it is if you are a bit of a word geek like me. Those busy Greeks (or perhaps not so busy) systematically named every little quirk and affectation of speech they could identify. And they can be found everywhere – in our books, in our films, even in our everyday speech.

I’ve heard of alliteration, synaesthesia, assonance and a few others, but there are so many I’ve never heard of and many that we use every day without even realising it. Here are a few favourites…

  • Anaphora – starting a sentence with the same words. As in William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’…
‘What the hammer? what the chain
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?’

  • Personification – when something that is not human is given human attributes…
Duty calls, money talks, sleep beckons, and work phoned up to see if you could come in on Saturday.’

  • Isocolon – two clauses that are grammatically parallel…

Roses are red, violets are blue.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Marry in haste, repent at leisure.

Have a break, have a Kit-kat.

The future’s bright, the future’s Orange.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

  • Diacope – repetition of a word with one or two words in between with the emphasis on the second word. Makes a sentence instantly memorable…

My name is Bond, James Bond.

Sunday bloody Sunday.

O Captain, my captain.


I mean, if Roger Moore had simply said ‘My name is James Bond’, it just wouldn’t have had the same effect, would it?

And what about that unforgettable line exclaimed by Julius Caesar in Carry on Cleo…


‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me.’


Shakespeare is often quoted in this book – his work is bursting with these literary devices. And he got better as he went on because there are more great lines with each successive play. According to Forsyth (who blogs at inkyfool.com) these devices are the structure on which good writing is built… ‘Any figure overused, or used in the wrong place and at the wrong time will be a fault. But a figure used and used well, is the beauty of the English language.’

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