Stylistics (linguistics)

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.
Main article: Register (linguistics)
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:
I swear by almighty God that the evidence I will give shall be the truth, the
whole truth and nothing but the truth.
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
Consider the quotation below:
‘I was proceeding on my beat when I accosted the suspect whom I had reason
to believe might wish to come down to the station and help with enquiries in
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.
Literary Stylistics
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:
His memory is dear today
As in the hour he passed away.
(Ernest C. Draper ‘Ern’. Died 4.1.38)
(Widdowson. 1992, 6)
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:
Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads,
And not the road.
‘Lather As You Go’, Collected Verse (1952)
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
Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.
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?
Here is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ (a fragment):
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Poems, (1851)
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 …
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:
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
Or even:
I never promised you a rose garden
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:
My mind was once the true survey
Of all these meadows fresh and gay,
And in the greenness of the grass
Did see its thoughts as in a glass
When Juliana came, and she,
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.
Miscellaneous Poems (1681)
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):
No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
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
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
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:
Oh, if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
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:
It is an ancient Mariner
And he stoppeth one of three.
- ‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am the next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st h e a r the merry din.’
Coleridge’s play with tense continues in stanzas four to six, as he swaps wildly from
past to present and back again.
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hands dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye The Wedding-guests stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
Lyrical Ballads (1798)
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.
I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud with ivy circled round
I saw a sturdy oak creep on the ground
I saw a *pismire swallow up a whale *[ant]
I saw a raging sea brim full of ale
I saw a Venice glass sixteen foot deep
I saw a well full of men’s tears that weep
I saw their eyes all in a flame of fire
I saw a house as big as the moon and higher
I saw the sun even in the midst of night
I saw the man who saw this wondrous sight
‘A Person of Quality’, Westminster Drollery (1671)
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.
I saw a peacock
with a fiery tail I saw a blazing comet
drop down hail I saw a cloud
with ivy circled round I saw a sturdy oak
creep on the ground I saw a pismire
swallow up a whale I saw a raging sea
brim full of ale I saw a Venice glass
sixteen foot deep I saw a well
full of men’s tears that weep I saw their eyes
all in a flame of fire I saw a house
as big as the moon and higher I saw the sun
even in the midst of night
I saw the man who saw this wondrous sight
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
clichéd 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:
It is easier - even quicker, once you have the habit - to say In my opinion it is a
not unjustifiable assumption that ... than to say I think. (Orwell. 1964, 150)
Furthermore, Orwell says:
It [modern language] consists in gumming together long strips of words which
have already been set in order by someone else, and making the result
presentable by sheer humbug. (Orwell. 1964, 150)
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
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for
the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to
make all other modes of thought impossible. (Orwell. 1949, 305)
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:
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end ...
William Shakespeare, ‘60’.
Or, indeed:
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days months, which are the rags of time ...
