What is Style?

The Canon of Style, the third of the Five Canons of RhetoricOpens in new window, concerns the peculiar mode of expression usually employed by any person.

Style is the peculiar manner in which a writer expresses his thoughts by words. In writing, the canon of style is first encountered in the drafting stage and continues in the rewriting stage.

Digging Deep into the Nature of Style

Styles differ as much as human countenances, so that though millions may exist at once, no two are precisely alike. Let two individuals write on the same subject. We see in their productions their peculiar modes of thinking—the extent of their knowledge—their tastes and their feelings. Still they may be classified in a few general groups.

There are many different methods of expressing the same thought or feeling, each of which may be called a different style. The most of authors have a style that is either natural or habitual to them, so that having read a few of their writings, you come to expect that whatever you read from them hereafter will bear a certain similarity to what you have read. Careful critics will often detect the production of a favorite author in a writing that does not bear his name. So peculiar, for instance, are the styles of Samuel JohnsonOpens in new window, AddisonOpens in new window, BunyanOpens in new window, Dean SwiftOpens in new window, CarlyleOpens in new window, MacaulayOpens in new window, Daniel WebsterOpens in new window, Edward EverettOpens in new window, and Charles DickensOpens in new window.

What Produces Variety?

Peculiarities of style are the outgrowth of an author’s nature, or the effect of his habits. If an author has no peculiar style, but seems to write equally well in so great a variety of methods as to have no style of his own, he is likely to be weak in all his methods. “Non omnes omnia pssumus” — “Every body can not do every thing.”

Each man should choose his weapons or his tools, and learn to work efficiently with them. Fortunate is he who chooses tools suited to his constitution and his genius. And yet it is well for a student to practice for a time many different styles.

Some Varieties in Style

Some of the varieties of style are the following:

  • The Saxon style, in which short words, mostly derived from the Anglo-Saxon or the mother-language, are principally employed.
  • The Latin style, in which the long words mostly derived from the Latin language are abundant. Of course there may be an endless variety of styles on this category alone; but the following are common:
  • The abrupt style, made up entirely or principally of short sentences.
  • The flowing style, made up of long sentences.
  • The loose style, using only loose sentences when long ones are employed.
  • The periodic style, abounding in periods.
  • The dry style, which is destitute of figurative expressions, of wit, and of every thing to please the fancy or interest the mind, except the naked statement of facts and opinions.
  • The florid style, which abounds in tropes, metaphors, and other figures. There may be several subordinate styles under this head, such as: the tropical style, the metaphorical style, the allegorical style, the hyperbolical style, and many others.
  • The idiomatic style, abounding in idioms, colloquialisms, and proverbial expressions.
  • The scholastic style, in which the sentences are all artificially constructed with great care, so as not to offend the severest grammatical rules, and in which the words are used with especial regard to their etymological meaning.
  • The logical style, in which the author frequently argues, introducing syllogisms, or presents conclusions, preceded frequently by such words as “hence,” “thence,” “therefore,” and “wherefore.” The witty style, of which there may be many classes. In some, puns, quirks, singular combinations of words or thoughts are sought.

No one Style can be pronounced best.

It woud be a serious fault in RhetoricOpens in new window to recommend any particular style as essentially the best. No teacher does so much harm, in Rhetoric or Elocution, as one who induces all his pupils to strive to adopt one particular fashion of writing or speaking. Trees may be trimmed into the same shape, but they will not remain so unless they are dead. No two leading minds in the world ever had the same method of expressing or enforcing thought.

Qualities of Style

There are certain qualities that should always be aimed at, which we will mention.

1.   Correctness

Correctness as a quality of style, implies the use of words that are purely English in their true and proper sense, and the construction of phrases and sentences according to the rules of Grammar. Thus, it is opposed to the BarbarismOpens in new window, or the use of foreign words; the Impropriety, or the use of English words in a wrong sense; and the SolecismOpens in new window, or Grammatical blunders.

