From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Writing style is the manner in which a writer addresses a matter in prose, a manner which reveals the writer's personality, or 'voice.' It is particularly evident in the choices the writer makes in syntactical structures, diction, and figures of thought.
The question of 'style'
One particular question that arises in any attempt to study or describe style is. To what extent is it the writer's style, and what extent the form's? The statements, The journalist has a very journalistic style, or The scholar's style is too scholarly, reveal the redundant and misleading nature of talking about style. At the same time, it does not sound strange to say, This journalist has a very descriptive and narrative style. Even in this case, however, the question may persist of whether this can truly be called a 'personal' style, or merely an ironic substitution of styles.
Constraints on style
While style can typically be identified as the writer's choices among identical propositions - between, for example, the propositions 'That play was lousy as hell,' and 'That play struck me as quite dull' - several kinds of constraints affect, pre-determine, or reduce the choices that can be made. One kind of constraint is audience, which affects the writer's diction, the degree of complexity in the syntax, and the use of figures of thought such as metaphor. For example, a letter of complaint by one writer will be different from a letter of condolence by the same writer, which will be different from a letter of business. Another kind of constraint involves issues of legality or discretion: for example, avoiding libel, defamation, obscenity, sedition, and other social taboos. The presence of such constraints will eliminate options such as 'That play was shit!' A third kind of constraint requires a minimal grammatical coherence, eliminating options like 'That play hell as lousy was.' However, the constraint which commonly has the most impact is purpose, as it determines the major rhetorical mode of a given piece of writing. Purpose is always key in style.
As equally revealing as the density of content of a writer's prose is the manner of distribution of that content. Given that prose unfolds through time and space, there are a number of ways in which the writer can arrange his or her words, phrases, and clauses (constrained, of course, by a few rules of grammar). That is, the writer can choose, in a sentence, to state the main proposition first and then modify it. Or the writer can modify it before fully stating it. Or form a combination of the two. And while there is something to be said for 'varying' one's method of distribution in order to avoid monotony, the choice is likely to be made according to the taste or disposition of the individual and the writer's culture. In the modern age, for instance, the loose sentence has been favored in all modes of discourse; while in classical times the periodic sentence held equal or greater favour; likewise, the balanced sentence was a favourite of writers during the Age of Enlightenment.
The loose sentence
The most common sentence in modern usage, the loose sentence begins with the main point (an independent clause), followed by one or more subordinate clauses. For example:
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a very influential novel, having its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women (James Baldwin).
The cat sat on the mat, purring softly, having licked his paws clean.
According to Francis Christensen:
The loose sentence ... characterized the anti-Ciceronian movement in the seventeenth century. This movement, according to Morris W. Croll [“The Baroque Style in Prose,” (1929)] began with Montaigne and Bacon and continued with such men as Donne, Browne, Taylor, Pascal. To Montaigne, its art was the art of being natural; to Pascal, its eloquence was the eloquence that mocks formal eloquence; to Bacon, it presented knowledge so that it could be examined, not so that it must be accepted. (in Winterowd, 'Contemporary Rhetoric: A Conceptual Background with Readings,' p.348)
The periodic sentence
In contrast, a periodic sentence places the main point in the middle or at the end of the sentence. In the former case, the main point is modified by subordinate clauses before and after its position in the sentence. In the latter case, the main point is modified by preceding subordinate clauses.
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. (Henry David Thoreau)
The purpose of such form is well-stated by Adams Sherman Hill in The Foundation of Rhetoric (1897):
To secure force in a sentence, it is necessary not only to choose the strongest words and to be as concise as is consistent with clearness, but also to arrange words, phrases, and clauses in the order which gives a commanding position to what is most important, and thus fixes the attention on the central idea.
The balanced sentence
A balanced sentence is characterized by parallel structure: two or more parts of the sentence have the same form, emphasizing similarities or differences.