John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’, Poems (1633)
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
ed. David Birch. 1995. Context and Language: A Functional Lingustic Theory
of Register (London, New York: Pinter)
Richard Bradford. 1997. Stylistics (London and New York: Routledge)
Guy Cook. 1994. Discourse and Literature: the Interplay of Form and Mind
(Oxford: Oxford University Press)
David Crystal. 1998. Language Play (London: Penguin)
1985. A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 2nd edition (Oxford: Basil
1997. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 2nd edition (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press)
William Downes. 1998. Language and Society, 2nd edition (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press)
Roger Fowler. 1996. Linguistic Criticism, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford
University Press)
1995. The Language of George Orwell (London: Macmillan Press)
MAK Halliday. 1978. Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation
of Language and Meaning (London: Edward Arnold)
Brian Lamont. 2005. First Impressions (Edinburgh: Penbury Press)
Geoffrey Leech and Michael H. Short. 1981. Style in Fiction: A Linguistic
Introduction to English Fictional Prose (London: Longman)
A McIntosh and P Simpson. 1964. The Linguistic Science and Language
Teaching (London: Longman)
George Orwell. 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Heinemann)
1964. Inside the Whale and Other Essays (London: Penguin Books)
Adrian Pilkington. 1991. ‘Poetic Effects’, Literary Pragmatics, ed. Roger Sell
(London: Routledge)
ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. 1960. Style in Language (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)
Michael Toolan. 1998. Language in Literature: An Introduction to Stylistics
(London: Hodder Arnold)
Jonathan Swift. 1994. Gulliver’s Travels (London: Penguin Popular Classics)
Katie Wales. 2001. A Dictionary of Stylistics, 2nd edition, (Harlow: Longman)
ed. Jean Jacques Weber. 1996. The Stylistics Reader: From Roman Jakobson
to the Present (London: Arnold Hodder)
PM Wetherill. 1974. Literary Text: An Examination of Critical Methods
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell)
HG Widdowson. 1992. Practical Stylistics (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Joseph Williams. 2007. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 9th edition (New
York: Pearson Longman)
Introduction to Stylistics
Leech defines stylistics as the study of the use of language in literature and considers
it as the meeting ground of linguistics and the study of literature. So stylistics
straddles two disciplines: linguistics and literary criticism.
Stylistics is an interdisciplinary subject. It is a study of literary discourse from a
linguistic orientation, that is, form a linguistic point of view. Therefore, it differs
from linguistics and literary criticism in that it essentially links these two. In
other words, it is an interdisciplinary subject.
The start of this interdisciplinary subject:
It is hard to determine when it became an academic field of study. But one thing is
sure, that is, it did not achieve significant development as an independent subject
until the late 1950’s. Now it has become a firmly established subject, which is
supposed to provide useful insights into literary criticism and the teaching of
The basis on which stylistics has developed is English rhetoric, which can be traced
back to Aristotle’s time.
There have been three movements that promoted the development stylistics:
1. Modernist movement in art and literature, which lasted from 1890 to World War
II. This movement is characterized by its break away fro the tradition. This break
away lifted all restraints upon the content and language used in art and literature.
This led to the tolerance, acceptance, and appreciation of the different kinds of
language that appear in literature and art.
2. Another revolution occurred in the field of literary criticism, which had a
profound radical influence upon stylistics. The most important proponent of this
revolution is I. A. Richards, who was dissatisfied with the criticism of his age for
in his opinion the critics of his time had given too much attention to the moral
aspect of literature, and he suggested that a more objective approach should be
taken towards literary criticism. He based his approach upon close reading of the
literary text and linguistic analysis of the language of the text.
3. The third revolution that had helped the emergence of stylistics is the one that
took place in the science of linguistics in the late 1950’s. This revolution was
initiated by the work of Noam Chomsky and Michael Halliday whose thoughts
were directly or indirectly influenced by the linguistic theory of F. De Sassure.
And generally speaking, the development in the domain of linguistics provided the
stylisticians/stylists with effective and new tools for analyzing the language in use
in both literature and other types of discourse.
So the modernist movement aesthetically prepared the public or society for receiving
and ushering in a new kind of literary criticism——stylistics.
The neo-criticism directly enhanced the development of this new subject advocating
objective analysis of the language of a literary text as the basis of literary criticism.
The development of linguistics in the 1950’s supplied literary critics with the
necessary and effective tools for investigating the language use in literary texts. So
these three movements actually provided everything necessary for the appearance of
this new subject.
Two important assumptions of stylistics
1. One important assumption of stylistics is that literature is made of language. It is
an art of language. Now that literature is made of language, linguistics, which is
the scientific study of language, is naturally helpful to us in analyzing and
interpreting literary text.
