style (rhetoric and composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Style is the way in which something is spoken, written, or performed.

In rhetoric and composition, style is narrowly interpreted as those figures that ornament discourse; it is broadly interpreted as representing a manifestation of the person speaking or writing. All figures of speech fall within the domain of style.

Known as lexis in Greek and elocutio in Latin, style was one of the five traditional canons or subdivisions of classical rhetorical training.

Classic Essays on English Prose Style

From the Latin, "pointed instrument used for writing"

Definitions and Observations

  • "Style is character. It is the quality of a man's emotion made apparent; then by inevitable extension, style is ethics, style is government."
  • "If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul."
    (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
  • "Style is the dress of thoughts."
    (Lord Chesterfield)
  • "The style of an author should be the image of his mind, but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise."
    (Edward Gibbon)
  • "Style is not the gold setting of the diamond, thought; it is the glitter of the diamond itself."
    (Austin O'Malley, Thoughts of a Recluse, 1898)
  • "Style is not mere decoration, nor is it an end to itself; it is rather a way of finding and explaining what is true. Its purpose is not to impress but to express."
    (Richard Graves, "A Primer for Teaching Style." College Composition and Communication, 1974)
  • "A good style should show no sign of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident."
    (W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, 1938)
  • "Style is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward."
    (Robert Frost)
  • "Style is the perfection of a point of view."
    (Richard Eberhart)
  • "To do a dull thing with style--now THAT'S what I call art."
    (Charles Bukowski)
  • "[I]t may well be that style is always to some extent the invention of the writer, a fiction, that conceals the man as surely as it reveals him."
    (Carl H. Klaus, "Reflections on Prose Style." Style in English Prose, 1968)
  • Cyril Connolly on the Relation Between Form and Content
    "Style is the relation between form and content. Where the content is less than the form, where the author pretends to emotion he does not feel, the language will seem flamboyant.  The more ignorant a writer feels, the more artificial becomes his style. A writer who thinks himself cleverer than his  readers writes simply (often too simply), while one who fears they may be cleverer than he will make use of mystification: an author arrives at a good style when his language performs what is required of it without shyness."
    (Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise, rev. ed., 1948)
  • Types of Styles
    "A very large number of loosely descriptive terms have been used to characterize kinds of styles, such as 'pure,' 'ornate,' 'florid,' 'gay,' 'sober,' 'simple,' 'elaborate,' and so on. Styles are also classified according to a literary period or tradition ('the metaphysical style, 'Restoration prose style'); according to an influential text ('biblical style, euphuism); according to an institutional use ('a scientific style,' 'journalese'); or according to the distinctive practice of an individual author (the 'Shakespearean' or 'Miltonic' style; 'Johnsonese'). Historians of English prose style, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, have distinguished between the vogue of the 'Ciceronian style' (named after the characteristic practice of the Roman writer Cicero), which is elaborately constructed, highly periodic, and typically builds to a climax, and the opposing vogue of the clipped, concise, pointed, and uniformly stressed sentences in the 'Attic or 'Senecan' styles (named after the practice of the Roman Seneca). . . .
    "Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, in Clear and Simple as the Truth (1994), claim that standard treatments of style such as those described above deal only with the surface features of writing. They propose instead a basic analysis of style in terms of a set of fundamental decisions or assumptions by an author concerning 'a series of relationships: What can be known? What can be put into words? What is the relationship between thought and language? Who is the writer addressing and why? What is the implied relationship between writer and reader? What are the implied conditions of discourse?' An analysis based on these elements yields an indefinite number of types, or 'families,' of styles, each with its own criteria of excellence."
    (M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 10th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • Aristotle and Cicero on the Qualities of Good Style
    "Within classical rhetoric, style is analyzed predominately from the viewpoint of the composing orator, not from the point of view of the critic. Quintilian's four qualities (purity, clarity, ornament, and propriety) are not intended to distinguish types of styles but to define the qualities of good style: all oratory should be correct, clear, and appropriately ornamented. The basis for the four qualities and the three styles are implicit in Book III of Aristotle's Rhetoric where Aristotle assumes a dichotomy between prose and poetry. The base line for prose is colloquial speech. Clarity and correctness are the sine qua non of good speech. Furthermore, Aristotle maintains that the very best prose is also urbane or, as he says in the Poetics, has an 'uncommon air,' that gives the listener or reader pleasure."
    (Arthur E. Walzer, George Campbell: Rhetoric in the Age of Enlightenment. State University of New York Press, 2003)
  • Thomas De Quincey on Style
    "Style has two separate functions: first, to brighten the intelligibility of a subject which is obscure to the understanding; secondly, to regenerate the normal power and impressiveness of a subject which has become dormant to the sensibilities. . . . The vice of that appreciation which we English apply to style lies in representing it as a mere ornamental accident of written composition--a trivial embellishment, like the mouldings of furniture, the cornices of ceilings, or the arabesques of tea-urns. On the contrary, it is a product of art the rarest, subtlest, and most intellectual; and, like other products of the fine arts, it is then finest when it is most eminently disinterested--that is, most conspicuously detached from gross palpable uses. Yet, in very many cases, it really has the obvious uses of that gross palpable order; as in the cases just noticed, when it gives light to the understanding, or power to the will, removing obscurities from one set of truths, and into another circulating the life-blood of sensibility."
    (Thomas De Quincey, "Language." The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincy, ed. by David Masson, 1897)
  • The Lighter Side of Style: Tarantinoing
    "Forgive me. What I'm doing is called Tarantinoing, where you talk about something that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, but is kind of funny and a little quirky. It was kind of avant-garde in its day and it used to develop some strong character traits, but now it's just used as a cheap gimmick for pretentious film writers to draw a ton of attention to their writing style as opposed to serving the plot."
    (Doug Walker, "Signs." Nostalgia Critic, 2012)
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Nordquist, Richard. "style (rhetoric and composition)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). style (rhetoric and composition). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "style (rhetoric and composition)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).