Monday 14 January 2008

On style(s)

An A-level student writes to say that his class has been told by their tutor that if they want to be good writers they need to 'write with style' - but in the absence of a definition of what style is (and especially what good style is), he remains confused. 'After all,' he adds, 'everybody has a writing style, though I guess some are better than others.' So he asks: 'What do you think makes a good writing style? And which writers are the best stylists?'

There are hundreds of definitions and characterizations of style. I collected a few dozen for a book of language quotations a few years ago (Words on Words, chapter 47). They range from such views as Samuel Wesley's 'Style is the dress of thought', Flaubert's 'Style is life!', and Gibbon's 'Style is the image of character' to the more down-to-earth views of Emerson ('Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are') and Oscar Wilde ('there is no such thing as style; there are merely styles, that is all'). Matthew Arnold said: 'People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.'

I devote a chapter (49) to style in my How Language Works, so I won't repeat that here. But the essential point about style, to my mind, is that it is a personal selection (conscious or unconscious) from everything that is possible in a language. It is my choice, as opposed to yours, of the options available in sounds, spellings, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary, and so on. I choose the linguistic guise in which I want to appear. You do the same.

'Options available' is important. If there are no options, then there is no possibility of a stylistic choice. Spelling, for instance, allows us very few options in standard English, so it isn't a feature of most people's style. Punctuation is a bit more flexible. Grammar and vocabulary offer us most choices of all.

Why we make the choices we do is often beyond reason. For instance, I never use the word whilst, and always use while instead. Why? I have no idea. I don't object to other people using whilst, and can appreciate a style in which it is used. But I don't like using it myself. What caused this curious dislike I do not know. I may have been taught it, copied it, read it, who knows? All I know now is that it is a feature of my style - one of thousands of linguistic likes and dislikes which I have accumulated over the years. I have done a fair bit of analysis of my own style, and I know I have preferences for certain types of sentence, sentence lengths, sentence constructions, and so on. And I also know that not everyone shares my preferences. For instance, analyse these blogs and you will find lots of sentences beginning with And or But. I like the rhetorical contrasts conveyed in this way. So did Shakespeare. But some prescriptive writers hate sentences that begin with conjunctions and try to ban them.

I mention this because it's important to appreciate that our linguistic choices are judged by society. It's like any other aspect of behaviour. Can I wear anything I like? Up to a point. Society has rules, conventions, and expectations, and I have to follow them or take the consequences. The rules governing language are less obvious (because there are more of them) than those governing how we dress or eat; but they are there nonetheless. So the answer to the question 'what is a good style?' is the same as the answer to the question 'what is a good way to dress?' It is a balance between conforming to what is fashionable and being sufficiently distinctive to stand out from the crowd. And if you are criticised, or feel you're likely to be criticised, you have to decide whether to accept the criticism and change your behaviour or stick to your guns and be different. I think most people are pragmatic, and act both ways, depending on circumstances. I do, anyway.

Oscar Wilde's point is important: we don't have style, but styles. I have several styles, which relate to such variables as mood, audience, content, and circumstance. The style of this blog isn't like anything else I've written. When I wrote Making Sense of English Usage I consciously decided to try out a colloquial style - more colloquial than anything I'd ever used before (or since, for that matter). By Hook or By Crook, which came out last year, was another experiment, more of a stream-of-consciousness style. Whether I'll ever use it again will depend on whether it 'works' - that is, whether people like it, enjoy it, want more of it. If they do, fine. If they don't (and reviewers are always quick to tell you!), I'll drop it.

And in the same way as we copy others, when we dress, so we copy others' use of language. Another answer to the question 'what is a good style?' is: 'the style that the people you respect think is good'. What is felt to be 'good' will change from age to age, as the history of literature repeatedly demonstrates. So - as this is a student correspondent - if you are looking for a style to suit your personality, look around, and read, read, read. Read novels, short stories, newspaper articles, magazines, blogs... and make a note of what impresses you. Experiment with different ways of writing. And welcome the judgements of others willing to devote their time to reading what you write - for they can give you the clues you need as to whether you are being successful. Are you being clear, succinct, persuasive, consistent, interesting, repetitive, ambiguous...? You may think your text is fine - until someone else reads it. And the principle applies as much to emails as to essays.