2. The second assumption is that literature is a type of communicative discourse.
This assumption is just as important and basic as the first one. This assumption
implies that, as Widdowson explicitly stated, a piece of language use, literary or
otherwise, is invariably a piece of communication, a discourse of one kind or
another. This assumption requires that one should understand the linguistic
features of a literary text as occurring not randomly but rather with some meaning
in it. These features are determined and also should be interpreted in reference to
the context in which the communication occurs. This assumption extends the
scope of the linguistic study of the language used in a literary text fro intrasentential study to inter-sentential study.
The first assumption justifies the necessity of the linguistic analysis of the literary text
in the study of a literary work, while the second assumption puts the analysis of the
language of the literary text in connection with context——both linguistic and social
The goals, components, and procedure of stylistic inquiry
The first goal of stylistics is to help readers understand a literary text better. In other
words, it provides insights into the meaning of the text.
The second goal is to explain why and how one text is better than another one. That is
to say that it is with interpretation that stylistics is more directly concerned.
Description +interpretation +evaluation
The most important thing is to remember there is actually no rigid and fixed
procedure of stylistic analysis of literary work. Linguistic observation and literary
insight proceeds from each other and enhances each other and they form a cyclic
Procedure: Analytic phase +interpretative phase
The nature of stylistic analysis
Generally, the stylistic analysis is mainly concerned with the uniqueness of the
language use in a literary text. That is, to show what is peculiar to the language in a
literary text. This is determined by the nature of style itself. This naturally involves
comparison between the language used in the literary text under investigation and the
language used in a conventional way.
So essentially speaking, stylistic study is essentially comparative in nature.
A brief history of Stylistics
Stylistics explores how readers interact with the language of (mainly literary) texts in
order to explain how we understand, and are affected by texts when we read them.
The development of Stylistics, given that it combines the use of linguistic analysis
with what we know about the psychological processes involved in reading, depended
(at least in part) on the study of Linguistics and Psychology (both largely twentiethcentury phenomena) becoming reasonably established. Stylistics, then, is a subdiscipline which grew up in the second half of the twentieth century: Its beginnings in
Anglo-American criticism are usually traced back to the publication of the books
listed below. Three of them are collections of articles, some of which had been
presented as conference papers or published in journals a little earlier:
Fowler, Roger (ed.) (1966) Essays on Style in Language. London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul.
Freeman, Donald C. (ed.) (1971) Linguistics and Literary Style. New York:
Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Leech, Geoffrey N, (1969) A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry. London:
Sebeok, Thomas A. (1960) Style in Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Perhaps the most influential article is that by Roman Jakobson in Sebeok (1960: 35077). It is called 'Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics' because it was a
contribution to a conference which Sebeok (1960) published as a collection of papers.
It is pretty difficult, so we wouldn't recommend nipping off to read it until you've
done a bit more stylistics, but, as we shall see below, Jakobson is an important figure
who connects together various strands in the development of Stylistics.
Stylistics can be seen as a logical extension of moves within literary criticism early in
the twentieth century to concentrate on studying texts rather than authors. Nineteenthcentury literary criticism concentrated on the author, and in Britain the text-based
criticism of the two critics I. A. Richards and William Empson, his pupil, rejected that
approach in order to concentrate on the literary texts themselves, and how readers
were affected by those texts. This approach is often called Practical Criticism, and it
is matched by a similar critical movement in the USA, associated with Cleanth
Brooks, René Wellek, Austin Warren and others, called New Criticism. New
Criticism was based almost exclusively on the description of literary works as
independent aesthetic objects, but Practical Criticism tended to pay more attention to
the psychological aspects involved in a reader interacting with a work. However,
these two critical movements shared two important features: (i) an emphasis on the
language of the text rather than its author and (ii) an assumption that what criticism
needed was accounts of important works of literature based on the intuitional reading
outcomes of trained and aesthetically sensitive critics. These critics did not analyse
the language of texts very much, but, rather, paid very close attention to the language
of the texts when they read them and then described how they understood them and
were affected by them. Nearly a hundred years later, this approach is still very
influential in schools and universities in the western world, and gives rise to the kind
of critical essay where writers make a claim about what a text means, or how it affects
them, and then quote (and perhaps discuss) a textual sample to illustrate the view
argued for. This could perhaps be called the 'Claim and Quote' approach to literary
In general terms, stylisticians believe that the 'Claim and Quote' strategy is inadequate
in arguing for a particular view of a text, because, like the slip 'twixt cup and lip, there
are often logical gaps between the claim and the quotation intended to support it. In
other words, stylisticians think that intuition is not enough and that we should analyse
the text in detail and take careful account of what we know about how people read
when arguing for particular views of texts. But the Stylistics approach in Western
Europe and North America clearly grows out of the earlier critical approaches
associated with Practical Criticism and New Criticism. Stylisticians also use the same
kind of approach on non-literary texts.