Depending on the mode in which the writer is writing, diction can also pertain to the writer's style. Argumentative and expository prose on a particular subject matter frequently makes use of a set of jargon in which the subject matter is commonly discussed. By contrast, narrative and descriptive prose is open to the vast variety of words. Insofar as a style of diction can be discerned, however, it is best to examine the diction against a number of spectrums:
- Abstract-concrete: how much of the diction is physical?
- General-specific: to what degree is the diction precise, to what degree is it vague?
Other attributes of diction include:
The connotation of a word refers to the special associations, apart from its dictionary definition, that it may convey. The word dog may recall friendship to one reader, but terror to another. Using connotation in a strategic manner, a writer can achieve subtle and exact effects. A lap dog may suggest sophistication; a hound dog may suggest amusement; a cur may suggest social distinctions.
Even words that are synonyms may have different connotations: slender, thin, skinny may each convey different images to the reader's mind. The writer should choose the connotation, positive, negative, or neutral, that supports the mood.
Connotation varies with audience; writing for the learned, connotation may be a matter of etymology (the silent infantry) or allusion (she raised the glass of red wine with rosy fingers); writing for schoolbooks, wariness of caviling (Napoleon was a bigger influence than Frederick the Great on world history provoking But how could Napoleon be bigger when he was so short?); writing for encyclopedias, of using authoritative and dispassionate words (controversial, significant, &c.)
Figures of thought
Also referred to as 'figurative language' or 'tropes,' the addition of figures of thought add liveliness and clarity to a piece of writing when used effectively, by making abstract concepts concrete or giving concrete objects an abstract quality. Using figures of thought can help a writer say something in an interesting way when ordinary language may seem dry. At the same time, inconsistent or inappropriate use, such as the mixed metaphor, may be detrimental to the author's purpose.
The major tropes are:
- Puns: antanaclasis, paronomasia, syllepsis
- Hyperbole and litotes
- Allegory and parable
- Auxesis and meiosis
The role of punctuation in style is debatable. Punctuation has been highly standardized and hence no longer reveals an author’s distinctive ‘voice’ unless the author is deliberately idiosyncratic in the use of punctuation. In such a case, nonstandard punctuation might be considered an attribute of an author’s ‘style,’ for instance making it more ‘difficult.’ Such may also be said of using idiosyncratic spelling and mechanics, such as unorthodox verb agreement (e.g., He be going to the store).
Attributes of effective style
While many theories have arisen historically which seek to define what the 'proper' or 'correct' or 'best' style is or should be, a more democratic trend has emerged in recent years among pedagogists which acknowledges that ‘Nothing in language is ever good or bad except in relation to a purpose’ (Winterowd p.22). Hence, what can be called 'effective style' is simply that which achieves its intended purpose and effect upon its intended audience. That said, there are certain attributes that are more effective than others on all occasions.
Clear main clauses
While it is not essential - and perhaps not even always preferable - that a main clause be specific, or concrete, or concise, or in the active tense, it is best when the main clause or 'point' of a sentence is clearly identifiable, and not hidden among numerous modifying phrases and clauses. Nominalization, or the making of a proposition into the subject/object of another proposition, is one such hazardous syntactical construction. That is not to say that propositions should never be, but it is best when they are short and infrequent, or can be stated in a clearer way. For example:
1) A grammar is made up of a finite series of rules that can generate an infinite number of sentences, a fact that explains why we can understand sentences that we have never seen before.
2) A grammar’s being made up of a finite series of rules that can generate an infinite number of sentences is the explanation for our understanding of sentences that we have never seen before.
As Winterowd explains: ‘A high degree of nominalization creates difficulty for reading — for every reader ... The explanation of the difficulty of the second example is fairly straight-forward. In reading a sentence, one looks for a predicate (or main word) around which the other terms can be organized ... In (1) the reader immediately grasps is made up as the point around which the rest of the sentence will be organized, but in (2), the reader must hold a series of 21 words in suspension before he arrives at the organizational point explanation' (Winterowd 18).