You're never too old to benefit from feedback. I ask someone to read the manuscript of every book I write - more than one, if I can persuade people to give me the time - and I always benefit from the reactions. In fact, the only time I've never given my stuff to someone else to read first is on this blog.


Anonymous said...

It has been very interesting for me switching to using Spanish as my primary language (for work, social life, and reading), as the style of writing in English I had spend many years and much work developing has gone. In fact, it is not only a question of not having a "voice" in Spanish, but the structures and sentence length which is typical in Spanish, as well as Spanish vocabulary, are colouring my English. I suspect that it´s going to be years before I find a style I like in Spanish and it will also take a while for the two styles to stabilize.

DC said...

That's very interesting. It points in the direction of a 'comparative stylistics' - a subject which has had very little investigation. I'm reminded of a project I was in charge of once, for the Scottish firm of W & R Chambers. The idea was to publish a series of information books. Because Chambers had just been taken over by Larousse, and such a series already existed in French, it was thought that the easiest way to make progress was simply to translate them. But when we did the first one we realized straight away that this way of working was hopeless - because of the stylistic differences. It was difficult to put a finger on it, but there was something about the French style of exposition which was very different from what an Anglo-Saxon readership expected. In the end, we had them written from scratch!

Tacky said...

What books do you appreciate most in terms of style(s)?

DC said...

That's very difficult to answer - there are so many. Restricting myself to prose style, I think my top three authors would be Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas, and Thomas Hardy. But as soon as I write them down, I can hear other writers clamouring for attention in the wings...

Anonymous said...

Hi. I know this is an old post but I hope you can still add to it. I found your thoughts on 'style' very interesting. I've been thinking a lot about style recently, and am trying to write something about English fictional prose style. I typed in "style" and certain other things and found this blog. I was wondering whether you could help me with a very precise stylistic/grammatical point.

I'm thinking specifically about the style of Thomas Hardy and how it compares with the style of mid/late 20th century novelists such as Graham Greene (who also appears on your blog, I see). The "precise" stylistic/grammatical point I want to raise concerns how Hardy and the others approach certain TEMPORAL CLAUSES. These temporal clauses refer to an action or event that is prospective or under consideration, NOT to an action or event that has actually occured. I'll give an example and then say what I think about the "style" of the Hardy-like version and the more modern version. Hopefully you'll be able to add some valuable insights.

Hardy almost always uses "should" (followed by the infinitive) in the clauses I have in mind. In other words, he writes (and this is not a quote but it is nonetheless typical of Hardy): "The Mayor decided to leave it until he SHOULD have more time." (The having of the time is ANTICIPATED). I am pretty sure that Greene (or, for that matter) most other twentieth century novelists) would have written: "The Mayor decided to do wait until he HAD more time." So whereas Hardy uses the "should + infinitive" construction, the modern writers just plump for the plain old past indicative.

Can we get the grammar question out of the way first? What is the name of the "should" construction that Hardy uses? Is it in the big Quirk book under anticipatory constructions or something like that?

Now for the style point. It seems to me that the 'Hardy' version MAY seem stilted. At very least, it seems to be part of an archaic style. No, maybe "archaic" is too strong a word. But I think you'd agree that the style/sound of it is at least "formal" and (perhaps) redolent of a bygone age.

Suppose Hardy writes: "he decided to do it when he SHOULD HAVE more time," whereas Greene writes: "he decided to do it when he HAD more time." There's a possible ambiguity in the 'Greene example' (not the first to be discussed on your blog it seems!). The Greene sentence could mean that his decision was taken WHEN the person had more time, rather than that the decision was taken to do it at some time in the FUTURE when he had more time. Perhaps Hardy's "archaic" style avoids the ambiguity. But it still seems to me that writers now would avoid the "until he SHOULD/when he SHOULD" construction because it is part of an "older" style. WOuld you agree? What would you say about the grammar and style of these temporal constructions? To be specific, what would you say about:

(a) He decided to do it when he HAD more time
(b) He decided to do it when he SHOULD HAVE more time

Look forward to seeing what you have to say! Sorry this post is so long

DC said...