There is another important strand of influence in the development of Stylistics (the
one which Roman Jakobson was involved in) which comes from Eastern Europe. In
the early years of the twentieth century, the members of the Formalist Linguistic
Circle in Moscow (usually called the Russian Formalists), like I. A. Richards, also
rejected undue concentration on the author in literary criticism in favour of an
approach which favoured the analysis of the language of the text in relation to
psychological effects of that linguistic structure. The group contained linguists,
literary critics and psychologists, and they (and the Prague Structuralists: see the
paragraph below) began to develop what became a very influential aspect of textual
study in later Stylistics, called foregrounding theory. This view suggested that some
parts of texts had more effect on readers than others in terms of interpretation,
because the textual parts were linguistically deviant or specially patterned in some
way, thus making them psychologically salient (or 'foregrounded') for readers. The
Russian Formalists were, in effect, the first stylisticians. But their work was not
understood in the west because of the effects of the Russian Revolution in 1917. After
the revolution, formalism fell out of favour and, in any case, academic
communication between what became the Soviet Union and Western Europe and
North America virtually ceased.
Roman Jakobson became one of the most influential linguists of the twentieth
century, and the reason for his considerable influence on Stylistics, in addition to his
own academic brilliance, was because he linked various schools of Linguistics
together. He left Moscow at the time of the Russian Revolution and moved to Prague,
where he became a member of the Prague Structuralist circle, who were also very
interested in the linguistic structure of texts and how they affected readers. Then,
when Czechoslovakia also became communist, he moved to the USA. Rather like a
beneficial virus, he carried the approach which later became called Stylistics with
him, and helped those who wanted to develop Practical and New Criticism in more
precise analytical directions.
The introduction and chapter 2 of J. Douthwaite (2000) Towards a Linguistic Theory
of Foregrounding (Edizioni dell'Orso: Turin) has a more detailed history of stylistics
and the concept of foregrounding, a concept which is a cornerstone of stylistic
The first, gives you a little background as to why Stylistics is called Stylistics. The
second link invites you to think about whether Stylistics is 'Formalist'
Stylistics Definition
The study of style as a means of analyzing works of literature and their effect; now
often, specif., such study using mathematical and statistical methods
Converse of object
use: It will use computational stylistics for a formalist discrimination of
patterns of language in the texts and will thus begin with a descriptive base.
Adjective modifier
computational: Some of the common approaches of computational stylistics
are therefore ruled out.
cognitive: We are still learning from cognitive stylistics how individuals draw
meaning from text.
literary: An activity-based introduction to literary stylistics, this book explains
some of the core topics in literary linguistics and assists students in literary
comparative: These will introduce students to translation strategies and to the
basics of comparative stylistics.
contrastive: One of the class sessions is spent considering the subject and
merits of contrastive stylistics.
non-literary: Research My research interests are in literary and non-literary
stylistics, particularly the stylistics of drama.
Modifies a noun
course: Oct 2003 Presentation ( with Prof. Short ): Designing and piloting a
www-based stylistics course.
Noun used with modifier
corpus: The insights gathered by corpus stylistics must no longer extend to
single sentences or devices alone.
