Ben Yagoda says the study of style began with the Greeks (as usual), though they might have called it "lexis" or "the way words are arranged," and associated that with oratory rather than with the written text (3).
Yagoda uses the pendulum as a metaphor for the history of style. He traces its beginning to Gorgias, considered the founder of oratory, known for his "elaborate figures of speech and hypnotic cadences." For his emphasis on rhetoric rather than "eloquent wisdom," Gorgias was criticized by Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato. For Gorgias and the other Sophists, "the arrangement of words...can be an agent not only of persuasion but of beauty and expression as well," and that truth in language is not necessarily separate from truth in reality since "neither one [language and reality] can exist without the other." In contrast, Plato makes "a distinction between truth (the ultimate value) and verbal skill (which will tend to obscure truth)." Plato and his followers "[mistrusted] language...because of the irresponsible way it verges from reality" (4).
Aristotle, Plato's student, tried to "mediate between the two positions" by defending "rhetoric as not merely a series of ornaments or tricks but instead as an essential part of argument, investigation, and communication." He advocated a style "emphasizing clarity, transparency, and decorum" (Yagoda 5).
But Cicero, considered "the greatest commentator on rhetoric and style," swung the pendulum back. He "called for a union of res (thought) and verba (words); one cannot speak of expressing the same thought in different words...because in that case the though would be different." Cicero also codified rhetoric by classifying the five (5) faculties of classical rhetoric: invention, arrangement or structure, style, memory, and delivery. He also distinguished three (3) levels of style: high or vigorous ("magnificent, opulent, stately, and ornate"), low or plain (informal diction, conversational), and middle or tempered (a blend of high and low styles) (Yagoda 5-6).
References to style from Gorgias to Cicero revolved around the spoken text, and style referred not just to the speaker's "voice" but also the "delivery or presentation, as it includes body language, facial expression, stance, and other qualities that set speakers apart from one another" (Yagoda 6).
With the production of books during the Middle Ages, style was associated with the individual artistry of scribes. After the invention of the printing press and the emergence of individual authors, and when writing was read silently, style was seen in how "figurative language and rhetorical devices...[were used in] the choice and arrangement of words" (Yagoda 7). By the Renaissance period, the use of figurative language and rhetorical devices lead to what is called "ornate prose," exemplified by John Lyly, from whose Euphues came the word "euphuism" (Yagoda 8).
Post-Renaissance writers (like Francis Bacon, Montaigne, John Locke, Jonathan Swift) bring the pendulum back to Plato's side as they put stock in "simplicity, clarity, and humility as the great values in prose" (Yagoda 8). But by the 19th century, when publication became profitable for authors, the pendulum swings back to the side of Gorgias/Cicero once again, as "style-is-the-man [became] a commonplace"—with William Pater and the Mandarins (like Henry James) as its prime exemplars. Then it moves back to Plato's side by the 20th century, as writers like Samuel Butler asserted that "[a] man's style should be like his dress—it should attract as little attention as possible" (Yagoda 10).
And with the pervasiveness of mass media and new technology, there was less attention to writing well and to style. Some writers, perhaps as a reaction to this trend, "strove to forge a different style and form for each succeeding work, the better to suit its particular artistic needs and their own urge to 'make it new'" (Yagoda 17).
Another trend, brought about by literary criticism becoming an academic discipline, was a more "scientific" study of style. This brought about the popularity of "stylistics" as a branch of linguistic study. But this vogue lost currency as post-structuralism and deconstruction became more fashionable. The prevailing view soon became: "Style is not the man. It is not even the woman. It is, rather, the manifestation or symptom of core trends or truths next to which the personal projects of individual authors are puny and irrelevant" (Yagoda 18).
Such a viewpoint would make our study of style immaterial unless we make a case for it. So we quote Cyril Connolly: "Style...is a relationship between a writer's mastery of form and his intellectual or emotional content" (Yagoda 21). And it is in relation to the mastery of form, precisely because there is a lot of bad writing out there, that we make our point.
Joseph Williams, in his Style: Towards Clarity and Grace, accounts for two main reasons behind the proliferation of bad writing—historical and private. (But before we go to the historical reasons, here's a brief history of the English language as a backgrounder).
Williams points to two main reasons for bad writing resulting from the historical development of the English language: (1) Latinisms and the inkhorn style, and (2) nominalizations. The first came about when borrowed words from Latin and other languages were "Englished" to express ideas in court or in other formal settings. The second is a stylistic trend among literate societies, according to Williams, where verbs are transformed into abstract nouns. Both causes lead to obscure and pompous prose (5-10).
Williams also mentions private causes for bad writing: (1) the use of pretentious language to sound more impressive, (2) grammatical amnesia caused by a memory of an English teacher who drilled students to write "perfect" sentences, and (3) "stylistic aphasia" resulting from a writer starting out in a new field with a different set of stylistic conventions (11-14).
Whatever the cause, historical or private, bad writing is what we shall learn to avoid. But how? ✍
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