Elements of Eloquence

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The Elements of Eloquence by Mark ForsytheI’d never enjoyed being insulted until I met Mark Forsyth, and then I couldn’t help myself.

I use the term ‘met’ somewhat loosely. I was reading one of his books while on the other side of the world.

But after his words were in my head, my life felt the better for it, so it seems appropriate to say I met him in the reading of them. I’m sure, had the meeting been by geographical proximity instead, I would have made quite a hideous impression. Somewhat starstruck, all words would have flown from my head—eloquent or otherwise—until I wouldn’t have had two vowels to rub together. One does not a good impression make, with that.

Mark Forsyth is a linguistic surgeon and sensei. I suspect he’s twenty feet tall, with a billowing cape—even when there’s no wind—that has the alphabet on it. In glyphic adornments, not pictures of colourful kiddie stacking blocks.

An etymologist, wordsmith, journalist and blogger, in Elements of Eloquence he chucks out the chunder pervading contemporary English language and shows the reader the heart and spine of the thing. Which was as beautiful as my description was gruesome.

So how does such a craftsman insult me, and make me like it?

After he explains what ‘pleonasm’ is, he makes fun of folks who hate it. Which I’d never known I did…until I knew what it was called. Now I can say, absolutely, I hate reading pleonasm. (Which must be the height of hypocrisy, because I’m sure I use it when I write.)

What’s worse: not only did he deride anti-pleonasts, he predicted each stage of my mental process, and systematically derided that.

The exchange went approximately thus:

“Pleonasm is the use of unneeded words that are superfluous and unnecessary in a sentence that doesn’t require them.”

Heh. That’s funny.

“It’s repeating the same thing again twice, and it annoys and irritates people.”

Because it’s annoying and irritating.

“Some cannot see a pleonasm without flying into a furious rage.”

Understandable. I’m sure you see that.

“But that is rather silly.”

Wait. What?

“…People who think like this lead terrible lives. They have never married, simply because they couldn’t bear to hear the words: Dearly beloved, we are gathered together…”

Well, it does sound pretentious. I don’t even remember if it was said at my own wedding. Maybe it was, and it didn’t bother me. I can’t be that bad, then. Yes, I’m rational and acceptable, thank you very much.

“…They can’t enjoy Hamlet because of the unnecessary ‘that’ in ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’.

No. I can’t enjoy Hamlet because it’s Shakespeare. (The enjoyment factor of Shakespeare is something Mr Forsyth and I can’t agree on.)

My primary reason for hating pleonasm: It wastes my time. I have better things to do than read something in ten minutes that ostensibly could have taken me two. Especially if it makes those minutes less enjoyable, which it almost always does. Engage me, please. If you need stuffing to fill a story, I say you don’t have a very good story. I don’t care what colour the flowers were, or whether they nodded or danced on the side of the mountain as H.R. Protagonist climbed it. I want to know how he wins the fight with the dragon at the top.

And flowers don’t dance.

Mr Forsyth continues:

“The reason usually given for such anger is that the unnecessary word, the pleonasm, is wasting the reader’s time.”

Because it does. Exactly! It does! (That’s not pleonasm, Reader. That’s diacope.)

“As though anybody’s time were so valuable that reading the word ‘up’ [of ‘I will lift up’] might mess up their schedule. Those with the time to complain about time-wasting have too much time on their hands.”

I blinked, speechless. Did he just slap me in the psyche?

“The second kind of pleonasm is … a world of personal friends, added bonuses and free gifts. … If you wander into a shop or make the terrible mistake of turning on the television or radio, you will hear of havens that are safe, co-operation that is mutual, and prizes that are, it turns out, to be won.”

I couldn’t stop my amusement splitting my face, although the experience of seeing such a dense population of pleonasms one page after another was making me tense. I could feel my muscles starting to ache.

“Such phrases … were created long ago by insanely evil marketing executives who were desperate to progress forward and sell their foreign imports to the general public.”

I was breathing shallowly now. I could almost hear my ribs scraping.

“And finally…”

Oh, wonderful, the chapter’s almost over!

“…there is the third and best kind of pleonasm: the lovely pleonasm of emphasis. A free gift may be put down to thoughtlessness, but ‘free, gratis and for nothing’ is quite deliberate. … It is the pneumatic drill of repetition that gives emphasis and insistence to the notion that you don’t have to pay a penny.”

Wait a minute, though.

I actually like that. It’s musical. Rhythmic. And it comes in threes. I like lists of threes. They just sound…complete. Secure even, if such a feeling can be reconciled with a sentence.

“We are all casual creatures and we say things we don’t really mean; so, when we really mean a thing, we say it twice. Or three times. Or sixteen times in a single speech, if you’re complaining about a dead parrot…”

(Here my brain interjected with the cinematic Captain America quote: “I understood that reference!”)

… But for pure pleonasm nobody has ever beaten Gertrude Stein, who took the trouble to point out in her poem ‘Sacred Emily’ that a ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

And now I know I’m not really a dedicated pleonasm hater, because I, along with countless others in the world, parody that one myself. Usually when a child is being unduly fussy. Because a plate is a plate is a plate, no matter its colour.

So, by his own hyperbolic admission, Mark Forsyth declares me a silly, impatient, megalomanic old maid.

But I love hearing him say it.

It exemplifies the ethos of Elements of Eloquence: It doesn’t matter what you say, only how you say it.

My favourite takeaway (except for lamb korma):

“A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is the only difference between a poet and everybody else.”

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(5) Comments

  • Deborah Makarios
    09 Jan 2015

    You don’t like Shakespeare? Not even the deliciously black comedy of Richard III?
    I wish I’d been able to memorise all the Elements when I read the book – eloquence would be so useful when it comes to taking over the world…

    • Eve
      09 Jan 2015

      I really quite emphatically don’t like Shakespeare. Against my own will, really. I see the godlike status he has amongst literary circles, and I want to be part of the club. It seems that to be considered a ‘true’ lover of stories and writing, one must love Shakespeare.

      So I tried to read ‘How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare’ by Ken Ludwig. I figured that if I approached it from an angle palatable to children, I might finally ‘get it’. I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish that book. I like Shakespeare’s stories well enough, just not his method. The only poetry I enjoy is by Roald Dahl. I’m a prose girl.

      • Deborah Makarios
        09 Jan 2015

        Well, one man’s meat… Have you tried Pam Ayres’ poetry?

        • Eve
          10 Jan 2015

          Ah, yes, I do enjoy her. I like watching her recite her poetry on YouTube…but if I watch too much of it at once, I end up thinking in rhythm and rhyme for a little while afterward. Weird side-effect.

          • Deborah Makarios
            19 Jan 2015

            I get like that when I overdose on Shakespeare: suddenly I can’t say anything unless it’s in iambic pentameter.

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