The teaching of stylistics
Author: Nigel Fabb
© Prof Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde
Stylistics is the study of linguistic style, whereas (theoretical) Linguistics is the study
of linguistic form. The term 'style' is used in linguistics to describe the choices which
language makes available to a user, above and beyond the choices necessary for the
simple expression of a meaning. Linguistic form can be interpreted as a set of
possibilities for the production of texts, and thereby linguistic form makes possible
linguistic style.
1. Stylistics
The term 'style' is used in linguistics to describe the choices which language makes
available to a user, above and beyond the choices necessary for the simple expression
of a meaning. Linguistic form can be interpreted as a set of possibilities for the
production of texts, and thereby linguistic form makes possible linguistic style.
Stylistics is the study of linguistic style, whereas (theoretical) Linguistics is the study
of linguistic form. Linguistic form is generated from the components of language
(sounds, parts of words, and words) and consists of the representations - phonetic,
phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic etc. - which together form a code by
which what we say or write has a specific meaning: thus for example the sentence
'Toby chased Kes onto the television set' encodes a specific meaning, involving a
specific kind of past event with two participants playing specific roles relative to a
location. The same event could be encoded in other ways (such as 'Kes got chased by
Toby and ended up on the television set.') and the choice of which way to encode it is
a stylistic choice. Stylistic choices are designed to have effects on the reader or
listener, which are generally understood as:
(a) communicating meanings which go beyond the linguistically determined
(b) communicating attitude (as in persuasive effects of style), and
(c) expressing or communicating emotion.
Some of the areas included in the teaching of Stylistics are:
1. narrative structure
2. point of view and focalization
3. sound patterning
4. syntactic and lexical parallelism and repetition
5. metre and rhythm
6. genre
7. mimetic, representational, realist effects
8. metarepresentation, representation of speech and thought, irony
9. metaphor and other ways of indirect meaning
10. utilization and representation of variation in dialect, accent, and historically
specific usages
11. group-specific ways of speaking (real or imagined), as in gendered Stylistics
12. examination of inferential processes which readers engage in to determine
communicated meanings
Representative textbooks in Stylistics include Leech (1969), Leech and Short (1981),
Montgomery (2006), and Simpson (1997).
2. From practical criticism to stylistics
The teaching of literature often requires the close reading of texts, with a focus on the
specific choices made by a specific text, and the effect of those choices (particularly
on the meaning of the text). From its earliest major manifestation in I.A. Richards's
Practical Criticism (1929), this practice was always seen as a corrective to otherwise
unconstrained and undisciplined reading of texts; close reading, sensitive to language,
is thus seen by its practitioners as having an ethical dimension. In earlier forms
(including the New Criticism movement) various radical decontextualizations such as
removing the author's name were applied to ensure an unprejudiced focus on the text.
The university study of Practical Criticism was extended to the school teaching of
close reading (in Britain) by Cox and Dyson (1965). Stylistics, emerging in the 1960s
and in its initial stages often closely allied to the new types of linguistics (e.g. in the
work of Michael Halliday or J. P. Thorne or Roger Fowler), inherits to some extent
this sense of mission, and stylisticians sometimes see themselves as in righteous
opposition to mainstream (e.g. poststructuralist) literary theory of the past few
decades. The level-headedness of Stylistics thus risks losing out to the heady
excitements of literary theory, particularly for undergraduates who seek intellectual
excitement. On the other hand, the skills-orientation and democratic ethic of Stylistics
courses can sometimes be a refuge for undergraduates who feel disempowered by
literary theory in its perceived lack of method and reliance on unchallengeable
authority and personality cultism.