The quality of correct use of language and syntax, must be taken serious by every would be writers, for incorrectness in the use of words and in the construction of sentences, like inaccuracies of pronunciation, is considered as evidence of careless intellectual habits and an unfinished education. There is also something of the nature of incivility, when a writer asks us for our attention, and yet addresses us in a language we cannot understand.

If in the ardour of conversation a word is improperly used, or a sentence wrongly constructed, we might ascribe the incorrectness to the impetuosity and hurry of the thoughts, or to the rapidity of the expression, that we merely overlook it.

In writing, however, such incorrectness, may receive a bitter response, for the due arrangementOpens in new window of the thoughts and the right modelling of the expression, and though one or two instances of incorrectness may be forgiven, yet if they are of frequent occurrence, their effect on our opinion of the writer is unfavourable.

2.   Perspicuity

PerspicuityOpens in new window as a quality of style, implies that the expressions used, be such as to convey, and clearly convey, the true meaning of the writer. Thus defined, it is opposed to ambiguity and obscurities of every kind, from whatever source they may arise.

In every system of Rhetoric, perspicuity is dwelt upon as an essential quality of a good style.

“Thus let me drop into each author’s ear
A piece of counsel: Keep your meaning clear,
Your statements lucid; for of this be sure,
That dullness only ever is obscure.”

We write to communicate to others our thoughts; and if we do not make ourselves understood, we fail of our object in writing. Neither is it enough, that by study, a meaning may be made out of the expressions that we use. The meaning of a passage should be so obvious, as not only to prevent mistake, but to become evident at the first glance—so evident, that we cannot help discerning it.

3.   Vivacity

Another quality of style, in addition to Correctness and Perspicuity, is characterized by Vivacity.

Vivacity implies, that the thoughts are exhibited with distinctness before the mind of the reader, and in a manner which arrests and fixes his attention.

Vivacity gives evidence that the writer is interested in the subject on which he treats, and springs from a desire to awaken the same interest in the minds of his readers. More often than not, vivacity is promoted by the happy choice of words.

Style should be adapted to its Purpose

A good style is always adapted to the purpose in view. If an address is made to children, such language as they can be expected to appreciate is employed. To use recondite terms, long involved sentences, arguments requiring close attention and careful ratiocination, in an address to children, would be very absurd.

Witticisms in a funeral oration, short, abrupt expressions in the description of a beautiful landscape, poetical terms in a scientific treatise, quotations from the Bible in a burlesque performance, would all offend a man of good sense.

The style will correspond with the thought if the writer is a man of power and culture. When he reasons, he will use a clear, logical style; when he persuades he will repeat and enforce his views by many illustrations, according to the abundance of his information and the vigor of his mind. Sometimes he will use many short sentences, sometimes perhaps a flowing period; sometimes he will question, somestimes the thoughts will find their most adequate expressions in disconnected sentences, each a paragraph.

A Variety should be sought

If a young writer finds himself falling into a monotonous style of expressing his thoughts, he should make assiduous efforts to break it up. The best of styles wearies us if a speaker or writer always uses the same. Even such a work as Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” would be more interesting if its style was more varied.

On this subject Mr. Herbert SpencerOpens in new window has well said:

To have a specific style is to be poor in speech. If we remember that in the far past men had only nouns and verbs to convey ideas with, and that from then to now the growth has been toward a greater number of implements of thought, and consequently toward a greater complexity and variety in their combinations, we may infer that we are now, in our use of sentences, much what the primitive man was in his use of words: and that a continuance of the process that has hitherto gone on must produce heterogeneity in our modes of expression.
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  • References
    • De Quincey’s Historical and Critical Essays (Boston, 1853), vol i. p. 195.
      Adapted from Erastus Otis Haven's manual, titled, Rhetoric: A Text-book, Designed for Use in Schools and Colleges, and for [...] (Accessibility of this work is coutesy of Google's Digitized Technology) | Style (p. 220 - 227)Opens in new window

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