Exactly why are three words, “Bond, James Bond,” so effective at getting your attention? This formula is everywhere, but it isn’t something most of us use intentionally. Several times a day, I comfort my young daughter with “I know, sweetie, I know.” Why do I say it twice?
It’s a figure of rhetoric, and they seem to be eking their way out of education. We often know when something is effective, but aren’t necessarily sure why. But Mark Forsyth of the Inky Fool has made these rhetorical strategies understandable and accessible.
He explains that the concept of “diacope” uses repetition to bring a point home (think: Burn, baby, burn; and home sweet home.) But it’s not just the repetition that creates that pleasing effect to your ear. Forsyth calls it a word sandwich: Those repeated words or phrases are sliced apart and enhanced by a few words in the middle. It doesn’t really even matter what the words are.
But I find diacope similar to punctuation — little scribbles like this em-dash, designed to cause a pause. When I comfort my daughter repeatedly for seemingly no reason, it’s not because I think she might forget what I said, but because I want her to sit with what I’m saying for longer than a second. I want her to feel my empathy. So I hold her there, both physically and verbally, and sit in the emotion for a minute.
So much of good writing reads like music, and a writer who executes these strategies regularly creates a melody that’s hard to get out of your head. Anyone can deliver information, but those who do so musically and methodically have a way of improving our retention. The nuts and bolts of the diacope’s various forms get much more granular, which may be fascinating to the professional wordsmith and pain-inducing to others.
Rhythm and Rhetoric
Forsyth began his blog in 2009 as an exploration of the origin of words, and its success among fellow logophiles led him to pen four best-sellers, each an iteration of the playground of language — “etymology is fun!” — including “The Etymologicon” (on the hidden meaning of words), The Elements of Eloquence (how to turn the perfect phrase), and The Horologicon (on obscure and lost words).
However, it’s not only digging into the roots of words that fascinates Forsyth but how to treat them as individual notes in a larger symphony of meaning. He gives his audience the education so many of them missed, capturing the rhetorical formulas taught by both the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare.
Another of Forsyth’s examples is called “progressive,” which pairs opposites to lyrical effect, most famously in Ecclesiastes 3… “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep, and a time to rejoice; a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to plant, a time to uproot.” Pete Seeger lifted eight verses from the King James version of the Bible to create a folk classic from these couplets. The progressive device can be found across creative works produced by characters like Charles Dickens and Katy Perry.
With the writing community’s collective lost sleep over the potential of generative AI to usurp our finer creative impulses, Forsyth continues to prove that there is a passionate market — no, readership — for words, wordplay, and the art of persuasion. His many entries on rhetoric show that it can be a key to not only developing your voice as a writer but ensuring that what you say has impact.
“Rhetoric is what makes anything you say memorable. Rhetoric is what makes what you say stick in people’s minds. Rhetoric is what persuades people of your position. Rhetoric is what provokes emotions,” Forsyth says while demonstrating another of its forms, “anaphora” — the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of successive clauses. Martin Luther King Jr’s repetition of “let freedom ring” in his “I Have a Dream” speech is a testament to the power of anaphora. He uses it no less than 10 times as the speech reaches its crescendo.
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Accessing your Rhetorical Toolkit
At one point in academic history, rhetoric primarily referred to argumentation — how you could convince someone to your side through different methods of speech or writing. Many of us remember rhetoric through lessons that were drilled in our heads about ethos, pathos, and logos. You might remember digesting and regurgitating 40 different rhetorical devices. Or, if you’re younger than 40, you might not. I think that’s too bad — both the regurgitation and the elimination of rhetoric from our curriculum, because it’s so interesting when taught by an engaging wordsmith like Forsyth.
There’s a multitude of ways that English, and subsequently rhetoric, has been made obscure to most English speakers and writers.
The key to developing your relationship with rhetoric (were you, like me, not fortunate enough to learn it in school) is as simple as working on yourself as a writer. For some people, exploration comes naturally — you’ll stumble into your writer’s voice without structure. For others, researching the figures of rhetoric can be a helpful guide to the approaches to writing that will hone your voice.
Experimenting your way towards your personal style of writing, embellished or not, is an ongoing journey. The best part of writing is that your work can never be wrong. The style that you discover for yourself is worthy and powerful.
For Forsyth, prescribing how we should express ourselves is an affront to the craft of writing itself. “Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible,” he writes with a closing nod to that old rhetorical favorite, alliteration. “This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy, and a falsehood.” Though I work in an area of publishing where most of those literary toys get thrown out in the editing process, artful language strategically placed is still as effective as it’s ever been.