If anyone thinks that what we call “good English” comes solely through the rigid and “correct” use of age-old rules of language, he or she need only consider the many differences in style among our most respected writers. To recognize these differences in style is to recognize that English is something more than a bag of rules, that there is considerable flexibility even in “correct” English, and that it is this flexibility of style that has enabled the growth and development and continued relevance of our language.
Keeping such flexibility in mind, it is not surprising that even within certain style categories, from academic to journalistic to pop, from the AP style book or the AAP or the Chicago Manual of Style, in researching the subject of “style” you find no exact ruling as to just what style is or even what it should be. None, anyway, in that larger sense of style the way you know that you always capitalize the first word in a sentence or always put a period after the last one. What you find is that there are almost as many definitions of style as there are people describing style.
Such a multitude of definitions seems to lend credibility to the famous claim of the French naturalist, Buffon, that “style is man himself.” Professor Richard D. Mallery [author of Grammar, Rhetoric and Composition, (New York: Barnes and Noble), p. 283], (elaborating on Buffon’s claim that “the personal aspect of style is indispensable,” emphasizes that “style is the man.”
Even so, style, or at least successful style, is not so unique as to exclude any general feeling for the meaning of it. Mallery points to fairly standard agreement, for example, that style is not mere ornament alone: not “figures of speech, affected and high flown language, and cheap novelties of expression.”
It seems safe to presume that a pleasing style is to be found most often among writers with a good command of the language, based on an understanding of standard rules and techniques of grammar, rhetoric and composition.
”The secret of style,” Mallery notes, “is the secret of all creative art: the ability to select details, to arrange them, and to present them artistically. Ornament there will be, but ornament that grows naturally out of structure.” Structure, he adds, is not static, and thus the growth of our modern prose style “is the final development of centuries of care and attention to our problems of writing.” With this in mind, a brief survey of general style changes through historical periods is instructive.
Among the early English of the ninth century, prose, in contrast to a greater appreciation of poetry, was held to be useful but of little aesthetic value. By the fourteenth and fifteen centuries, gaining momentum after Chaucer, English re-emerged as a language of importance; particularly prose such as that of Sir Thomas Malory’s unified history of King Arthur and his knights. With Malory’s “genius of style,” we see a transition from rambling verse to “rhythmical prose characterized by simplicity and genuineness.”
During the Elizabethan period, John Lyly added a dimension of wit and “applied to prose some techniques usually associated only with poetry: balanced structure, antithesis, and alliteration.” Of particular significance was the ornate and rhythmical prose of the King James Bible in 1611.
The rhythmical style continued on and persisted in the Puritan Age. This included the stylish wit of John Donne, the logical syntax of Francis Bacon, and as though perhaps from another, more modern age, the rambling early stream of consciousness writing of Sir Thomas Browne.
In contrast to the early seventeenth century ornateness, the “plain” style emerged with Dryden in the Augustan age, followed by Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift, who gave us Gulliver’s Travels. Sometimes the style is particularly suited to a subject as well as to an age. Professor Mallery notes, for example, that Swift, following the tradition of the plain style, gains power as a satirist “from his ability to persuade his readers that he is telling the simple truth when he is at his most extravagant.”
As with a style to more streamlined architecture today, we follow an extension of the plain style to Ernest Hemingway, whose influence on literary style through our own time has been enormous.
Certain influences of style, the influences of a period of time, may be almost unavoidable, suggestive, for example, of the way we pick up an accent of speech by living in a particular area. Other aspects of style, particularly successful writing style, may have, if not exactly “rules,” then a timeless quality as though they were necessary attributes of all good writing.
As Mallery and others have noted, these attributes of a fine writing style tend to include sincerity and originality, the capacity for revision, a sense of unity, coherence and emphasis, an appreciation of syntax and structure, a love of good diction and the most suitable word, a preference for the concrete description over the vague one, a feeling for prose that is natural and lively and the avoidance of what is superfluous, confusing, erroneous and obscure.
By Ron Kenner — Writing In Styles