The boast on the cover is, ‘How to turn the perfect English phrase’, and Forsyth admits that his book ‘is about one tiny, tiny aspect of rhetoric: the figures of speech’. Being able, like Peter Simple’s fantasy ‘apodosis turner in the conditional clause shed’, to produce a smooth example of epizeuxis or epistrophe will not, to be sure, make you Shakespeare (about whose use of figures we hear much to our advantage in this short book). But Forsyth’s chief and admirable ambition is to demolish ‘the bleak and imbecile idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible’.
Oh, snap! Whomever could that writerly whipcrack have been aimed at?
Using plain and clear language is not a moral virtue, as Orwell hoped. Things aren’t that simple. In fact, giving the impression of clarity and straightforwardness is often a strategic game. The way we speak and the way we write are both forms of dress. We can, linguistically, dress ourselves up any way we like. We can affect plainness and directness just as much as we can affect sophistication and complexity. We can try to mislead or to impress, in either mode. Or we can use either register honestly.
I’ve already made my sympathies clear on this question, but I’m also prejudiced in this particular case by the fact that I read both of Forsyth’s previous books this year and loved them. Loved them, I say. The preface to his Horologicon was so particularly enjoyable to me that I read it aloud to someone, proclaiming my own desire to write like that.