A friend recently pointed me in the direction of Mark Forsyth’s work, and I’m very glad he did. Forsyth is a language wonk and has written about obsolete words (The Horologican) and the often bizarre connections between words (The Etymologican). His latest book (The Elements of Eloquence) is about rhetorical devices. I swallowed it up in one, enjoyable afternoon.
Forsyth’s gift is to wear his erudition and effort very lightly indeed. He condenses hundreds of years of scholarship and literature into a couple of hundred pages of easy-to-read text. He takes examples from Shakespeare and the King James Bible and Austen and Dickens and various poets, but also from Pulp Fiction, Lady Gaga, and the Beatles. The reader is educated and amused at the same time, and that is a very very difficult trick to carry off.
I particularly enjoyed the way he uses the devices he discusses in his own descriptions of them. So, in the chapter about hypotaxis (syntactically complex sentence construction with lots of subordinate clauses and phrases), he produces the following fabulous paragraph:
Absolutely anything sounds civilised and well-thought-out, providing that it’s expressed in the most syntactically complicated, hyper-hypotactic manner. And so from 1650 to 1850 everybody sounded civilised and wise. Even pornography had an air of considered calm to it, now lost forever to the discerning pervert. Fanny Hill (1748) is generally thought the greatest mucky novel in English literature. It’s content is, of course, much like the content of any dirty story, human nature being what it is, and the human body having only so many viable entrances and exits; but when such coarsely eternal activities are laced into a mad grammarian’s fantasy, the result is superb. (The Elements of Eloquence, p. 56)
I just love that last clause – “mad grammarian’s fantasy,” is wonderful.