Exploring the split personality of a literary term
Style may not seem like such a sticky word, but ask writers and editors to define it, and you’ll find yourself in the mire. Some will tell you that style dictates whether you should use O.K. or okay, D.J. or deejay, an apostrophe before or after the s. Others will insist that style refers to sentences that swing, or paragraphs that unfurl with panache.
Look up style in a dictionary, and you may actually find the word panache—as well as synonyms like fashionable elegance, grace, and ease of manner. But the dictionary echoes the paradox mentioned above, too: among the definitions of style are “a distinctive manner of expression” and “conventions, used in writing or printing, that dictate spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and typographic arrangement and display.”
That second definition is owned by denizens of the Associated Press, the University of Chicago, and the Modern Language Association, who have laid down conventions in, respectively, the AP Style Guide, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the MLA Handbook. This reference-book troika has shored up copy editors for generations. Then there are the Young Turks, with the impertinence to publish their own style guides, whether the editors of Wired in the 1990s (of whom I was one) or the staff at Yahoo!, who just published The Yahoo! Style Guide: Writing, Editing and Creating Content for the Digital World. Many of these style guides pretend to be about panache when they are really more about prissy rules. They trade on the split personality of the word style.
I blame Strunk and White for the confusion. Their ever-popular Elements of Style smashes the two unlike ideas together. To E. B. White and his co-author William Strunk, style referred to “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” Their slim book, first published in 1957 and revised since, offers eleven “elementary rules of usage,” as well as lists of expressions “commonly misused” and words “often misspelled.”
Usage, though, is different from style; it refers to the way words and phrases are actually used in a community sharing a common language. (For example, those in the know don’t confuse irritate and aggravate; they use the former for something that vexes, annoys, or inflames and the latter for something that makes matters worse. For more on the difference between style and usage, see my list of style guides and usage manuals.)
To their lists of spelling and usage bugaboos, Strunk and White added “a few matters of form,” eleven “elementary principles of composition,” and a twenty-one-item “approach to style.” And there’s the rub—ideas about writing style (“write in a way that comes naturally”) are spliced in with ideas about spelling and usage (“use orthodox spelling”). The priss and the panache, mashed together.
Let’s disentangle these disparate ideas, since most of us who are writers care more about “distinctive manner of expression” than we do about conventions of spelling and usage. We are curious about—and may even want to emulate—the literary style exemplified by such masters as Ernest Hemingway and James Salter, Joan Didion and Junot Diaz, George Orwell and Susan Orlean. So what are the elements of literary style?
Language. First come the surprising, precise, evocative words a writer chooses. Look how Hemingway described the Gulf Stream, in Green Hills of Africa: “a flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset.” Now check out Orlean on orchids: “There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies’ handbags, swarms of bees, clamshells, camels’ hooves, squirrels, nuns wearing wimples, and drunken old men.”
Literary devices. Next, there is the use of literary devices—imagery, metaphor, allusion, alliteration, onomatopoeia. James Salter used “the silence of a folded flag” to describe the quiet of an afternoon in provincial France. Martin Luther King, Jr., imagined his children being judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Barak Obama alluded to the struggles of farmworkers in pledging “Yes, we can.”
Musical sentences. Next comes the exquisite control of sentences, using clean syntax (all the parts in the right places) and rhythm (musical beats, incantation) to evoke a feeling for the subject at hand. Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is an example of musical syntax. Sojourner Truth’s “and ain’t I a woman?” punctuates her speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio; repetition can be quite musical.
Tone. Control over tone, the writer’s mood or attitude toward the subject is another element. Tone might be ornate or plain, high-brow or breezy, lofty or punchy, scientific or comic, lyric or ironic. Tone might be the essence of a humorous piece (take a look at “Buzzed”) or of a deeply serious essay (see the opening section of Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album”).
Voice. Voice is to writing what timbre is to speaking: it is what clues us in to the identity of the writer, even if we don’t have a byline telling us whose words we’re reading. Voice is close to style—it, too, reflects a combination of diction, sentence patterns, and tone. Voice is the particular way novelist Junot Diaz combines Dominican slang and the vocabulary of postmodernism. Voice is that quality that makes you suspect a New York Times story is written by Marc Leibovich even when you missed the byline. (One of my favorite Leibovich articles described President George Bush the morning after the 2006 primary: “He looked worn at his must-see midday news conference, in need of a haircut, good-night’s sleep, better makeup job, hug, vacation in Crawford or some combination thereof. The grooves across his forehead were dark and articulated, his voice slightly hoarse. He wore a maroon tie, the color of blood.”)
In my mind, a stylish writer has a command of language, literary devices, supple sentences, and tone—as well as a distinctive voice. But literary style is more than the sum of these parts: it is writing in which the sentences in some way echo or underscore or complement the subject at hand.
A great example of literary style would be the following passage in All the Pretty Horses, when Cormac McCarthy describes his characters leaving the ranch in Texas and setting off on an adventure to Mexico:
They rode out along the fence line and across the open pastureland. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The lights fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.
An editor could flag several things style manuals would frown upon here, but in doing so might miss exactly what gives the passage its power. Notice how the rhythm of the sentences echoes the gait of the horses—starting out short and staccato as the horses pick their way through corrals, gathering steam as they canter across a pasture, and then taking off into an out-of-control gallop as they head out under the night sky.
Journalist Po Bronson took poetic license in a Wired profile of conservative intellectual and techno-utopian George Gilder. Bronson used style to humorous effect, conveying the essence of Gilder’s technophilia through this mock dialogue:
Every time Gilder meets an engineer, they go through this sort of cascade of language syntax, negotiating like two modems, trying to find the most efficient level of conversation they can hold. It ends up sounding like the dueling banjo scene from Deliverance:
George: “Hi, nice to meet you. Hey, that’s a sweet access router over there. Wow, both Ethernet and asynchronous ports?”
Steve: “Yeah, check this baby out – the Ethernet port has AUI, BNC, and RJ-45 connectors.”
George: “So for packet filtering you went with TCP, UDP, and ICMP.”
Steve: “Of course. To support dial-up SLIP and PPP.”
George: “Set user User_Name ifilter Filter _Name.”
Steve: “Set filter s1.out 8 permit 18.104.22.168/32 0.0.0.0/0 tcp src eq 20.”
George: “00101101100010111001001 110110000101010100011111001.”
Steve: “. .. . .. . .. … … . ….. .. .. …. .. .. . .. . .. … … . ….. ..”
George: “Really? Wait, you lost me there.”
Bronson combines word choice (those tech terms), sentence rhythm (if you call those sentences) and tone (not exactly serious), and all his choices combine to say something about Gilder and his world.
Literary style can tickle the funny bone, but it can also raise goosebumps. It was style that made Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons (after the defeat at Dunkirk in 1940) so stirring:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
The British prime minister combined strong words, straight syntax, and strong rhythms to buck up his country and tap into national strength.
Style can also be deceptively simple. Think of the stories that lulled us to sleep as children: they combined all the elements above and gave us enough calm to close our eyes and drift off to sleep. Margaret Wise Brown uses simple words, repetition, rhyme, and rhythm in her classic bedtime book, Goodnight Moon:
Goodnight moon. Good night cow jumping over the moon. Goodnight light. And the red balloon…. Goodnight comb. And goodnight brush. Goodnight nobody. Goodnight mush…. Goodnight stars. Goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere.
Style in itself is not the end—meaning is, whether it’s a call to courage or a an evocation of the peace that ends each day.