Mark Forsyth is on a quest to make rhetoric matter once more.


By Richard Lofthouse

How the hell, to put the matter crudely, do you find success as an author writing about the meaning of aposiopesis, polysyndeton and epizeuxis in 2013? 

There are only two answers. One is that you’re already a famous author and can indulge yourself, your agent and your publisher. The other is that you unlock a rich seam of audience that no one believed to exist, then excavate it expertly. Mark Forsyth (1996, Lincoln), he did the latter, unlocking a pent up demand to understand a subject that no one has ever properly explained, yet which we all feel we should be knowledgeable about: the art of rhetoric. 

Not that he did it from a position of complete obscurity. Rather, he had already found considerable success with two previous books. November 3, 2011, saw the publication of The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. As he recounts, “I was at a lunch that same month. The book was at Number 3 on Amazon. By the main course it was Number 2. By dessert it was Number 1.” A year later he repeated the trick with The Horologicon: A Day's Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language.

Now he has a third smash hit on his hands, called The Elements of Eloquence: How to turn the Perfect English Phrase. And, like me, you’re probably thinking to yourself: how?

Well, he’s funny for a start. But more importantly, as one other reviewer put it, “This man really knows his onions.” He read English Literature and Language at Oxford. But as he notes over a plate of spaghetti in Marylebone, “My best subject at school was science, and I wanted to explain the mechanics of language. Not just that a phrase was successful, but why.”

The Damascene moment came not at Oxford but earlier, as a teenager, when Forsyth knocked the dust off a formidable book called Shakespeare’s use of the arts of language by a Catholic nun called Sister Miriam Joseph. “That was a big deal for me,” he explains. “She unlocked why Shakespeare is great, not just that he was great – the mechanics.”

There’s the ghost of Sister Miriam in The Elements of Eloquence. Forsyth’s argument begins with the assertion that Shakespeare wasn’t a genius, in the untethered-from-reality sense. He wrote some lousy plays, some good plays and some very, very good plays. All the famous lines are instances of rhetoric; it’s just that rhetoric isn’t taught at school any more so none of us know our blazon from our hyperbaton.

This is where most aspiring writers would have turned their keyboards towards fiction or journalism, because if you know anything about rhetoric, you know that its buried in classical Greek words, that it is obscure and oddly Victorian, and finally that its ruled over by extremely grumpy ‘authorities’ who ‘don’t suffer fools.’

It turns out that this quagmire of fear is also exactly why the books have sold like petrol scattered on a bonfire. If you start flipping through the Amazon reviews of The Elements, it becomes very evident that there are loads of us who were taught practically nothing about the mechanics of language at school, explaining why, even if it is a lost Greek word that you can’t remember five minutes later, nonetheless it’s very interesting. In the hands of Forsyth, rhetoric is not a dusty tome but the English lesson we always craved but never had.   

The Elements is full of Shakespeare juxtaposed with Katy Perry lyrics, or Led Zeppelin if you prefer; and then T.S. Eliot. But it’s not sloppy. Each chapter deals with a separate impossible Greek word and ends with an example of the next. It pulls you along like an energetic spaniel tugging the lead on a Spring afternoon, but there are lots of ducks to show for it by the end of the day.

Why weren’t you an academic, I ask him – seeing a brilliant lecturer in front of me. “I was a writer by inclination,” is Forsyth’s simple reply. I suggest that not being an academic was a massive advantage in approaching this of all the subjects, given that rhetoric was the foundation of any education for the first seven centuries of Oxford, before it collapsed into its modern, hopeless formula of secondary modern school and widespread ignorance.  

“The defining work is Professor Sir Brian Vickers’ work on rhetoric,” he explains. “When I saw how viciously he was attacked, I realized that there was nothing to be lost. You know there’s a lot of rank pulling based on nervousness. The classicist crosses the corridor to squash the English Lit person. Until the twentieth century you’d have been typically fluent in Greek and Latin and English, but we’re not any more. So I said to myself, ‘I’m not out to offend any academic, but I want to address the subject as you might over a cup of coffee with an intelligent friend.’”

It’s better than that, though, because Forsyth is well aware that there are gloomy people out there waiting to pounce with big sticks as soon as he gets a tiny detail wrong. He disarms them by noting at various junctures that there was never a clear agreement over this or that rhetorical rule. It’s also pretty handy to point out the terrible ‘errors’ made by our greatest writers, which serves as a warning to the nit pickers.

Did T.S. Eliot intend the enallage he deploys at the start of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’?

T.S.Eliot certainly knew the English language. He knew that we means you and I and that us means you and me. But he still started ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Profrock’ with the words: Let us go then, you and I...

Let I go?

Of course, it may just have been there to rhyme with sky in the next line. I’ll never be sure and I can’t ask him now. Most people don’t notice the problem. But I have a theory that it’s that little enallage, pricking away at the unconscious, that has made the line so famous.”

This is classic Forsyth, worn so lightly, and yet it’s the right way to dissect a line of poetry — far better than discussing what Eliot had for breakfast that day, or whether we believe that he felt a certain way as he was writing. Crunchy, not squishy, but in the end it’s English not German. Some of the questions of rhetoric are open-ended because the English language is so beautifully organic in the way it develops. The rules are there to be broken.

Elsewhere you stumble on hilarity. Discussing hyperbaton — which is, for the uninitiated, putting words in an odd order, he starts with why Tolkien, as a boy, was very upset to be told by his mother that his first story, about ‘a green great dragon,’ had to be corrected to ‘a great green dragon.’ Why is this so, asks Forsyth? It’s because there is an unwritten law of order of adjectives in English, that we all know but never articulate, like most other examples of rhetoric. That’s why there is hip-hop but not hop-hip music, and the ding-dong of a bell not the dong-ding. That’s why it’s tit-for-tat, not tat-for-tit —  ‘except in cheap brothels,’ as Forsyth adds. Who knew rhetoric could be so riotous?

At the end of our meal, I have one final question for Forsyth. Namely, how his first book went from publication to Number One Best Seller on Amazon in a matter of three weeks? One answer is that it was picked up by the book trade magazine, Bookseller Magazine. Another is that former Tory politician, and Spectator scribbler Matthew Parris, wrote glowingly about the book. The book surely spoke for itself, but Forsyth did help its prospects by printing the entire manuscript out on a single sheet of A4 and then folding it up intricately to fit inside the shell of a walnut. 

With that, he evoked the origins of the term ‘in a nutshell’, which apparently has to do with a bishop, Homer’s Iliad and a bet, and made the world take notice of his irresistible blend of intelligence and humour. But if we’re talking nuts and seeds, my money’s on his latest book finding itself planted in the national curriculum – at the very least it deserves an audience that wide.

Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence (Icon, £12.99) is out now. The Ternion Set, a box-set containing all three of Mark Forsyth’s books: The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence will be available from November, priced £35. You can follow Mark on Twitter: @inkyfool.

Image by Marc Wathieu under Creative Commons license