In the last few years, I’ve fallen in love all over again with how words work. I can’t remember being so excited about it since I was at university, studying the great poets.
Shakespeare, The Sonnets (Signet Classics).
Drawing by me, of my own copy.
Hi, this is the fifth in a shortish series about Writing To Change The World (WTCTW).
Elements of Eloquence
Obviously, rhetoric has a huge role to play in changing the world, because you can’t persuade anybody about anything without using rhetoric.
Mind you, you can’t actually say or write anything at all without using rhetoric because everything to do with words is rhetoric.
But when we talk about rhetoric we usually mean using it consciously, with artistry, and a sense of what works best. That’s where the art of rhetoric, and it’s associated vocabulary, came from: loads of Ancient Greeks wandered around taking note of the figures of speech that seemed most effective, and gave them names: metaphor, simile, analogy, to name three1.
One of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading, on this topic, is Elements of Eloquence (Icon Books, 2016, by Mark Forsyth2. It hadn’t been published when I wrote How To Change The World, but I learned much from it while writing my latest, A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech.3
In his book, Forsyth walks readers through a variety of figures of speech and figures of thought, lobbing in great examples as he goes (and making me laugh out loud again and again (and again, makes three)).
Having finished his book, I sat down one Saturday morning after breakfast and used many of the figures he mentions to develop one central idea I had about public speaking:
The best speakers stay away from the twin extremes of
a) crowd-pleasing and
b) indifference to their audience.
I hoped that writing the idea out, in a variety of figures, would help me to understand it better, as well as making it easier for me to express my understanding to others.
I recommend you try something similar. Not only if you have an important talk, presentation or piece of writing to devise – but because it can be delightful for its own sake to create something new.
The Figures of Speech/Thought
When I started this essay, I copied out every one of Forsyth’s examples of useful rhetorical figures, and every one of the versions I came up with in that three-hour session after breakfast. Here’s a list of them all, in alphabetical order:
Adynaton, Anacoenosis, Anadiplosis, Anaphora, Antithesis, Aporia, Aposiopesis, Asyndeton | Catachresis, Chiasmus, Congeries | Diacope | Enallage, Epanalepsis, Epiplexis, Epistrophe, Epizeuxis, Erotesis | Hyperbaton, Hyperbole, Hypophoria | Iambic, Isocolon | Merism, Metaphor, Metonomy | Number rule | Paradox, Parataxis, Periodic sentences, Personification, Pleonasm, Polysyndeton, Procatalepsis, Prolepsis | Scesis onomaton, Simile, Syllepsis, Synaesthesia, Synecdoche | Transferred epithets, Tricolon | Zeugma
But after typing them into this page, I came to the conclusion that it was simply too much to take in. (As it happens, there are hundreds more4.)
So I’ve reduced the number significantly. Sorry about that / you’re welcome.
In his book, Forsyth brilliantly creates connections between the figures of speech, which I’m not going to repeat – so the sequence below, not being alphabetical, may look a bit random. This is roughly his sequence. At any rate it’s the sequence I followed, so as you read you can see my ideas developing.
Note: I didn’t use them all “correctly”5, but I’m posting what I actually came up with because it shows my mind engaging freely with the material, and that’s the point of the exercise. Anyway, I don’t recommend getting too rigid about the definitions because people have wasted too much time already arguing about that over the past many centuries6.
Antithesis (comparison, with inbuilt analysis)
“There are two great holes you may fall into: speaking your mind without a care for the audience, or caring so much about the audience that you lose your own mind.”
Isocolon (comparison, as a simple parallel)
“Crowdpleasers lose respect, egotists earn contempt.”
Polysyndeton (multiple use of similar verbal form in one line)
“Crowdpleasing pleases less every minute.”
“Only the ignorant ignore the audience.”
Hyperbaton (deliberately weird word order)
“Flattery an audience won’t satisfy.”
Periodic sentences (long, building up to a big reveal)
“The greatest speakers are those who, when a certain kind of insight is required, which may be a cause of discomfort to those to hear it, may indeed produce rage, or tears, and have consequences for the speaker of the greatest magnitude, including the loss of employment, removal from home and family, or even death, will on the occasion for expressing those thoughts before blurting them out consider the wishes, needs and fears of the audience before them, always remembering that every audience is itself only a group of individuals, each one similarly attached to his or her employment, home, family and life; and, taking all this into account, choose exactly what needs to be spoken, and no more, without shirking from what may scare them; because the audience, in the end will respect that.”
Rhetorical question (various)
Erotesis (stating a strong view, not really a question at all, answer is obvious)
“Will you fail, if you disregard entirely all interest in the needs, wishes and fears of the lovely people gathered in front of you?”
“How am I ever going to get back the time I have wasted on listening to this rubbish?”
Anacoenosis (invite opinion from audience with generally shared opinions)
“The speaker we invited has failed us – what was his greatest mistake?”
Aporia (genuinely puzzled)
“How do I know that I’ve got the balance right between crowdpleasing and it’s opposite?”
Hypophoria (asking and answering too)
“What have you achieved today? Nothing.”
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Rough winds to shake the darling buds of May…” (This one’s not mine, obviously, just thought I’d bung it in. You’re welcome.)
Procatalepsis (ditto, though not framed as a question)
“You might say that you just spoke the truth. But you did so in a way that caused unnecessary offence.”
