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Summary: The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase – Love Your Work, Episode 278

May 05 2022 – 07:30am

elements of eloquenceThere are some invisible structures in language, and using them can be the difference between your message being forgotten or living through the ages. These are The Elements of Eloquence, which is the title of Mark Forsyth’s book. I first picked this up a couple years ago, and have read it several times since then. I think it’s one of the best writing books, and has dramatically improved my writing. Here is my summary of The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase.

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How powerful could this stuff be?

Can hidden patterns in language really be the difference between being remembered and forgotten? The technical term for the study of these patterns is “rhetoric,” and yes, it can make a big difference.

Misremembered phrases

While it’s hard to find data on what has been forgotten – see 99.9% of everything ever said or written – there are examples of things that have been misremembered.

I’ll get into some theories about why these phrases were misremembered in a bit.

Non-sensical expressions

You can also see evidence of the power of rhetoric in expressions that have spread through culture. Sometimes they don’t make literal sense, but have appealing patterns.


You may have noticed these phrases all have alliteration, which is the simplest of rhetorical forms. You’re probably already familiar with it. All you have to do to use alliteration is start a couple words in a phrase with the same letter.

I’ve noticed some evidence of the power of alliteration looking at expressions across English and Spanish. For example, if you directly translated “the tables have turned,” which is said often, nobody would know what you were talking about. But they would understand if you directly translated “the things have changed,” which nobody says. In Spanish, that’s “las cosas han cambiado.” See? Alliteration.


So, why was Winston Churchill’s quote misremembered as “blood, sweat, and tears.” Forsyth thinks it was probably because the tricolon is more appealing than the tetracolon.

A tricolon is when three things are listed, a tetracolon, four. Famous tricolons include, “Eat, drink, and be merry,” and “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s superman.” Barack Obama’s short victory speech in 2008 had twenty-one tricolons.

Forsyth points out that tricolons seem to be more memorable if the first two things are short and closely-related, and the final thing is longer and a little more abstract. Like, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


Tricolon is three things, tetracolon is four, so is isocolon just one? In a way. An isocolon is not one thing, but one structure, repeated two times. For example, “Roses are red. Violets are blue.”


When you do repeat one thing, that’s called epizeuxis. So, when the Wicked Witch of the West said, “Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!,” that was epizeuxis, but it didn’t turn out to be memorable.


People think the Wicked Witch of the West said “Fly, my pretties, fly!” That structure is called a diacope, which is essentially a verbal sandwich. It’s one word or phrase, then another word or phrase, then that same word or phrase once again.

So “Burn, baby burn,” from the song “Disco Inferno” was diacope, and so was one of the most famous lines in film, “Bond. James Bond.”

Why do people think the Wicked Witch of the West said, “Fly, my pretties, fly!”? Probably not only because diacope is a more memorable form than epizeuxis, but also because there’s other diacope in the film, such as “Run, Toto. Run!”


So, why did the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” live on? I notice there’s some alliteration in the phrase (“Hell hath…”), but Forsyth doesn’t attribute any rhetorical structures to the phrase. However – besides the sweeping generalization about women that can’t help but tickle the tribal human mind – the actual, original phrase came in the form of zeugma.

Zeugma is using one verb to apply action to multiple clauses. So if you write “Tom likes whisky, Dick vodka, Harry crack cocaine,” you’re using the verb “likes” one time for all three clauses, instead of repeating it.

So the original phrase was from a seventeenth-century play called The Mourning Bride, and, once again, went “Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.” The having is attributed to both heaven and hell, which makes it a zeugma.

Ironically, Forsyth points out, there’s a few phrases using zeugma that aren’t remembered as such. So zeugma is memorable, but it’s not.

My personal theory is zeugmas take more attention to process. They make you stop and read it again. That extra attention helps us remember, but our memories are simplistic. This is something I get to see firsthand when people tell me they’ve read one of my books. You’d be amazed the different variations the human mind puts on simple titles such as The Heart to Start or Mind Management, Not Time Management.


We’ve established that alliteration is pretty powerful for creating memorable phrases, and we’ve talked about why some short phrases are misremembered. But what about longer pieces of prose?

The most powerful rhetorical form for a full sentence has to be the chiasmus. The word chiasmus comes from the Greek letter, “chi,” which is shaped like an X. So, chiasmus is when language crosses over.

For example, when the three musketeers said, “One for all, and all for one,” that was chiasmus. The structure is ABBA, which happens to also be the name of a band that didn’t do too poorly.

Politicians use chiasmus a lot. Hillary Clinton said, in her bid for president, “The true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches.”

Forsyth points out that JFK’s inauguration speech was “chiasmus crazy.” Having watched it on YouTube, I have to agree, there’s enough chiasmus to make you dizzy. But at least one of those phrases lived on: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

One chiasmus I’ve noticed – on a more granular level – is in the title of The Four Hour Work Week. It’s a chiasmus of assonance – assonance being the repetition of vowel sounds. It goes, E-O-O-O-E: The Four Hour Work Week. Mix that in with a little alliteration (“Work Week”), and a promise you can’t ignore (working four hours a week), and you’ve got a book title with a chance to be a hit.

Anadiplosis, Epistrophe, Anaphora

A few more rhetorical forms that have to do with the order of words within clauses: anadiplosis, epistrophe, and anaphora.

Anadiplosis is repeating the last word or phrase of a clause as the first word or phrase of the next. Yoda used anadiplosis when he said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Malcolm X used anadiplosis of phrases when he said, “Once you change your philosophy, you change your thought pattern. Once you change your thought pattern, you change your attitude.”

That’s also anaphora, which is starting each sentence or clause with the same words. Anaphora was also used in the Bible: “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted,” which just sounds wrong if you’re more used to the adaptation of this in the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, by The Byrds.

Now, if you end each clause, sentence, or paragraph with the same word or phrase, that’s something different. That’s called epistrophe. Dean Martin used epistrophe, singing, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, That’s amore. When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine, That’s amore.”

Honorable mention

There’s of course much more to The Elements of Eloquence. The terms for these rhetorical forms are intimidating and hard to remember, but Mark Forsyth weaves together his descriptions with incredible, well, eloquence.

Some other forms that deserve honorable mention:

There’s your Elements of Eloquence summary

There’s my summary of The Elements of Eloquence. There’s a lot more in the book about bringing eloquence to longer passages of text, such as through rhythmical structures like iambic pentameter.

Will using these structures automatically make your writing great? No, in fact if you practice these structures, your writing will probably be a little strange at first. But you’re probably already using some of these concepts, and with some knowledge and practice, you can use them more adeptly.

The Elements of Eloquence is a fantastic writing book. I read it over and over. I highly recommend it.

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