Our reading assignment for next week's session include the following:
You need to read the first two items above for the online quiz that follows. You will need to read the third item in the reading list for the in-class activity.
Please answer the questions in the online quiz below:
Stanley Fish, in the first four chapters of his How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (2011), points out that sentences are the building blocks of writing. He quotes Anthony Burgess's Enderby Outside:
...the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.
He continues by citing some memorable sentences from several sources: interviews of celebrities, a line from a character in a movie, a student essay, and so on. He says that these building blocks, these sentences:
promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world. That is what language does: organize the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated. If you can write a sentence in which actors, actions, and objects are related to one another in time, space, mood, desires, fears, causes, and effects, and if your specification of those relationships is delineated with a precision that communicates itself to your intended reader, you can, by extrapolation and expansion, write anything: a paragraph, an argument, an essay, a treatise, a novel.
Fish makes writing sentences sound easy. He tells us to remember two things:
The structure of logical relationships Fish refers to are the "structures of logic and rhetoric within which and by means of which meanings...are generated."
As Ben Yagoda asserts, in Chapter 2 of The Sound on the Page, the meaning of a sentence we want our readers to comprehend should be what we intentionally had in mind when crafting it. He harks back to Cicero's classification of styles, and states his preference for the middle or transparent style. He quotes Richard Lanham's definition of the middle style:
The middle style is the style you do not notice, the style that does not show, ideal transparency.... The "middleness" of the middle style will lie...in the expectedness of the style.
Most style manuals like Strunk and White's also favor the middle style, but do applaud the writer who displays an aptitude in using the grand/high style in the right way (that is, for the right subject matter and the desired effect). That's why it's important to keep Cicero's classification (see table below) in mind when writing.
And, of course, the best way to achieve the right style when writing sentences is by writing and reading texts in the various styles. As Steven Pinker says, in Chapter 1 of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century:
...[the] starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.
And that's what he does for the rest of that chapter: he reverse-engineers (finding out how good prose is achieved) several chosen passages. Let's try that out, and then some. ✍
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" (click the link for an example of his prose). For his emphasis on rhetoric rather than "eloquent wisdom," Gorgias was criticized by Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato (click link here). 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. ✍
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