Sunday, 8 February 2015

Mark Forsyth and the art of rhetoric: the chapter on alliteration

Never mind The Elements of Style. I've been feeling a bit burned out lately, so I decided for some reason that what I needed was Mark Forsyth's The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.

The first chapter is on alliteration, but since everyone knows what that is, I amused myself by hunting down other rhetorical patterns in Forsyth's writing. My plan is to see how many I can catch him using in advance of his introducing them officially.

1. Tell the punters what they believe so you can tell them why they're wrong. I hate, loathe, detest this tactic when it's used crudely, as it all too often is in the media, but Forsyth's 'Of course, as we all know...' is a bit more subtle than that.
The standard work (on history) was Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, but Plutarch wrote in Greek, and, as Shakespeare's friend Ben Jonson later pointed out, 'thou hadst small Latin and less Greek'.
All this to tell us that he used a translation of the same work by Plutarch instead.

2. Be flippant. Refer to Shakespeare as a thief (not forgetting to drag the image out quite a bit) and draw our attention to the fact that 'Full fathom five thy father lies', is exactly the same as telling us 'the exact depth to which a chap's corpse has sunk'.

3. Ask rhetorical questions, e.g. 'Who needs sense when you have alliteration?' Like #4, this is often best done with a fake-innocent expression on your face, seeing as it's so damn obvious. What it can often do, on the battlefields of serious debate, is get you out of addressing the issue.

4. Conceal your irrelevant and unsupported value judgements by leaping from the sublime to the ridiculous while acting all innocent about it. For instance, you might choose to do this in your selection of examples. Even better you might let yourself be a bit obvious about it, in which case you have humor and people will go along with that because they like it.
He (Charles Dickens) knew which side his bread was buttered, as had those who came before him, like Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice), and those who came after him (Where's Wally?)
5. Toss out some old familiar cliche, then turn it into an object of curiosity by expanding on it. Although Forsyth certainly does this, he's upstaged in the art by Charles Dickens.
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

(Cue detailed discussion oF the exact deadness of door-nails.)
6. Use tricky words to make yourself sound clever. Not too often though, and always make it look like you've got an excuse:
So muddled was he (Thomas De Quincey) that he decided to add a footnote apologising for his paroemion (that's the technical term for excessive alliteration).
7. Segue cleverly between one subject and the next, making it look as though the connection is self-evident.
'Agent' seems a strange substitution for 'friend'. But he (Quincey again) probably had to do it as he couldn't change 'farewell farewells'. It's much too clever to use a word as an adjective and then a noun. In fact, the trick has a name. It's called polyptoton (the subject of the next chapter).
I'm waiting to see if it's Forsyth's modus operandi to shift between chapters with a quote containing an element from both the current chapter and the next.

8. Make bold assertions of dubious validity: see emphasized sentence above. In the next installment, I get to see whether Mark Forsyth can actually convince me that polyptoton is the bee's knees.

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