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The rules regarding words, and a word regarding rules


From Snoop to Shakespeare, the tricks of rhetoric serve playwrights, singers, politicians and evangelists equally well. That is cause for celebration, not snobbery

What do Snoop Dogg and Bruce Forsyth have in common? No? OK, what do Snoop Dogg, Bruce Forsyth, JFK, Billy Ocean and William Shakespeare have in common? The answer is chiasmus (pronounced ki-AZ-mus), and if that means nothing to you, don't worry – it's terribly simple.

With my mind on my money and my money on my mind
Nice to see you. To see you nice.
Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Fair is foul and foul is fair.

That's chiasmus. It's easy to do and … to do it is easy. Ah! The great poetry of Bruce Forsyth, and the cheap tricks of William Shakespeare. And it really is that way around because, whereas Shakespeare was taught these things in school (chiasmus and the other figures of rhetoric were an essential part of the Elizabethan grammar school syllabus) , Bruce had to come up with his catchphrase through pure inspiration. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, Snoop Dogg relied upon the muses (and certain substances).

Some people get very annoyed when you tell them about the figures of rhetoric – the group of tricks for making a memorable sentence. They feel that there must be a difference between poetry and advertising jingles. To say that they are all one and the same when you scratch the surface seems like blasphemy, literally so when you get on to the Bible. The word of God should be different from the word of Katy Perry. But if you know about the technique of progression – a long series of opposites – then you can see that:

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance ...

Is exactly the same as:

You're hot then you're cold
You're yes then you're no
You're in then you're out
You're up then you're down ...

And for that matter the same as Gershwin's "You say potato/ and I say potato", but those lyrics don't work so well when you write them down.

The truth is that there is no blasphemy involved. To take an engineering analogy, you can use an arch to build a cathedral or a railway tunnel or a humpbacked bridge. Nobody can have a monopoly on a technique.

These techniques underlie most of the famous phrases you know, from the unutterably ancient to the mindless and modern. The Bible tells us: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void." That repetition is called anadiplosis, and anadiplosis is what Joaquin Phoenix uses in Gladiator when he says: "The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor." Shakespeare used it, and Milton, and everybody else who knows how to write a good English sentence. It's a technique that is lying around, and equally available to poet, politician and the man on the Clapham omnibus.

This doesn't ruin poetry, or make Shakespeare any less wonderful; understanding does not dampen beauty. If it did, nobody with a knowledge of music theory would ever be able to enjoy a symphony. A motoring enthusiast does not lose all enthusiasm when he finds out about the internal combustion engine, because you don't have to believe in magic to find things magical. If anything, the reverse is true. A professional appreciates the work of a fellow professional much more, because they can see what they're doing and how they're doing it, and appreciate the effort that was put in.

These days, Shakespeare is discussed for his views on feminism, politics and even colonialism. I suspect he would be laughing in his grave if he knew. He was a playwright, and a playwright must be able to write both sides of an argument. It's essential that most of the time we don't know what side he was on – all we have is the opinions of others, but opinions perfectly expressed. When he can write like that, who cares if he was wise or foolish? Or, as Shakespeare put it:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

And by now you should know that that's a chiasmus.

• Mark Forsyth is the author of The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.

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