Indicating relationships between propositions
Indicating how sentences are related to one another not only helps the reader to comprehend the content, but induces a more fluid stylistic form. However, fluidity may not always be what is most effective for achieving the writer's purpose. Examples:
1) Alaska is a thinly populated state. Overpopulation is becoming a problem. Many people may move there. It has vast open lands.
2) Alaska, a thinly populated state, has vast open lands to which many people may move since overpopulation is becoming a problem.
3) As overpopulation becomes a problem, Alaska, a state thinly populated yet with vast open lands, is a place to which many may move.
4) Overpopulation is becoming a problem. Yet Alaska is a thinly populated state, and has vast open lands. Might not people move there?
In contrast to figures of thought, schemes are figures of speech or syntax. They order syntactical structures in rhythmic ways, and hence effective if rhythm is the effect the writer is striving for.
The major schemes are:
- Anastrophe, parenthesis, and apposition
- Asyndeton and polysyndeton
- Alliteration and assonance
- Anaphora and epistrophe
- Epanalepsis and anadiplosis
- Antimetabole and chiasmus
To a student seeking to 'develop' his or her style, it will eventually become evident that a major dilemma for every writer, every time he or she writes, as to how to add modifiers to sentences while keeping the sentence fluid, clear, and to the point.
While one rule of thumb for keeping the sentences concise is to cut out the 'inessential' modifiers, the inadequacy of this method is expressed in another good rule by John Erskine: ‘What you say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun ... The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise ... The modifier is the essential part of any sentence’ (Winterowd 340).
Writers have discovered numerous methods for developing concise yet rich sentences, however. One method is to choose more specific nouns and verbs: rather than the boy who went to school, seek the schoolboy; and rather than they went by boat across the water, seek they sailed. Another method is to use figures of thought to import meaning implicitly, rather than rely on explicit explanations: so rather than Genetically modified food may be the key to eliminating hunger among those who cannot afford natural foods as those foods become ever more scarce, seek a metaphor, like Genetically modified food may be our modern day manna.
Variety of modifiers
Unless the intended effect is monotony, then variety in the placement of modifiers (and, perhaps, the kinds of modifier) is recommended. This does not mean that one should consciously alternate between loose and periodic sentences, however; variety can be achieved effectively and simply by varying the kind of sentence opener (the place where, if there is any structural monotony, it is most likely to occur). Options for sentence openers include:
- The subject: 'The cat sat on the mat.'
- Expletive: 'There is a cat sitting on the mat'; 'Alas, a cat sat on the mat.'
- Coordinating conjunction: 'Yet the cat sat on the mat.'
- Conjunctive phrase: 'On the other hand, the mouse ran up the clock.'
- Adverb word: 'Lazily, the cat sat on the mat.'
- Adverb clause: 'Although he was not tired, the cat sat on the mat.'
- Adjective phrase: 'Cute and fuzzy, the cat sat on the mat.'
- Prepositional phrase: 'Beneath the chair, on the mat, the cat sat.'
- Verbal phrase: 'Purring softly, the cat sat on the mat.'
- Absolute phrase: 'The epitome of contentment, the cat sat on the mat.'
- Front-shift: 'On the mat sat the cat.'
Repetition of like things
The flip side of the above rule is that coordinate ideas are most effective when expressed like ways. 'Three reasons why X is X' should not proceed, 'First of all,' 'On the other hand,' and 'Point C.' As Francis Christensen explains in his essay, A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph:
It should be evident, also, that we need two separate sets of yardsticks for measuring such things as unity, coherence, and emphasis. Take coherence, for example. The repetition of structure ... is all that is necessary to join sentence to sentence at the same level. Any connectives other than the simple and for the last member would be an impertinence—again, moreover, in the same vein, in addition would be a hindrance rather than a help. But repetition of structure is necessary; like things in like ways is one of the imperatives of discursive writing. Any attempt to introduce variety in the sentence beginnings, by varying the pattern or by putting something before the subject, would be like trying to vary the columns of the Parthenon. In a subordinate sequence, just as clearly, repetition of structure must be avoided. Each added sentence, being different in the method of development, must be different, must be different in form. In a subordinate sequence, the problems of unity, coherence, and emphasis are altogether different—and more difficult.
