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Measuring Style Statistically

In Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy, Walker Gibson notes that most types of writing fall into one of three loose categories. He refers to these as follows:

"tough" (concise and straight-forward, but mostly formal in tone--the sort of writing one expects from Hemingway)

"sweet" (informal and friendly, the sort of writing one expects in an advertisement)

"stuffy" (ultra-formal, intentionally vague, the sort of bad writing one expects in jargon, government documents, and "legalese")

Statistically broken down, the numbers look like those in the chart below (click here to download a PDF version):

The Style Machine: Criteria for Measuring Style

(Taken from Walker Gibson, Appendix A, page 13 of Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1966).

1. Monosyllabic words over 70% 60-70% 60% or less
2. Words of three syllables and more under 10% 10-19% 20% or more
3. First and second person pronouns 1 I or we per 100 words 2 you per 100 words no 1st or 2nd person pronouns
4. Subjects: neuters versus people 1/2 or more people 1/2 or more people 2/3 or more neuters
5. Finite verbs over 10% over 10% under 10%
6. To be forms of finite verbs over 1/3 of verbs under 1/4 of verbs under 1/4 of verbs
7. Passive voice verbs less than 1 in 20 verbs none more than 1 in 5 verbs
8. True adjectives under 10% over 10% over 8%
9. Adjectives modified fewer than 1 per 100 words 1 or more fewer than 1
10. Noun adjuncts under 2% 2% or more 4% or more
11. Average length of clauses 10 words or less 10 words or less more than 10 words
12. Clauses, proportion of total words 1/4 or less 1/3 or less over 40%
13. "Embedded" words less than 1/2 S/V combinations less than half more than twice as many S/V combinations
14. The definite article the 8% of total words under 6% 6-7%
15. Contractions and fragments 1 or more per 100 words 2 or more per 100 words none
16. Parentheses and other puncutation none 2 or more per 10 words none

Most readers (and I) prefer reading the "tough" style. That means little or no passive voice, no obscure vocabulary, and no stacked adjectives. However, a good writer is perfectly capable of switching back and forth from one style to another. For instance, some research papers may require a slightly "stuffier" style in order to convey a formal tone. A useful exercise is to take a memo and rewrite it three ways--plain, sweet, and stuffy. Be as extreme as possible when using each style. That exaggeration will help you "feel" the differences between each one.

For instance, consider the memo below:

Faculty and staff may register their motor vehicles with the college for 2006-2007 beginning August 1, 2002. Each faculty and staff member should have a valid Carson-Newman decal on his/her vehicle prior to August 20, 2006. This decal will be valid through August 15, 2007.

A registration fee of fifty dollars ($50) will be required for each motor vehicle registered with the college. The individual faculty or staff member, or his/her spouse, must come by the traffic office to register the motor vehicle. Registration plate number and a valid operator's license must be provided for the registration process.

A faculty or staff member with delinquent assessments for parking violations will not be permitted to register a motor vehicle until all assessments are paid. Failure to register a motor vehicle that utilizes college property, owned or leased, for parking privileges will subject the vehicle to immediate towing.

Prompt registration is encouraged in order to prevent unnecessary delays by registering at the last minute. This office is open Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 11:45 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

What does this memo look like in a (1) plain and personal style, (2) stuffy style or (3) sweet style? Click on each one to compare the 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.