Stylistics in Applied Linguistics

The Elements of Style in Literary Works

"Stylistics . . . aims to account for how texts project meaning, how readers construct meaning and why readers respond to texts in the way that they do" (Lesley Jeffries and Dan McIntyre, Stylistics, 2010). (Dominik Pabis/Getty Images)

Stylistics is a branch of applied linguistics concerned with the study of style in texts, especially but not exclusively in literary works. Also called literary linguistics, stylistics focuses on the figures, tropes and other rhetorical devices to provide variety and a unique voice to writing.

According to Katie Wales in "A Dictionary of Stylistics," the goal of "most stylistics is not simply to describe the formal features of texts for their own sake, but in order to show their functional significance for the interpretation of the text; or in order to relate literary effects to linguistic 'causes' where these are felt to be relevant."

There are various overlapping subdisciplines of stylistics, including literary stylistics, interpretive stylistics, evaluative stylistics, corpus stylistics, discourse stylistics, feminist stylistics, computational stylistics, and cognitive stylistics, and a person who studies any of these is known as a stylistician.

Stylistics and Stylisticians

In many ways, stylistics is an interdisciplinarity study of textual interpretations, using both language comprehension and social dynamics understandings to influence the field of study. Rhetoric reasoning and history influence the textual analysis a stylistician does when closely observing a written piece.

Michael Burke describes the field in "The Routledge Handbook of Stylistics" as an empirical or forensic discourse critique, wherein the stylistician is "a person who with his/her detailed knowledge of the workings of morphologyphonology, lexis, syntax, semantics, and various discourse and pragmatic models, goes in search of language-based evidence in order to support or indeed challenge the subjective interpretations and evaluations of various critics and cultural commentators."

Burke paints stylisticians then as a kind of Sherlock Holmes character who has expertise in grammar and rhetoric and a love of literature and other creative texts, picking apart the details on how they operate piece by piece — observing style as it informs meaning, as it informs comprehension.

A Modern Understanding of Rhetoric

As far back as ancient Greece and the philosophers like Aristotle, the study of rhetoric has been an important part of human communication and evolution as a result.

It's no wonder then that author Peter Barry uses rhetoric to define stylistics as "the modern version of the ancient discipline known as rhetoric" in his book "Beginning Theory."

Barry goes on to say that rhetoric teaches "its students how to structure an argument, how to make effective use of figures of speech, and generally how to pattern and vary a speech or a piece of writing so as to produce maximum impact" and that stylistics' analysis of these similar qualities — or rather how they are utilized — would, therefore, entail that stylistics is a modern interpretation of the ancient study.

However, he also notes that stylistics differs from simple close reading in the following ways:

  1. Close reading emphasizes differences between literary language and that of the general speech community . . .. Stylistics, by contrast, emphasizes connections between literary language and everyday language. . . .
  2. Stylistics uses specialized technical terms and concepts which derive from the science of linguistics, terms like 'transitivity,' 'under-lexicalisation,' 'collocation,' and 'cohesion' . . ..
  3. Stylistics makes greater claims to scientific objectivity than does close reading, stressing that its methods and procedures can be learned and applied by all. Hence, its aim is partly the 'demystification' of both literature and criticism.

Basically, stylistics is arguing for the universality of language usage while close reading hinges upon an observation of how this particular style and usage may vary from and thereby make an error relating to the norm. Stylistics, then, is the pursuit of understanding key elements of style that affect a given audience's interpretation of a text.