Anyone interested in grammatical change in the late 19th century should read David Denison's excellent (and very detailed) review of all the variants, found in The Cambridge History of the English Language (CUP, 1998, chapter 3). The should usage you have noticed is certainly a feature of English syntax during that century, not just to express time, but as a general marker of uncertainty, non-factuality, or prospect - a sort of subjunctive usage, really. This is certainly the case with the Hardy example, where the mayor's 'having of time' in the future is an uncertain hope. There are lots of other examples from the period, with different kinds of time reference - one from Austen is 'and I rather wonder that Eleanor should not take it for her own'.

So yes, it is archaic. I'm not sure whether the modern usage increases the risk of ambiguity. The use of should sharpens the time reference, indeed. Whether sentences which don't use should are really ambiguous you can't usually say, just by looking at the one sentence, as the context is likely to clarify things.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I'll definitely get hold of The Cambridge History of THe English Language and read that chapter (and no doubt others as well!).

SO can I take it that you would NOT personally recommend writing (1) instead of (2)? See below

(1) He decided to do it when he SHOULD HAVE more time
(2) He decided to do it when he HAD more time

Is your view that (2) is ok because the surrounding context would resolve the ambiguity I alluded to? And would you say that (1), however correct, sounds stilted?

Sorry to ask again. Just want to be sure I've understood you before I get on with my writing. I saw that Hardy was one of your favourite stylists so I thought that you'd perhaps be rather fond of sentences like (1), which make explicit the fact that the action/event is envisaged and not actual. I went and had a look at the big Quirk in my library today but I couldn't find this idea of anticipation or prospective "should" anywhere, not even in the section on temporal clauses. Wonder if that's because the COmprehensive Grammar focuses on CONTEMPORARY English rather than the English used in, say, the late 19th century (Hardy's era).


DC said...

Yes, older constructions don't figure in the Quirk grammar, though they do refer to archaisms every now and then. I don't think I'd ever use that should have construction - though I have to say that my intuition is so steeped in older English periods now that I wouldn't be surprised if I did! And yes, I would hope that context would resolve any ambiguity. If it didn't, of course, then some rephrasing would be required.

Anonymous said...

just been reading all the new(ish) posts on your blog (that makes me sound very keen, doesn't it?) and thought I could add something that might be of interest to the person who asked about the "should" construction.

I think it's right to say that it sounds old and formal. But it's not true that no modern author uses it. I can actually quote what I think is an instance of it from Ernest Hemingway (whose style is a curious mixture of the formal and informal). In his novel, A Farewell To Arms, he writes:

" I could leave it in charge of my secretary when Bill Gorton and I SHOULD SHOVE OFF to Spain."

I wonder if you (Professor Crystal) could tell us whether this is the same "should" construction that the post above mentions. I think it is. Also, notice the strange mix: on the one hand you have this formal-sounding "anticipatory" temporal construction, and on the other you have the colloquial "shove off"!

DC said...

Without more context it's difficult to say if this is exactly the same. Is it expressing uncertainty, or do they definitely have it in mind to go? Either way, it is an unusual usage today, and there is certainly a stylistic clash with the following verb - whether deliberate or not, I couldn't say.

I haven't said in these exchanges that 'no modern author uses it'. Not sure where you got that one from.

Anonymous said...

misunderstanding I think. When I said it's not true that modern writers don't use "should" in that way, I was just responding to the original "should" post. It seemed to be implied (if not actually stated) in that post that 20th century writers just don't use "should" in that way and since I've actually come across one or two myself (not just in Hemingway), I thought it might be of interest if I pointed it out

Not sure whether the characters are decided on the action, but it does refer to the future and is in that sense anticipatory