Stylistics has had another educational role, in the teaching of literature to people
learning English. Widdowson's 1975 book Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature
was not only a major contribution to stylistic theory but also partly responsible for the
idea that ELT could be integrated with the teaching of literature; literary texts were
thought to provide real texts which gave opportunities to explore subtle aspects of
language in use, or by their marked use of certain stylistic features could draw
attention to the workings of language. This carried a political advantage; departments
of foreign languages are often occupied by academics who have specializations in
literature, but who are faced with the practical need to devote much time to the
teaching of the language. The merger of Linguistics and literary study provided by
Stylistics gave them a way to put their expertise to use in language teaching.
Stylistics has also underpinned the critical linguistic study of the mass media, which
in educational terms is the attempt to teach students how to peel back the stylistic
practices which conceal the illegitimate exercise of power. A set of related
propositions, some more schematic than others, can be expressed by different stylistic
choices; thus for example an action with an actor and something acted upon can be
expressed by a proposition which can be coded more or less schematically by an
active sentence, or a passive sentence, or a noun phrase, with each of these stylistic
choices placing greater or lesser prominence on parts of the proposition (and hence
giving a different impression of the event itself). Stylistics seeks to understand what
the possibilities are in a given language, and asks why particular choices are made for example, in a newspaper report, where 'bias' can simply be in the stylistic choices
themselves. It is sometimes felt that there is a need to equip people with analytical
tools which enable them to understand the stylistic mechanisms by which ideologies
are communicated.
3. Style causes effect
The basic idea of Stylistics is that a stylistic choice has an 'effect' (on the reader), and
that it should be possible to understand the causal relation between that stylistic
choice and that effect. There is a discipline - Rhetoric - in which the relation between
style and effect is prescribed or asserted; this discipline has classical origins, and can
still be seen operating in self-help guides to writing and speaking. Stylistics is to
rhetoric as theoretical Linguistics is to traditional prescriptive grammar. An important
feature of Stylistics in terms of the extraction of meaning (and other 'effects') is that
texts need to be examined as an integrated whole. In this way, Stylistics can help
bring out meanings which are inaccessible to syntax or formal semantics, which
largely focus on individual sentences.
Effects are assumed to be discovered by introspection. (Effects are too cognitively
complex to be simply measured by for example laboratory techniques.) They typically
include meanings on the one hand, and on the other hand persuasive effects, or
emotional effects (including just pleasure or aesthetic experience). We discover
effects only by looking inside ourselves, and formulating a description of what we see
there, but in literary studies this is often reinforced or checked by discussing with
others our own introspections, thus clarifying and correcting our own experience. The
literary studies seminar with its individual focus becomes the Stylistics 'workshop'
where collective discussion helps clarify the effects of a text, and also helps strip
away individual variations in response, in order better to establish the precise function
of stylistic choices. The introspective judgement of effects in Stylistics is analogous to
the judgement of grammaticality or well-formedness in formal Linguistics; in both
cases, it seems that people need to learn how to make such judgements, and improve
in the ability to do so, and one of the goals of Stylistics education is to improve the
students' ability to look inside themselves (in which Stylistics shares a general goal
with all education in the Humanities).
What Stylistics attempts to discover is how stylistic choices cause the effects. Here
the problem is to identify discrete stylistic choices. In a sense, a text is all stylistic
choice; linguistic form simply the material from which the text is woven and all
aspects of the weave are stylistic (see Goodman 1978 for an interesting disagreement
with the stylistics tradition in this regard). Hence it could be difficult to separate off a
specific stylistic choice as a discrete part of the text which causes some effect. The
theoretical tradition helps us in this, with the notion of 'markedness' and general
notions of salience; though the text is a weave of stylistic choices, some stylistic
choices are isolated and prominent by virtue of being particularly noticeable in a text.
Stylistics as a practice has often gravitated towards stylistic markedness, picking texts
precisely for their peculiarities which make it easy to see that specific stylistic choices
have been made; hence, for example, modernist (and postmodernist) texts are
particularly popular.