Aposiopesis (unfinished sentence, inviting the audience to finish it)
“Crowdpleasers and brutes will never be remembered, but the speaker who is honest and respects her audience…”
Anaphora (repeated opening words)
“This message to this audience, means thinking carefully before hand. This message to this audience, can be the same as last time but probably isn’t. This message to this audience, calls for trusting yourself and trusting the occasion. This message to this audience, is something that nobody else, on any other occasion, can deliver as well as you.”
Epistrophe (repeated ending)
“Speak the truth, if you want to succeed; consider the truth from the perspective of your crowd, if you want to succeed; frame the truth in terms they understand, if you want to succeed; be brave to succeed; but unless you can do all of this, don’t do any of it, if you want to succeed.”
Syllepsis (one verb used to cover two different phrases)
“Pay no attention to the people before you – and a high price.”
“Lose your courage – and your audience’s attention.”
Enallage (ungrammatical, to be memorable)
“Crowdpleasers, they no good.”
“Speak the truthfull.”
“A great monologue is a dialogue.”
Number rule (to convey a quasi-scientific quality)
“Every good speaker has 27 experiences of bad speaking.”
Transferred epithets (human feelings applied to the world around them)
“The audience listened, under the bored chandeliers.”
Epanalepsis (same word at start and finish, to convey stuckness)
“Ignorant of the issues when we arrived, we listened to an hour of platitude and sycophancy then returned home, ignorant.“
Personification (abstracts turned into people, people turned into abstracts)
“Neediness, with its eternally rumbling tummy and outstretched hand, is the last thing an audience wishes to meet.”
Prolepsis (projecting forward)
Prolepsis (as cliffhanger)
I will come back to this. (See what I did there?)
Prolepsis (where the pronoun precedes the noun, creating mystery)
“He leaned forward with great interest, then sat back, gradually slipping to a horizontal position, then on finding he had fallen asleep, the man in the front row angrily concluded that the speaker couldn’t care less if he was there or not – and walked out.”
Prolepsis (a future state)
“The man who would soon be looking for a new job, though he didn’t know it when he walked on stage, walked on stage – and set in motion that inevitable outcome with his opening words.”
“The ‘honest’ speaker will ask why she should trim her opinions to suit any particular audience, and says that would be faking. I reply: have you never been baffled, when spoken to in a language you don’t understand?”
James Baldwin, essayist, novelist and brilliant wordplayer
Drawing by me.
Education, Education, Education7
This is not the place for a polemic about education, but with hindsight I see that I’d have loved to learn, at my inner-London comprehensive, the formal structures of classical rhetoric – and the figures8 – as taught for centuries at grammar schools.
Alas, not having been taught these things (apart from simile and metaphor), I had to work them out myself at work, by trial and error, under the salutary pressure of editors demanding plentiful copy to tight deadlines.
This is how I learned to use those figures, without even knowing I was teaching myself:
- I underlined words and phrases in books, partly for the ideas they contained but also sometimes just for the way the idea was conveyed – the particular choice of words, usually because the sheer freshness of it had made me pause, maybe smile.
- When I had a magazine story to start, I’d flick through my books for inspiration, looking for a line to use. Not verbatim, but as a framework for a line of my own, much as I have done above.
As a journalist, I was lucky to be given a wide assortment of different kinds of assignment, each one requiring me to improve my writing skills: at best, to write hurtling narrative, description so vivid you could smell the colours9, and argument that could sell fur coats in a heatwave10.
This being a series about Writing To Change The World, I should perhaps have used figures to re-write some part of my 2011 book. I mentioned the other day that I find it a bit “unassailable”, because it’s so well edited and nicely published. I’ll have a go at running it through some figures, and let you know how I get on.
One last thing, before I go: I’m glad to say that I’ve heard back from Tom Chatfield, Roman Krznaric and Philippa Perry11, who wrote three of the other books published at the same time as How To Change The World. They’re glad to be reminded that it’s been ten years, and willing to do something to help me commemorate that.
More soon, I hope.
How to gather material without being swamped
1 ↩︎ To list three things, rather than two or four is another rhetorical device, called a tricolon.
4 ↩︎ I once tried collecting them all. I soon discovered that was impossible.
5 ↩︎ Sometimes I’m just plain mistaken, and seem to be doing a different figure altogether. Probably needed another break, or a coffee.
6 ↩︎ At the simplest, some people might use a Greek word to classify a figure, while others might use a (very slightly different) Roman word. And new names for existing figures are being invented all the time. One recent one is the humblebrag, used to describe the practice of talking oneself up on social media without quite hiding the fact. (Further note: “humblebrag”, combining two opposite ideas, is itself a good example of the figure called oxymoron.)
7 ↩︎ A variant on the rule of three, in which the same single word is repeated for emphasis. Tony Blair successfully staked a general election on this one.
8 ↩︎ As well as Mark Forsyth, I’d like to put in a word for Jay Heinrichs, whose works I also read and laughed at, and plundered. Particularly the books Word Hero and Thank You For Arguing, and his website Figaro Speech, which is crammed with examples of figures.
9 ↩︎ A specimen of synaesthesia, where one sense is described in terms of another.
10 ↩︎ Hyperbole. You probably know this one already.