Elements of Eloquence Single Line Challenge: Chapter 4, The Merism

The merism, Forsyth explains, looks a lot like antithesis at first glance, because it may contain a pair of opposites. However, the point here is that the pair gestures at the whole by naming two or three representative parts.

“Night and Day”
“The long and the short and the tall”
“Ladies and gentlemen”
‘In sickness and in health”

Innocent Wedding

These examples form bookends. That being the case, they suggest, imply, or rhetorically gesture at everything in between.

“Coffee and Tea” could be a merism for “hot drinks” if you use it that way. For instance, “Nights were getting cold, and we abandoned our habitual ice waters and chilled wine for hot coffee and tea.” Realistically, we know perfectly well they might sometimes have enjoyed hot chocolate or cider as well. But is the writer obligated to name every single hot drink they enjoyed that winter? No, of course not! He has the merism to help him keep things snappy.

Of course he may want to list it all, just for texture and effect. Later on, we’ll have a chapter about how that kind of list is a rhetorical device in itself!

To get a fuller picture of the merism, check out our book, Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth!

The challenge here is to write a whole line using a merism.

It might turn out to be an antithesis as well, but that’s as may be.

Chapter 3
Chapter 5

Mark Forsyth’s Book, Elements of Eloquence


  1. We know what we love at first sight; we don’t know what we hate until we’ve drunk it, from first sip to final dregs.

    Hoe and rake shone as if they’d never worked a day; he found neither rust nor soil on any of her gardening tools.

    Bread and water filled them not;
    wine and dancing made them weep.


    • This is great! I’m glad you jumped in.

      I think it’s actually an interesting question what we would call these statements rhetorically. I think you are right that grace and truth form a merism. Especially if you pull back and look at the whole statement: “The law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” That’s antithesis! So grace and truth form a sort of block that’s being set over against the law. That being the case, I think it does work very well as a merism. Probably, grace and truth represent the whole gospel – what Peter calls the law of love.

      “Justice prevailed but Mercy held sway,” (nice couplet, by the way!) I think this one works better as antithesis. Why? Because the question is justice vs. mercy specifically… and not justice and mercy joined together to represent some larger whole, or group of qualities.

      I may have overstated the case when I said that the merism, like the antithesis, is formed from a pair of opposites – though sometimes it is. I think a better way to look at it would be bookends. So in my example about garden tools, the rake and hoe are not really opposites… they’re more like representatives examples of a group. Grace and truth make apt bookends for the whole group of those new virtues encompassed by the gospel.

      Huh. I never thought learning rhetoric would help with biblical interpretation… but it makes sense, because these N.T. writers definitely lived in an era when this stuff was part of every educated person’s education, and was used in literature and speeches regularly and consciously.

      I’ll edit the original post to better reflect this. Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I wrote my merism and felt like it was only part of a poem, so I let it sit for a little bit and came up with some more. The merism (I hope) lies in the middle verse.

    Marriage blooming love, young love
    Knows not a rose’s thorn.
    Children bursting rays of joy
    Know naught of sorrows born.

    laughing, living, thus you love me
    whole and happy, shall you have me
    crying, dying, still you keep me
    broke and bitter, still you hold me

    Marriage fed by roots, strong roots
    Survives the tempest’s blast.
    Child’s hope, survive like sun!
    Thus may young love long last.


    • Yes, that’s excellent use of merism!

      OK, so I’m seeing a lot of progress here in packing your lines full of impactful words. Wonderful! And you’re getting comfortable with authoritative syntax. I love that.

      Your rhythm here, especially with the patterned repetition at the end of the first line of the stanza, is quite affecting.

      I’m also seeing that you’re paying more attention to long vs. short syllables, which is helpful. That is an area this poem could use a little more work still, however. “roots, strong roots,” despite its conceptual beauty, has a tongue-twister effect. I suggest just finding a different word instead of “strong.” (It could help to spend some time silently visualizing roots – or observing them – or both.) On the other hand, the final line is all words of fairly short syllables. It creates a bit of a choppy or diffident effect that undercuts what the poem has been saying.

      There are a couple of places where I want to see you address the conceptual side of the poem more.

      “Children bursting rays of joy
      Know naught of sorrows born.”

      I feel that in these lines you haven’t made it as clear to yourself as you might have done, what exactly you are saying, and therefore what precise words would make it most poignant. I think you’ve satisfied yourself with a rather general and obvious sentiment. So, I encourage you to think past your first conception of these lines, and give us a more original and clearly-expressed thought.

      Thanks for participating! There’s a lot of beauty here.


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