The identification of effects and of specific stylistic choices is tied to the problem of
identifying a causal relation between style and effect. Though this is the most difficult
problem among the three difficult problems identified in this section, we as Stylistics
teachers nevertheless generally expect students to do this. A typical homework or
exam question would be: "Identify [some particular stylistic feature] and describe its
effects". Though we ask this question all the time, it is difficult to tell exactly what we
are asking the students to do here, in the sense of giving us verifiable answers. The
risk we run is of falling back into a prescriptive practice reminiscent of the discipline
of Rhetoric, by encouraging only stereotyped answers about style and effect, such as
claims for example that any passive sentence has a significant effect of deemphasising agency. This seems to me the biggest problem for the teaching of
4. Stylistics and student creativity
Stylistics can stimulate creative activity in students. I once taught a Linguistics class
to creative writing and journalism students. In formulating assessments for these
students, I asked them to put theoretical notions into practice, and then comment on
what they had done. Different tasks required them to consider metarepresentation
(quotation, other ways of attributing thoughts and utterances, transcription), narrative
well-formedness, and facework. Results included a story exemplifying 'facework' (a
metaphor for our need to be respected and to respect others) which is taken literally as
being about the reader's face, as well as texts which disappear into a receding set of
metarepresentations, and also interviews in which transcriptional choices reshape the
event being reported. Students' commitment to understanding the theory is greater
because the quality of their own writing is at stake; they are also able to find the
complexities and metaphorical underpinnings of the theory underpinning Stylistics by
turning it into writing. In another long-running class, 'Ways of Reading', some of the
most memorable work has come from asking students to put stylistic notions into
practice; I particularly remember a class on juxtaposition, with a homework for which
students submitted a scythe with Marvell's poem 'The Mower Against Gardens'
attached to it, and a Charlie Brown cartoon blown up to poster size with a Charles
Olson poem inserted into the speech bubbles. In another class, on the book as an
object, students are required to turn a book (bought cheaply for the purpose) into
another object or set of objects. Stylistics has always had a ludic, playful, side to it,
which opens up possibilities not available from more straight-faced literary criticism and this combines with a 'workshop' or problem-solving ethic drawn from Linguistics
(and progressive educational ideas from the 1960s). Students have fun doing these
kinds of exercises, and the quality of the products suggests that they are learning
something; but here, too, we fall back into the same problem of getting a clear and
verifiable description of how particular stylistic choices (here manifested as creative
decisions) cause particular effects.
5. The relation between stylistics and linguistics
The teaching of Stylistics depends on a technical terminology with which students can
describe the stylistic choices. Much of this technical terminology is in practice taken
from traditional grammar or from some linguistic theory. In addition, students will
need to be able to construct diagrams of texts (such as tree structures for sentences, or
some equivalent for syllable structure, or word structure or discourse structure), and
again various linguistic theories provide methods for doing this.
One of the puzzles for Stylistics - and acutely a problem in teaching Stylistics - is the
extent to which Stylistics depends on any particular linguistic theory, and particularly
on any particular syntactic theory or theory of grammar. Ways of representing
linguistic form were in the 60s and 70s drawn from the new (and mutually
incompatible) theories of Systemic Grammar, Transformational Grammar, and
Generative Semantics. Syntactic theory has for the past few decades been much too
difficult to simply introduce in Stylistics teaching, and furthermore produces
representations which are very distinct from the surface forms seen in texts; and
Stylistics classes can rarely rely on students having a good understanding of
Linguistics. This forces a certain decoupling of syntactic theory and Stylistics
teaching It is this decoupling which enables Stylistics to be successful as a discipline
even though it may be out of step with (formal) linguistic theory, and successful as a
subject to teach to students even though they may have little understanding of
linguistic theory. (On the other hand, it means that Stylistics is not necessarily a good
introduction to linguistic theory, as is sometimes suggested.)
