The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language : Chapter III - Style by@sherwincody

The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language : Chapter III - Style

There have been many definitions of style; but the disputes of the rhetoricians do not concern us. Style, as the word is commonly understood, is the choice and arrangement of words in sentences and of sentences in paragraphs as that arrangement is effective in expressing our meaning and convincing our readers or hearers. A good style is one that is effective, and a bad style is one which fails of doing what the writer wishes to do. There are as many ways of expressing ideas as there are ways of combining words (that is, an infinite number), and as many styles as there are writers. None of us wishes precisely to get the style of any one else; but we want to form a good one of our own.
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Sherwin Cody

American writer and entrepreneur who developed a long-running home-study course in speaking and writing

The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study, by Sherwin Cody is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.

CHAPTER III.STYLE.

There have been many definitions of style; but the disputes of the rhetoricians do not concern us. Style, as the word is commonly understood, is the choice and arrangement of words in sentences and of sentences in paragraphs as that arrangement is effective in expressing our meaning and convincing our readers or hearers. A good style is one that is effective, and a bad style is one which fails of doing what the writer wishes to do. There are as many ways of expressing ideas as there are ways of combining words (that is, an infinite number), and as many styles as there are writers. None of us wishes precisely to get the style of any one else; but we want to form a good one of our own.

We will briefly note the elements mentioned by those who analyse style, and then pass on to concrete examples.

Arrangement of words in a sentence. The first requirement is that the arrangement of words should be logical, that is grammatical. The rhetorical requirements are that―

1. One sentence, with one principal subject and one principal predicate, should try to express one thought and no more. If we try to mix two thoughts in the same sentence, we shall come to grief. Likewise, we shall fail if we attempt to mix two subjects in the same paragraph or composition.

2. The words in the sentence should be arranged that those which are emphatic will come in the emphatic places. The beginning and the end of a sentence are emphatic positions, the place before any mark of punctuation is usually emphatic, and any word not in its usual place with relation to the word it modifies grammatically is especially emphatic. We must learn the emphatic positions by experience, and then our instinct will guide us. The whole subject is one of the relative values of words.

3. The words in a sentence should follow each other in such a simple, logical order that one leads on to another, and the whole meaning flows like a stream of water. The reader should never be compelled to stop and look back to see how the various ideas “hang together.” This is the rhetorical side of the logical relationship which grammar requires. Not only must grammatical rules be obeyed, but logical instinct must be satisfied with the linking of idea to idea to make a complete thought. And the same law holds good in linking sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into whole compositions.

These three requirements have been named Unity, Mass, and Coherence.

The variations in sentences due to emphasis have given rise to a rhetorical division of sentences into two classes, called loose and periodic.

A loose sentence is one in which words follow each other in their natural order, the modifiers of the verb of course following the verb. Often many of these modifiers are not strictly necessary to complete the sense and a period may be inserted at some point before the close of the sentence without destroying its grammatical completeness. The addition of phrases and clauses not strictly required constitutes looseness of sentence structure.

A periodic sentence is one which is not grammatically or logically complete till the end. If the sentence is somewhat long, the mind is held in suspense until the last word is uttered.

Example. The following is a loose sentence: “I stood on the bridge at midnight, as the clocks were striking the hour.” The same sentence becomes periodic by transposition of the less important predicate modifiers, thus―“At midnight, as the clocks were striking the hour, I stood on the bridge.”

It will be observed that the periodic form is adapted to oratory and similar forms of eloquent writing in which the mind of the reader or hearer is keyed up to a high pitch of expectancy; while the loose sentence is the one common in all simple narrative and unexcited statement.

Qualities of Style. Writers on rhetoric note three essential qualities of style, namely clearness, force, and elegance.

Clearness of style is the direct result of clearness and simplicity of thought. Unless we have mastered our thought in every particular before trying to express it, confusion is inevitable. At the same time, if we have mastered our thought perfectly, and yet express it in language not understood by the persons to whom and for whom we write or speak, our style will not be clear to them, and we shall have failed in conveying our thoughts as much as if we had never mastered them.

Force is required to produce an effect on the mind of the hearer. He must not only understand what we say, but have some emotion in regard to it; else he will have forgotten our words before we have fairly uttered them. Force is the appeal which words make to the feeling, as clearness is the appeal they make to the understanding.

Elegance is required only in writing which purports to be good literature. It is useful but not required in business letters, or in newspaper writing; but it is absolutely essential to higher literary art. It is the appeal which the words chosen and the arrangement selected make to our sense of beauty. That which is not beautiful has no right to be called “literature,” and a style which does not possess the subtle elements of beauty is not a strictly “literary” style.

Most of us by persistent effort can conquer the subject of clearness. Even the humblest person should not open his mouth or take up his pen voluntarily unless he can express himself clearly; and if he has any thought to express that is worth expressing, and wants to express it, he will sooner or later find a satisfactory way of expressing it.

The thing that most of us wish to find out is, how to write with force.
Force is attained in various ways, summarized as follows:

1. By using words which are in themselves expressive.

2. By placing those words in emphatic positions in the sentence.

3. By varying the length and form of successive sentences so that the reader or hearer shall never be wearied by monotony.

