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Victoria Neufeldt

We’re All Looking for Style

What is style in writing? Writers — and their editors, of course — must think about this, but not everyone agrees on what is appropriate. A writer of non-fiction, for example, probably aims for an unobtrusive style in which the language — the words and phrases, the syntax and grammar — takes second place to the content. However, if the writer wants to make a particular point, then strategic use of conspicuous language fits the bill.

One aspect of style in writing that especially interests me is register, i.e. degree of formality. The unmarked, default register for most prose is what is often called standard: more or less the middle of a spectrum with formal at one end and informal at the other. It can be no surprise to anyone regularly dealing with language that what is considered standard shifts over time and that today’s standard is more informal than it was, say, 50 years ago.

All usage handbooks include mention of the notion of register, with a short description of the terms for the different levels (which are by no means consistent among the various handbooks). But the question of how to identify actual occurrences of formal or informal usage is shied away from, and the reader is ultimately sent to a dictionary to read the labels.

An axiom of good writing is consistency of style. However, judicious use of words or phrases belonging to a different register within a piece — especially informal register — can be a powerful stylistic device. Judicious is the operative word here, for if clumsily or inappropriately used, register change can be jarring for the reader and may result in the writer not being taken seriously, even if the reader isn’t quite sure what’s wrong.

That informal usage has become more widely accepted is pretty clear. But distinctions of register are still evident, and untrained native speakers can generally identify the distinction between formal/standard and informal, though they may not be able to articulate the distinction. Is there anyone who, if presented with the words children and kids in isolation, would not subconsciously slot the words into separate mental register frames? Or the pair alcohol and booze?

The Globe and Mail’s “Report on Business” tends to feature articles written in a rather lively style, which, in general, is handled successfully, but on occasion verges on forced. A recent article on Bombardier contained this: “Bombardier, Alstom and Siemens no longer can claim top-dog status globally. The top spot now belongs to CNR and CSR, the state-controlled Chinese train makers that are set to end their rivalry and merge, creating a train colossus with a mandate to take on the world…. The merged company will have about $32 billion in annual revenue, which exceeds the combined rolling-stock revenue of the three Western biggies.” However, this style works out well at the end of the article with a telling metaphor as the last sentence: “The globalization train has left the station and it is bound to pick up passengers from China.”

Another example of a startling dive into the informal register, which I have saved for many years, is this, from a 1998 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, in a review of the book Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204: “Before focusing in detail on his two unlovely exemplars [of Byzantine courtiers] — he could have chosen nicer guys — [the author] notes the interesting contrast between the pan-Western notion of “court”, whence courtly, courteous, … and the much less resonant aule, likewise a physical metaphor for a social phenomenon …”

When you want to make a linguistic impression, it’s all about style, isn’t it?

 

 

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8 Comments on “We’re All Looking for Style”

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    There was an article recently about the fine points of editing that only other editors notice. I wonder if register is beginning to fall into that category? Much like the audiences at symphony concerts, who used to dress quite formally and now wear whatever they please.

    • Victoria Neufeldt

      says:

      Hi, Anita:

      An interesting suggestion! Certainly, writers have more latitude than they used to — i.e., readers will accept and even expect more informality — but I believe register still registers (sorry — couldn’t resist!), even if often subconsciously, in a way that « informal » dress does not, anymore. I don’t really notice what people are wearing at the symphony or theatre, unless they are very dressed up. Now is that odd?

      Victoria

  • Paul Buckingham

    says:

    Interesting post, Victoria. I wonder how many of us tend to edit pieces written in a particular style and shy away from projects that might stretch us? Do you think it’s valuable for, say, an academic editor to practise editing writing that’s more informal?

    • Victoria Neufeldt

      says:

      Hi, Paul:

      Yes, I guess we do tend to stick with what we’re used to, but I do think that stretching oneself is always a worthwhile idea, besides being fun. Of course, an editor would have to do this mindfully; if most of what you read is academic, it could be hard to look at an informal piece of writing as a stylistic editor without judging it negatively. Practice would certainly be in order, but a person would always have to consciously switch mental gears when moving from one style to another, recognizing that each has its own beauty.

      Victoria

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Off topic, but interesting, to me at least. I am an inveterate people watcher and I always notice what people are wearing, everywhere. Now, is that odd? (A longtime editing colleague in Edmonton once said that she doesn’t care about clothes. I was shocked.)

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    I am the other way – I tend to look at academic language negatively!

    • Victoria Neufeldt

      says:

      But academic language isn’t always turgid or otherwise unpleasant to read. I’m thinking of the great essayists, for example (e.g. Addison and Steele — the only names I can think of at the moment; oh, then there is Robert Louis Stevenson, a great stylist). Isn’t that academic writing? I’m trying to remember well-written papers I’ve read recently, but I’m too lazy to go look anything up. Perhaps our standards are lower now, though, since so much gets published — or at least disseminated — without any editing at all.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Academics and civil servants seemed to think (past tense, retired now) that they had to write in an obfuscating style full of big, often invented words and long, long unwieldy sentences and paragraphs. Otherwise, they would not be taken seriously.

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