In suggesting that Stylistics and Linguistics may be disconnected theoretically, even
though they both clearly relate to language, I assume along chomskyan lines that
'language' is not a theoretically unified domain. Linguistic theory is concerned with
rules which build representations, and conditions which hold of those rules and
representations; it is not - at least in most of its theoretical manifestations - an account
of actual utterances or written sentences. While we can understand the construction of
an utterance or a written sentence as the result of making a set of choices (which
words to choose, in what order, phase, tense, aspect; how to relate subclauses, etc),
those choices do not necessarily correspond to elements of linguistic form. Thus for
example 'passive' is a way of understanding a surface choice, but it need not be
theorized linguistically as a rule or set of rules of linguistic form (instead, 'passive' is
the post-linguistic way of describing the a set of similar structures which emerge from
a combination of underlying processes which may have no specific relation to one
another within the system).
In Fabb (2002) I argued that in literary texts we are dealing with two quite different
kinds of form, which I called 'generated form' (basically linguistic form and possibly
some aspects of metrical form) and 'communicated form' (genre, narrative form, and
probably every other kind of literary form); this distinction can be restated using the
terms in this current article as the distinction between 'form' and 'style'. Generated
form (now just called form) holds of the text by virtue of constituting it: being a noun,
or a preposition phrase, or a specific phoneme are necessary formal aspects of the text
which enable it to exist. On the other hand communicated form (now just called style)
holds of a text by virtue of being the content of an assumption about the text which is
licensed by the text. Form is the stuff from which a text is made, while style is what a
text tells us about itself. (Goodman 1978 similarly focuses on the extent to which
style is 'exemplified' by a text: the text is both denoted by a term such as 'parallelism'
but in turn denotes that term - the text means parallelism, in much the way that a
tailor's swatch of cloth means the colour or material which comprises it.) Style is thus
a kind of meaning, holding of a text only as the content of a thought about the text.
For example, parallelism holds within a text to the extent that a reader is justified in
formulating the thought 'parallelism holds within this text', with the justifications
drawn from various stereotyped deductions ('if the first and second lines have the
same sequence of word classes, then there is parallelism in the text', etc). Or a text is
in a specific genre to the extent that we are justified by the text in formulating that
assumption about it. Linguistic form offers one of a number of different and
potentially competing sources of evidence from which the presence of a style is
inferred, and this is the relation - in this theoretical approach, much weakened between form and style. Style can thus be indeterminate, ambiguous, metaphorical,
ironic, strongly implied, weakly implied, and so on - having all the characteristics of a
meaning, because style is a meaning. If this is true, it has a consequence which helps
us resolve some of the problems for the teaching of Stylistics.
The key problem in Stylistics is to work out the causal relation between style and
effect, where 'effect' includes various cognitive effects such as meanings, emotions,
beliefs, etc. My proposal is that style is itself an effect; hence rather than mediating
between two quite different kinds of thing (style vs. effect) we are really looking at
the relation between effects, with the distinction between style and effect no longer
clearly defined. This means that the theory of how style causes effect is now a theory
of how thoughts are connected, which comes under the theory of Pragmatics. This
suggests a route out of the problem of Stylistics which has been chosen by a number
of authors: to assume that Stylistics basically falls under the theory of Pragmatics, and
to start from here in the teaching of Stylistics.
Cox, B., and A.E. Dyson (1965) The Practical Criticism of Poetry London: Edward
Fabb, N. (2002) Language and Literary Structure: the linguistic analysis of form in
verse and narrative Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Goodman, N. (1978) Ways of Worldmaking Indiana: Hackett.
Leech, G. (1969) A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry London: Longman.
Leech, G., M. Short (1981) Style in Fiction London: Longman.
Montgomery, M., A. Durant, N. Fabb, T. Furniss, and S. Mills (2006). Ways of
Reading. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.
Richards, I. A. (1929) Practical Criticism London: Kegan Paul.
Simpson, P. (1997) Language through literature: an introduction London: Routledge.
Widdowson, H. G. (1975) Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature London:
Related links
Poetics and Linguistics Association website
Lancaster's free online course on Language and Style