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“The convoluted style of the Anticlaudianus first provokes contemptuous amusement, then amused contempt, and finally a rankling personal hatred of the author.”


--C. S. Lewis,
discussing the Latin writing style of the Anticlaudianus, a medieval diatribe.


What is Style?

What exactly is style?

When writers talk about style, it's a lot like wine connoisseurs discussing the tastes of wine. For instance, a diehard wine-drinker might call one wine fruity and another dry. Either of those wines might also be murky, hot or even impertinent. But what does that mean? Aren't all wines fruity since they are made from grapes? How can a liquid beverage taste dry? These terms mean little to those who have not tasted many, many wines. It is a description that has to be experienced in the mouth, rather than plainly discussed.

In the same way, describing a writer's style as tough, or stuffy, or sweet doesn't make much sense to someone who hasn't contrasted several writing styles. It may sound like these terms are being made-up by editors as they go along. The truth is, however, we see a real difference between a passage Ernest Hemingway writes and one William Faulkner pens, just as a fruity red wine tastes differently than a crisp chardonais. Individual writers tend to use different vocabularies, different sentence structure, and different punctuation.

For instance, the Victorian writer George Bulwer-Lytton, the man who penned the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night..." is famous for having a "torrid" writing style, one characterized by interjections and interruptions and piled-up phrases and clauses. Here is the first sentence to his novel Paul Clifford from 1830:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This style contrasts sharply with the simplicity favored by many twentieth-century American novelists. For instance, if an early twentieth-century writer like Hemingway had written the same sentence above, the hypothetical passage might have looked something like this:

After dark a storm came and sometimes in the wind there was a noise on the rooftops. You could see the streetlamps struggling to stay lit.

Notice how the two passages differ. Bulwer-Lytton loves punctuation marks like dashes, paranetheses, and commas. Hemingway tries to keep his sentences uncluttered, and often deletes commas from the places they would normally appear. Bulwer-Lytton likes long sentences (58 words). Hemingway prefers shorter ones (17 words). In vocabulary, Bulwer-Lytton prefers Latinate root-words like agitate, and Hemingway prefers Germanic root-words like struggle. Bulwer-Lytton likes to repeat dominant images (dark and darkness appear in the same sentence). Hemingway dislikes such repetition. Bulwer-Lytton loves to use many adjectives (dark, stormy, occasional, violent, scanty) and some adverbs (fiercely). Hemingway often uses no adjectives at all. In this hypothetical Hemingway passage, even the word dark is now functioning as a substantive noun, synonymous with night. While Bulwer-Lytton's style was quite popular in the Victorian period, most modern writers find his style excessive. We tend to prefer Hemingway's clarity and brevity to Bulwer-Lytton's purple prose.

In the same way, all writers vary in their styles. Their sentences differ in length and complexity. Each individual tends to put the words together in particular patterns. Each writer's tone may be objective and distanced, or up-close and personal. Style involves all these choices and more. Style is the intangible essence of what makes a person's writing unique.

Writers may adapt different styles at different times in their writing careers. Other writers have specific traits that always set them apart. Fantasy writer Piers Anthony's style involves extensive use of puns. Faulkner's style involves long, rolling sentences and experimentation with compound words and so-called "stream of consciousness" narration. Hemingway's style has often been described as "gritty"; it involves removal of commas and deadpan description of often gruesome events. Hemingway often uses concise, staccato sentences with few authorial comments. Jane Austen's writing style has been called "dry"; it involves multisyllabic words and understated wit. Charles Dickens favors a Latinate vocabulary and long sentence structure; he often interrupts his narrative to directly address the reader in a personal aside. Notice that these are tendencies--not absolute laws. Good writers vary their style as appropriate. The best writers can don one style or another to suit their purpose, rather than simply having a single style.

There are two ways to explore style and understand it:

(1) The first method of understanding style is a "hands-on" approach in which students read passages by different authors and then try to imitate their favorites.

(2) The second (and more abstract) way to understand style is to analyze style mathematically by breaking down each sentence into grammatical parts and noting what features are statistically more common in certain styles.

Read through both of the links above. After examining the passages by different authors, and seeing the statistical differences in each style, you can click on an exercise to help you master three common styles.

 

 
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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2014. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated March 14, 2014. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.