Book Review: The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase Explores What Makes Good Writing Great

Written by Sarah Mitenko; copy edited by Karen Barry

The image displays the cover of Mark Forsyth's book "The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase."Have you ever wondered what makes Shakespeare’s writing so darn good? Or Wordsworth’s, for that matter? And have you ever wondered how musical artists, like Katy Perry and Alanis Morissette, create lyrics that are catchy and memorable (sometimes annoyingly so)?

Notable author Mark Forsyth, also known for his blog, The Inky Fool, answers these questions and more in his third book, The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. Throughout the book, he explores the fundamentals of classic rhetoric, using examples drawn from both renowned classical works and modern-day popular culture. Most of the chapters include examples from Shakespeare, as Forsyth argues that he likely learned rhetoric in school, a subject that was abandoned not long after Shakespeare’s time.

Lest you fear that the subject matter is as dry as the volumes of Shakespeare gathering dust on your great-aunt’s shelf, Forsyth presents his material in a wonderfully light-hearted and humorous manner. For a sample of his style, read his article “The language rules we know—but don’t know we know,” in which he expands on the rhetorical concept of hyperbaton. In both his article and third book, Forsyth does a great job explaining concepts in accessible language without condescending to the reader.

I had a few quibbles with his third book, but they are minor. One is the use of British terms and slang that Canadians might not be familiar with. I confess that I know more of these words than I should, but even so, there were a few words that I didn’t know and couldn’t find in the dictionary on my e-reader (like “boomps-a-daisy”).

Another quibble I had is that, in my opinion, some subjects would have benefited from further expansion. For example, I’m still not sure what Forsyth means by “anthypophora.” He simply gives examples of it in the book without much explanation, and from the context, his definition is different from ones I found elsewhere.

Finally, Forsyth mentions that there is an ongoing debate about how to exactly define each rhetorical figure. However, I would have appreciated a short summary of each figure at the end of the book to make the book a useful reference tool. As it is, the terms have already begun to fade from my memory (“Now, what was aposiopesis, again…?”).

In the end, the book was a fast and entertaining read, and it revealed the mechanics behind what makes certain works memorable and effective. I would recommend it to writers and editors alike. Writers will get to learn some new tricks to craft the perfect sentence, and editors can find additional helpful and clever wording suggestions to offer to their authors.


Sarah Mitenko is enrolled in the Editing Certificate program at SFU and is a student affiliate of Editors Canada. She lives in Victoria, BC, and takes advantage of West Coast weather by hiking, biking, kayaking, and playing ultimate frisbee. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, she settles for cooking, knitting, and playing board games instead.

Karen Barry is a freelance editor, and she is in the process of completing her final class in SFU’s Editing Certificate program. She has a background in biology and over 15 years’ experience writing and editing research papers, technical reports, grant proposals, and promotional and educational materials.

Image taken from publisher’s website.

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