The prevalence of passive voice is more common in expository, argumentative writing, since it both helps to secure emphasis on the receiver of actions, or to lessen remarks that the writer may not want to emphasize (e.g., The public has been deceived, v. Someone has deceived the public!). When there is no necessity in emphasizing the object, however, or when the writer proceeds sentence after sentence to assert statements passively, then the effectiveness of the prose suffers.
As suggested above, diction is often heavily circumscribed depending on the rhetorical mode and subject matter. When it is not, the choice among words is determined by the effect the writer wishes to induce.
However, a few rules of thumb may be of help. One three-pronged rule from pre-twentieth century stylists suggests that the 'best word' satisfies the principles of:
- Purity: being contemporary, reputable, and non-foreign
- Propriety: being relevant to the subject, occasion, purpose, and audience
- Precision: being correct in denotation and idiom, and means what we intend it to mean and no more
Another rule of thumb might be that if, within the context of the phrase or sentence, it is hard to say, then it will be hard to understand as well.
In writing style, using the simpler, more common word over the lesser-known word is preferable. "Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able." (Elements of Style) Similarly, single words of more exacting definition are for simplicity's sake generally preferred over descriptive adjective-noun, adverb-adjective, or adverb-verb pairs, even if this should result in more syllables, such as the use of a pentasyllabic noun with a definition that precisely fits the meaning one wishes to convey instead of a vague, monosyllabic adjective describing a more semantically imprecise, monosyllabic noun: For example, the single adjective monosyllabic is generally preferred over the adverb-adjective one-syllable — except for very young readers — even though the former is one more syllable than the latter. While this situation might to some seem opposite rather than similar to the aforementioned preference of not using a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center available to do the same job, limiting that preference to choices between options using equal numbers of words and preferring fewer, less ambiguous words discourages elegant variation and will ultimately make prose more concise without sacrificing meaning for brevity. Hence the saying, "use as many words as you need, but no more."
Effective figurative language
Essentially, clichés are overused adjectives, expressions, or figures of thought that have lost their impact. However, in reality, they are only a hazard for the writer when endeavouring to add modifiers to the writing without taking the time to choose them thoughtfully and originally. Thus the rule of thumb is that stale figurative language is worse than no figurative language at all.
While there can be important uses for abstract language, and subjects that are by their very nature abstract, prose can almost always be made more effective by 'concretizing' the abstractions through figurative language.
A writer needs to develop his or her skills through practice. Writing style cannot be forced; it emerges over time through practice. William Zinsser says writing style is not a commodity. "You will reach for gaudy similes and tinseled adjectives, as if style were something you could buy at the style store and drape onto your words in bright decorator colors . . . there is no style store; style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or if he is bald, his lack of it. Trying to add style is like adding a toupee. At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance . . . he doesn't look quite right."
The Elements of Style endorses imitation as a way for a writer to achieve his own style:
The use of language begins with imitation . . . The imitative life continues long after the writer is on their own in the language, for it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what one admires. Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.
- Fawcett, Susan (2004). Evergreen: A Guide to Writing With Readings. Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-618-27387-5.
- Polking, Kirk (1990). Writing A to Z. Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 0-89879-556-7.
- Rozakis, Laurie (2003). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style, 2nd Edition. Alpha. ISBN 1-59257-115-8
- Shaw, Harry (1965). A Complete Course in Freshman English. Harper & Row.
- Strunk, William and E. B. White. (1959). The Elements of Style. MacMillan Publishing Co. ISBN 0-02-418220-6.
- Watkins, Floyd C., William B. Dillingham, and Edwin T. Martin. (1974). Practical English Handbook. Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-16822-8.
- Williams, Joseph (2007) Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Pearson Longman ISBN 032-147935-1 ISBN 978-032-147935-8
- Zinsser, William (2001). On Writing Well. Quill. ISBN 0-06-000664-1.