• Andrew

Understanding Style

I guess I don’t really know how to define style. What is the work that I’m actually interested in doing? Fowler makes an incisive point when he says, “The term ‘style’ is extraordinarily slippery, and although linguistics criticism for a long time called itself ‘linguistic stylistics’ or even just ‘stylistics’, the stylisticians soon decided that ‘style’ was unusable as a technical term” (185).


Fowler proposes the term register, but that feels too narrow—at least, too narrow to describe what I’m interested in. The fact that style can address syntax, diction, even clothing means that style is a capacious term, and I’ll concede that it might not be theoretically usable—at least, not in accordance with the semantic ideal that one word means one thing.


I suppose, really, that I should also concede that I’m not particularly interested in theory. Or, at least, I don’t think I am. The phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty resist theory. Alton Becker’s new philology strives for the rigor of particularity, not of theoretical generalization. Style is theoretically useless, but it’s practically powerful.

Register deals with the ways speakers modify their language in particular contexts—formal and informal registers, for example. But there are stylistic constants that transcend register: regardless of context, one’s usage is marked by their idiolect, for example. We do not become new people in different contexts. Style persists where register fluctuates.


Let’s imagine a stylish dresser (and let’s imagine that dresser as a he since I know far less about other realms of dress). We have registers of dress—black tie, business casual, etc.—but those registers are not controlling factors of style. Yes, the stylish dresser will take his cues from the “register” of the event, choosing, for example, not to wear the dinner jacket to a weekend barbecue. But the stylish dresser will also refuse to let the dress dictate his clothing choice. The stylish dresser will probably find a way to maintain and assert sartorial agency in any context. Even in the relative strictures of a black-tie event, he will not satisfy himself with the dress-code-satisfying basics offered at the tux rental shop. He will express some appropriate flair with his cufflinks or shoes.


I think something similar is at work with rhetorical style. Isocrates points out that “the arts are made great, not by those who are without scruple in boasting about them, but by those who are able to discover all of the resources which each art affords” (169). A stylish writer does not just use the fanciest words or the most popular words—a stylish writer will use the right words, words that fit the situation and reflect the writer’s way of being. A stylish writer knows, in every situation, what is stylistically possible—and they will be expressive within constraints where a lesser writer would be subjected by them.

Like the stylish dresser, the stylish writer would know that to be exaggeratedly fashionable is to be as gauche as the styleless hack. A stylish writer will know the rules—and will see the rules for what they are.


Searle makes the distinction between regulative rules, which govern independent activities, and constitutive rules, which govern and create activities (like the rules of a board game that would not exist otherwise). I wonder whether the stylist won’t be more inclined to see all rules as constitutive. Black-tie etiquette may govern social events and dress codes that do not depend on the rules to exist—but the stylist may see it differently and, consequently, might discern more flex in the rule that the one who sees the rules as regulative. The styleless will see the rules and ask What am I supposed to do? while the stylish will see the same rules and ask What can I do? Conventions and constraints are opportunities for the stylish.


Where have I ended up? Not with a definition of style. Perhaps with a celebration of the indefinability of style. It is a capacious term because it resonates through ways of being. It is not a theoretical definition, pinned down to a single referent. I suppose I aim for understanding more than definition. And style can be understood as a knowledge of rules and possibilities, a deliberateness even in highly regulated situations, a consistency of expression across contexts. Style, perhaps, is the manifestation of one’s way of being, not a mere consequence of one’s being, but an expression thereof.


Works Cited

Fowler, Roger. Linguistic Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Isocrates. Isocrates. Translated by George Norlin, vol. 2, Harvard University Press, 2014.

Searle, John R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge University Press, 1969.

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