‘The Elements of Eloquence’ by Mark Forsyth

I mentioned Mark Forsyth’s book, The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase — sometimes seen with a different subtitle, …How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase — in last week’s Quality Linkage column. It’s such a fun read though that it deserves a “neat item” post of its own.

This book is an ode to the importance of linguistic style. The gist is that it doesn’t always matter what we say so much as how we say it, and Forsyth can teach you the tricks to make your words sing. Want to be a more memorable writer or speaker? You need this book.

I’ll repeat the excerpt that brought the book so much attention:

[…] adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.

Here’s another:

You can spend all day trying to think of some universal truth to set down on paper, and some poets try that. Shakespeare knew that it’s much easier to string together some words beginning with the same letter. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It can be the exact depth in the sea to which a chap’s corpse has sunk; hardly a matter of universal interest, but if you say, “Full fathom five thy father lies,” you will be considered the greatest poet who ever lived. Express precisely the same thought any other way—e.g. “your father’s corpse is 9.1444 metres below sea level”—and you’re just a coastguard with some bad news.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It will change the way you think about words. Comes in the usual formats: