Stylistics is the study of varieties of language whose properties position that language in context. For example, the language of advertising, politics, religion, individual authors, etc., or the language of a period in time, all are used distinctively and belong in a particular situation. In other words, they all have ‘place’ or are said to use a particular 'style'.
Stylistics also attempts to establish principles capable of explaining the particular choices made by individuals and social groups in their use of language, such as socialisation, the production and reception of meaning, critical discourse analysis and literary criticism.
Other features of stylistics include the use of dialogue, including regional accents and people’s dialects, descriptive language, the use of grammar, such as the active voice or passive voice, the distribution of sentence lengths, the use of particular language registers, etc.
Many linguists do not like the term ‘stylistics’. The word ‘style’, itself, has several connotations that make it difficult for the term to be defined accurately. However, in Linguistic Criticism, Roger Fowler makes the point that, in non-theoretical usage, the word stylistics makes sense and is useful in referring to an enormous range of literary contexts, such as John Milton’s ‘grand style’, the ‘prose style’ of Henry James, the ‘epic’ and ‘ballad style’ of classical Greek literature, etc. (Fowler. 1996, 185). In addition, stylistics is a distinctive term that may be used to determine the connections between the form and effects within a particular variety of language. Therefore, stylistics looks at what is ‘going on’ within the language; what the linguistic associations are that the style of language reveals.
The situation in which a type of language is found can usually be seen as appropriate or inappropriate to the style of language used. A personal love letter would probably not be a suitable location for the language of this article. However, within the language of a romantic correspondence there may be a relationship between the letter’s style and its context. It may be the author’s intention to include a particular word, phrase or sentence that not only conveys their sentiments of affection, but also reflects the unique environment of a lover’s romantic composition. Even so, by using so-called conventional and seemingly appropriate language within a specific context (apparently fitting words that correspond to the situation in which they appear) there exists the possibility that this language may lack exact meaning and fail to accurately convey the intended message from author to reader, thereby rendering such language obsolete precisely because of its conventionality. In addition, any writer wishing to convey their opinion in a variety of language that they feel is proper to its context could find themselves unwittingly conforming to a particular style, which then overshadows the content of their writing.
In linguistic analysis, different styles of language are technically called register. Register refers to properties within a language variety that associate that language with a given situation. This is distinct from, say, professional terminology that might only be found, for example, in a legal document or medical journal. The linguist Michael Halliday defines register by emphasising its semantic patterns and context. For Halliday, register is determined by what is taking place, who is taking part and what part the language is playing. (Halliday. 1978, 23) In Context and Language, Helen Leckie-Tarry suggests that Halliday’s theory of register aims to propose relationships between language function, determined by situational or social factors, and language form. (Leckie-Tarry. 1995, 6) The linguist William Downes makes the point that the principal characteristic of register, no matter how peculiar or diverse, is that it is obvious and immediately recognisable. (Downes. 1998, 309)
Halliday places great emphasis on the social context of register and distinguishes register from dialect, which is a variety according to user, in the sense that each speaker uses one variety and uses it all the time, and not, as is register, a variety according to use, in the sense that each speaker has a range of varieties and chooses between them at different times. (Halliday. 1964, 77) For example, Cockney is a dialect of English that relates to a particular region of the United Kingdom, however, Cockney rhyming slang bears a relationship between its variety and the situation in which it appears, i.e. the ironic definitions of the parlance within the distinctive tones of the East-End London patois. Subsequently, register is associated with language situation and not geographic location.
Field, tenor and mode
Halliday classifies the semiotic structure of situation as ‘field’, ‘tenor’ and ‘mode’, which, he suggests, tends to determine the selection of options in a corresponding component of the semantics. (Halliday. 1964, 56). The linguist David Crystal points out that Halliday’s ‘tenor’ stands as a roughly equivalent term for ‘style’, which is a more specific alternative used by linguists to avoid ambiguity. (Crystal. 1985, 292)
For an example on which to comment, here is a familiar sentence:
For Halliday, the field is the activity associated with the language used, in this case a religious oath tailored to the environment of a legal proceeding. Fowler comments that different fields produce different language, most obviously at the level of vocabulary (Fowler. 1996, 192) The words ‘swear’ and ‘almighty’ are used instead of perhaps ‘pledge’ or ‘supreme’. In addition, there is the repetition of the word ‘truth’, which evidently triples and thereby emphasises the seriousness of the vow taken. (Incidentally, this linguistic technique is often employed in the language of politics, as it was for example in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memorable ‘Education, Education, Education’ speech to the Labour Party Conference in 2000.) The tenor of this sentence would refer to the specific role of the participants between whom the statement is made, in this case the person in the witness box proclaiming their intention to be honest before the court and those in attendance, but most importantly God. Fowler also comments that within the category of tenor there is a power relationship, which is determined by the tenor and the intention of the speaker to persuade, inform, etc. (Fowler. 1996, 192) In this case, the tenor is an affirmation to speak the truth before the court by recognising the court’s legal supremacy and at the risk of retribution for not doing so from this secular court and a spiritual higher authority. This, of course, is not directly stated within the sentence but only implied.
Halliday’s third category, mode, is what he refers to as the symbolic organisation of the situation. Downes recognises two distinct aspects within the category of mode and suggests that not only does it describe the relation to the medium: written, spoken, and so on, but also describes the genre of the text. (Downes. 1998, 316) Halliday refers to genre as pre-coded language, language that has not simply been used before, but that predetermines the selection of textural meanings. For instance, in the sentence above the phrase ‘the evidence I shall give’ is preferable to the possible alternatives ‘the testimony I will offer’ or even ‘the facts that I am going to talk about.’
As well as recognising different registers of language that appear to be suitable for a particular situation, stylistics also examines language that is specifically modified for its setting, an example being the alteration in tenor from informal to formal, or vice versa.
Consider the quotation below:
This language only belongs in a UK policeman’s notebook and may be read out in a court of law. The sentence is not only formal but highly conventional for the location in which it is found. In addition, it is also extremely ambiguous (a common feature of so-called conventional language). Why ‘accosted’, for example, and not ‘arrested,’ ‘collared,’ ‘nabbed,’ ‘nicked’ or even ‘pinched’? Any of these words would express more accurately what occurred in language more suitable for the typical British ‘bobby,’ rather than the pre-scripted text that is simply being recited parrot fashion.
In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Crystal observes that, in practice, most stylistic analysis has attempted to deal with the complex and ‘valued’ language within literature, i.e. ‘literary stylistics’. He goes on to say that in such examination the scope is sometimes narrowed to concentrate on the more striking features of literary language, for instance, its ‘deviant’ and abnormal features, rather than the broader structures that are found in whole texts or discourses. For example, the compact language of poetry is more likely to reveal the secrets of its construction to the stylistician than is the language of plays and novels. (Crystal. 1987, 71).
Rhymes vs. Poetry
As well as conventional styles of language there are the unconventional – the most obvious of which is poetry. In Practical Stylistics, HG Widdowson examines the traditional form of the epitaph, as found on headstones in a cemetery. For example:
Widdowson makes the point that such sentiments are usually not very interesting and suggests that they may even be dismissed as ‘crude verbal carvings’ (Widdowson, 3), as does the English poet Thomas Gray in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751), who refers to them as ‘uncouth rhymes’. Nevertheless, Widdowson recognises that they are a very real attempt to convey feelings of human loss and preserve affectionate recollections of a beloved friend or family member. However, what may be seen as poetic in this language is not so much in the formulaic phraseology but in where it appears. The verse may be given undue reverence precisely because of the sombre situation in which it is placed. Widdowson suggests that, unlike words set in stone in a graveyard, poetry is unorthodox language that vibrates with inter-textual implications. (Widdowson. 1992, 4)
This is by Ogden Nash:
Nash is satirising the form. The epitaph is humorous, but it is perhaps more funny because of the incongruous relation the humorous language bears to the solemn location in which it is found.
Below is a standard rhyme that might be found inside a conventional Valentine’s card:
We might ask why roses for the characteristic example of ‘redness’ instead of perhaps a British pillar box, which is considerably redder than the petals of any rose? Or, indeed, why violets as the archetypical illustration of ‘blueness’ and not, say, the distinctive cobalt hue of the shirt worn by the tragic 1978 Scottish World Cup squad in Argentina? Maybe because roses and violets are traditional tokens of romance, and their association with particular colours (as not all roses are red, nor all violets blue) reinforces the imagery: the red of a lover’s lips, the blue of their eyes, or the sea, or the sky, etc. – all very romantic stuff. The conventional symbolism of the verse is certainly appropriate for the setting of a Valentine’s card, but is this poetry?
As with the eagle, Tennyson leaves the reader balancing precariously on the end of the first verse with the single word ‘stands’. Again, however, why ‘like a thunderbolt’ for an appropriate simile for the description of the eagle’s descent and not, for example, ‘a brick’, or ‘a stone’, or ‘a sack of potatoes’? Perhaps the answer lies in the word’s syllabic (or syllable) structure: ‘thun-der-bolt’.
Given the compact yet detailed nature of the poetic form, the poet will try to choose the precise word for the exact context. For example, the use of alliteration in the first line, ‘clasps … crag … crooked’, is preferable to the alternatives ‘grabs … rock … twisted’.
Verbs in particular perhaps cause the greatest headache for the poet in their choice of words. In the short piece above there are five: ‘clasps … stands … crawls … watches … falls’. The simplicity of the poem is matched by the lack of ambiguity in the definition of these verbs. However, definitions can also dictate the position of particular words, and definitions can be easily misinterpreted. For example, the adjective ‘bold’ does not mean ‘brave’. The word ‘arrogant’ is not the same as ‘conceited’. ‘Timid’ means easily frightened; apprehensive, while ‘shy’ is defined in The Concise Oxford Dictionary as diffident or uneasy in company. Lastly, there is considerable difference between the words ‘ignorant’ and ‘innocent’, and, similarly, between ‘reckless’ and ‘foolish’.
In ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ in Style in Language, Roman Jakobson explores the concept the ‘emotive’ or ‘expressive’ function of the language, a direct expression of the speaker’s attitude toward what they are speaking about, which tends to produce an impression of a certain emotion. (Jakobson. 1960, 354) The distinction here can be made between the spoken word and writing, spoken language having a possibly greater emotive function by emphasising aspects of the language in its pronunciation. For example, in English stressed or unstressed words can produce a variety of meanings. Consider the sentence ‘I never promised you a rose garden’ (the title of the autobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg, which was written under the pen name of Hannah Green. 1964). This has a multitude of connotations depending on how the line is spoken. For example:
And there are many more besides these.
In ‘Poetic Effects’ from Literary Pragmatics, the linguist Adrian Pilkington analyses the idea of ‘implicature’, as instigated in the previous work of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. Implicature may be divided into two categories: ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ implicature, yet between the two extremes there are a variety of other alternatives. The strongest implicature is what is emphatically implied by the speaker or writer, while weaker implicatures are the wider possibilities of meaning that the hearer or reader may conclude.
Pilkington’s ‘poetic effects’, as he terms the concept, are those that achieve most relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures and not those meanings that are simply ‘read in’ by the hearer or reader. Yet the distinguishing instant at which weak implicatures and the hearer or reader’s conjecture of meaning diverge remains highly subjective. As Pilkington says: ‘there is no clear cut-off point between assumptions which the speaker certainly endorses and assumptions derived purely on the hearer’s responsibility.’ (Pilkington. 1991, 53) In addition, the stylistic qualities of poetry can be seen as an accompaniment to Pilkington’s poetic effects in understanding a poem's meaning. For example, the first verse of Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘The Mower’s Song’ (1611) runs:
The strong implicature that is immediately apparent is that Marvell is creating a pastiche (distinct from parody) of the pastoral form: the narrator being the destructive figure of Demon the Mower and not the protective character of the traditional pastoral shepherd. The poem is also highly symbolic. In literary criticism grass is symbolic of flesh, while the mower’s scythe with which he works represents human mortality (other examples being Old Father Time and the Grim Reaper). Even the text on the page can be seen as a visual representation of the Mower’s agricultural equipment: the main body of each verse is suggestive of the wooden shaft of the scythe and the last flowing line of each verse the blade. (This visual similarity of text on the page and the poem’s subject is known as concrete poetry.) However, it is the concluding phrase, repeated in every stanza, that is most stylistically effective. This long sweeping line that extends beyond the margins of each verse does not simply recall the action of the scythe through the grass, but occurs at the exact moment of every pass and further illuminates the mower’s physical and emotional disquiet. These conceits do not appear by accident and are precisely intended by the poet to enhance to the poetic effects of the verse.
Here is another example from William Shakespeare’s ‘71’, Sonnets (1609):
On the face of things the poet appears to be saying: ‘When I have died, do not grieve for me.’ A full stop at the end of the first line, and nothing further, would certainly be enough to convey and satisfactory conclude the principal sentiment. Yet there is not a full stop. Indeed, there is no full stop until the end of line eight!
Looking at these first four lines, the first is a full sentence but ends with a comma. The first and second lines taken together are not a complete sentence and encourage the reader to continue onto the third line, which, taken with the first and second lines, is still not a complete sentence. The fourth line concludes the sentence but ends with a colon, again persuading the reader on to the fifth line, which begins with an abrupt exclamation, reinforcing the opening statement, and continuing to hold the reader’s attention:
Here, it appears that Shakespeare is simply paraphrasing the first three lines with the additional fourth line showing concern for the reader’s emotions should they spend too much time reminiscing over the dead poet. The contradiction is puzzling. Why should the poet repeat what is apparently being explicitly asked of the reader not to do? And, again, the final four lines emphasise the point, once more beginning with the seemingly by now obligatory exclamation:
Furthermore, the poet asks the reader to not even repeat the ‘name’ of ‘the hand that writ it’, while the ending is tinged with more than a degree of false modesty within the realm of the unsentimental ‘wise world’. What on the surface appears to be one contention turns out to be quite the opposite. Shakespeare, far from telling to reader to forget him following his demise, is actually saying: ‘Remember me! Remember me! Remember me!’ And he does this through deceptively unconventional language that progresses and grows continuously into the traditional sonnet form.
Although language may appear fitting to its context, the stylistic qualities of poetry also reveal themselves in many grammatical disguises. Widdowson points out that in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798), the mystery of the Mariner’s abrupt appearance is sustained by an idiosyncratic use of tense. (Widdowson. 1992, 40) For instance, in the opening lines Coleridge does not say: ‘There was ancient Mariner’ or ‘There arrived an ancient Mariner’, but instead not only does he immediately place the reader at the wedding feast, Coleridge similarly throws the Mariner abruptly into the middle of the situation:
Coleridge’s play with tense continues in stanzas four to six, as he swaps wildly from past to present and back again.
The Mariner ‘holds’ the wedding-guest with his ‘skinny hand’ in the present tense, but releases it in the past tense; only to hold him again, this time with his ‘glittering eye’, in the present. (Widdowson. 1992, 41) And so on, back and forth like a temporal tennis ball but all adding to the enigma. The suggestion could be made that Coleridge was simply careless with the composition and selected these verb forms at random. However, the fact is that they are there in the text of the poem, and, as Coleridge himself would recognise, everything in a poetic text carries an implication of relevance. (Widdowson. 1992, 41)
Another aspect of stylistics, as in the poem ‘I Saw a Peacock’, is when the meaning only becomes clear when the context is revealed.
If we read the poem like this, it almost makes sense - but not quite. The reason is, perhaps, because we as readers are conditioned to reading poetry in a specific way, conventionally – line by line. By altering the phrases in each line, the descriptions are made coherent.
The anonymous narrator, sitting drinking by a fire and gazing at his mirror image in the ‘Venice glass’, is commenting on the reflected images that he sees in language that is similarly inverted.
There are, however, two important points worth mentioning with regard to the stylistician’s approach to interpreting poetry, and they are both noted by PM Wetherill in Literary Text: An Examination of Critical Methods. The first is that there may be an over-preoccupation with one particular feature that may well minimise the significance of others that are equally important. (Wetherill. 1974, 133) The second is that any attempt to see a text as simply a collection of stylistic elements will tend to ignore other ways whereby meaning is produced. (Wetherill. 1974, 133) Nevertheless, meaning in poetry is conveyed through a multitude of language alternatives that manifest themselves as printed words on the page, style being one such feature. Subsequently, the stylistic elements of poetry can be seen as important in the interpretation of unconventional language that is beyond what is expected and customary. Poetry can be both sublime and even ridiculous yet still transcend established social values. Poetry is an original and unique method of communication that we use to express our thoughts, feelings and experiences.
Orwell and Swift on writing methods
In ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), George Orwell writes against the use of ‘conventional’ language as, in doing so, there is the danger that the traditional ‘style’ of language that is seemingly appropriate to a specific context will eventually overpower its precise meaning. In other words, the stylistic qualities of language will degenerate the meaning through the overuse of jargon and familiar, hackneyed and/or cliched words and phrases. Orwell condemns the use of metaphors such as ‘toe the line; ride roughshod over; no axe to grind’. He suggests that these phrases are often used without thought of their literal meaning. Orwell hits out at pretentious diction and the use of Latin phrases like ‘deus ex machina’ and even ‘status quo’. He also argues against unnecessary clauses, such as ‘have the effect of; play a leading part in; give grounds for’. These are all familiar phrases, but are they really useful in any context? Orwell says that one reason we use this kind of language is because it is easy. He writes:
Furthermore, Orwell says:
In Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the English language is distilled and sanitised and then imposed upon a population who, out of terror, actively conform to the process. The language is dehumanising as it does not allow for any form of communication other than that permitted by the state. Similarly, in the appendix to the novel, ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, more subversive linguistic gymnastics are in evidence:
On the language of George Orwell, Fowler says that the rapidity and fluency are made possible by the fact that the speaker is simply uttering strings of orthodox jargon and is in no sense choosing the words in relation to intended meanings or to some state of affairs in the world. (Fowler. 1995, 212)
Today we have word processor programs that will effortlessly write a letter for any occasion. Stock phrases and paragraphs can be cut and pasted at random to appear coherent. An extreme example of this practice is found in Jonathan Swift’s satiric novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726). When Lemuel Gulliver arrives at the Grand Academy of Lagado he enters the school of writing, where a professor has devised an enormous ‘frame’ that contains every word in the language. The machine is put into motion and the words are jumbled up, and when three or four words are arranged into a recognisable phrase they are written down. The phrases are then collated into sentences, the sentences into paragraphs, the paragraphs into pages and the pages into books, which, the professor hopes, will eventually ‘give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences’. (Swift. 1994, 105)
This method of writing is not only absurd but produces nothing original. It also relies on both the writer and the reader interpreting what is created in exactly the same way. And it is highly political as the writer and the reader are indoctrinated into using a particular form of language and conditioned towards its function and understanding. As Orwell says: ‘A speaker who uses this kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine.’ (Orwell. 1964, 152)
The point of poetry
Widdowson notices that when the content of poetry is summarised
it often refers to very general and unimpressive observations,
such as ‘nature is beautiful; love is great; life is lonely;
time passes’, and so on. (Widdowson. 1992, 9) But to say:
This language gives us a new perspective on familiar themes and allows us to look at them without the personal or social conditioning that we unconsciously associate with them. (Widdowson. 1992, 9) So, although we may still use the same exhausted words and vague terms like ‘love’, ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ to refer to human experience, to place these words in a new and refreshing context allows the poet the ability to represent humanity and communicate honestly. This, in part, is stylistics, and this, according to Widdowson, is the point of poetry (Widdowson. 1992, 76).
References and related reading
Published - November 2008
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