So what is prose? What is style? Merriam-Webster's Reader's Handbook (1997) defines prose by its difference from poetry. Prose is marked by its "greater irregularity and variety of rhythm and for its closer correspondence to the patterns of everyday speech." Its similarity to ordinary speech hews to its Latin origins: prosa oratio (straightforward speech).
We readily recognize something as prose because it is usually written in paragraph form as compared to the lines of verse in poetry (see examples from Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson below):
Aside from its form, we notice the irregular and varied rhythm in the paragraph as compared to the meter and rhyme in the verses above.
So if we talk about style as something distinct, we would point to Dickinson's poem rather than to the "straightforward speech" of the paragraph from Hemingway.
But it is prose style that we will study here. Ben Yagoda presents at least three ways of looking at prose style in his book The Sound on the Page:
While the first definition points to the basic rules in writing we learned since grade school, the second implies a more deliberate approach to composing our ideas on the page. But more than the conscious effort in writing, the second definition also suggest the appropriateness of choices made in composing written messages. This is what we'll try to master: how to make the right choices in writing copy for different genres, for different purposes, and for a variety of readers.
But why do we need to study prose styles? Why not just learn how to write?
Because understanding different prose styles will show us what the writer means through what, and HOW, it is said. It will help us imagine what the writer had in mind through how a piece is written. And because it will help us construct effective and appropriate texts ourselves.
And just like what Joseph Williams says in his "Preface" to Style, we'll focus our study of prose styles in business and corporate communication and in writing for media.
We'll also consider the four ways Yagoda mentions in studying prose styles. We'll practice tactical rules in good writing. We'll learn practical guides to achieving a particular style (depending on subject matter, purpose, audience, and genre). We'll also learn how to tone down generic characteristics of voice when content or message is more important. But we'll also learn proprietary principles when voice is just as important as the message.
And speaking of voice, Yagoda's third definition provides several metaphors. Answering a phone call, we recognize the person calling through his/her voice － the manner of talking, the choice of words, the tone used. Voice is also likened to one's fingerprints; it is something you are born with or into. But Yagoda favors the analogy of handwriting because it implies the individual's personality manifested in how one scribbles sentences on the page.
So we'll learn how to master our voices, make magic with our scribbling, and try out different handwriting styles. Let's see how we'll fare, this early in the term:
Classroom Exercise 1:
Classroom Exercise 2:
Joseph Williams, in his Style: Towards Clarity and Grace, accounts for two main reasons behind the proliferation of bad writing—historical and private.
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).
[We'll learn more about how the English language developed, and how its development led to this historical reason for bad writing. But that's your homework for next meeting.]
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?
That's what we'll learn throughout this term: to write in a plain, simple, orderly, sincere, and transparent manner. Just like what Strunk and White as well as Zinsser prescribe. But we'll also try to learn how to construct sentences that are as "artful" (as Stanley Fish would say in his How To Write a Sentence) as they are appropriate and effective.
But first, we need to understand how prose got to be this way. Let's read up on the history of prose styles. ✍
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