4. By figures of speech, or constant comparison and illustration, and making words suggest ten times as much as they say.

5. By keeping persistently at one idea, though from every possible point of view and without repetition of any kind, till that idea has sunk into the mind of the hearer and has been fully comprehended.

Force is destroyed by the―Vice of repetition with slight change or addition; Vice of monotony in the words, sentences or paragraphs; Vice of over-literalness and exactness; Vice of trying to emphasize more than one thing at a time; Vice of using many words with little meaning; or words barren of suggestiveness and destitute of figures of speech; and its opposite, the Vice of overloading the style with so many figures of speech and so much suggestion and variety as to disgust or confuse. These vices have been named tautology, dryness, and “fine writing.” Without doubt the simplest narration is the hardest kind of composition to write, chiefly because we do not realize how hard it is. The first necessity for a student is to realize the enormous requirements for a perfect mastery of style. The difficulties will not appear to the one who tries original composition by way of practice, since there is no way of “checking up” his work. He may (or may not) be aware that what he is doing does not produce the effect that the writing of a master produces; but if he does realize it, he will certainly fail to discover wherein his own weakness consists.

The only effective way of making the discovery is that described by Franklin, and there is no masterpiece of literature better to practise upon than Ruskin's “The King of the Golden River.” Unlike much beautiful and powerful writing, it is so simple that a child can understand it. Complete comprehension of the meaning is absolutely necessary before any skill in expressing that meaning can be looked for, and an attempt to imitate that which is not perfectly clear will not give skill. And with this simplicity there is consummate art. Ruskin uses nearly all the devices described in the preceding pages. Let us look at some of these in the first three paragraphs of Ruskin's story:

In a secluded and mountainous part of Styria, there was, in old time, a valley of most surprising and luxuriant fertility. It was surrounded on all sides by steep and rocky mountains rising into peaks which were always covered with snow and from which a number of torrents descended in constant cataracts. One of these fell westward, over the face of a crag so high that, when the sun had set to everything else, and all below was darkness, his beams still shone full upon this waterfall, so that it looked like a shower of gold. It was, therefore, called by the people of the neighborhood the Golden River{.} It was strange that none of these streams fell into the valley itself. They all descended on the other side of the mountains, and wound through broad plains and by populous cities. But the clouds were drawn so constantly to the snowy hills, and rested so softly in the circular hollow, that, in time of drought and heat, when all the country round was burnt up, there was still rain in the little valley; and its crops were so heavy, and its hay so high, and its apples so red, and its grapes so blue, and its wine so rich, and its honey so sweet, that it was a marvel to every one who beheld it, and was commonly called the Treasure Valley.

The whole of this little valley belonged to three brothers, called Schwartz, Hans, and Gluck. Schwartz and Hans, the two elder brothers, were very ugly men, with overwhelming eyebrows and small, dull eyes, which were always half shut, so that you couldn't see into them, and always fancied they saw very far into you. They lived by farming the Treasure Valley, and very good farmers they were. They killed everything that did not pay for its eating. They shot the blackbirds, because they pecked the fruit; and killed the hedge-hogs, lest they should suck the cows; they poisoned the crickets for eating the crumbs in the kitchen; and smothered the cicadas, which used to sing all summer in the lime-trees. They worked their servants without any wages, till they could not work any more, and then quarrelled with them and turned them out of doors without paying them. It would have been very odd, if, with such a farm, and such a system of farming, they hadn't got very rich; and very rich they did get.

They generally contrived to keep their corn by them till it was very dear, and then sell it for twice its value; they had heaps of gold lying about on their floors, yet it was never known that they had given so much as a penny or a crust in charity; they never went to mass; grumbled perpetually at paying tithes; and were, in a word, of so cruel and grinding a temper, as to receive from all those with whom they had any dealings, the nickname of the “Black Brothers.”

The youngest brother, Gluck, was as completely opposed, in both appearance and character, to his seniors as could possibly be imagined or desired. He was not above twelve years old, fair, blue-eyed, and kind in temper to every living thing. He did not, of course, agree particularly well with his brothers, or rather they did not agree with him. He was usually appointed to the honorable office of turnspit, when there was anything to roast, which was not often; for, to do the brothers justice, they were hardly less sparing upon themselves than upon other people. At other times he used to clean the shoes, the floors, and sometimes the plates, occasionally getting what was left on them, by way of encouragement, and a wholesome quantity of dry blows, by way of education.

The author starts out with a periodic sentence, beginning with a predicate modifier and placing the subject last. This serves to fix our attention from the first. The arrangement also throws the emphasis on “surprising and luxuriant fertility.” The last word is the essential one in conveying the meaning, though a modifier of the simple subject noun “valley.” The next sentence is a loose one. After catching the attention of the reader, we must not burden his mind too much till he gets interested. We must move along naturally and easily, and this Ruskin does. The third sentence is periodic again. We are now awake and able to bear transposition for the sake of emphasis. Ruskin first emphasizes “so high,” the adjective being placed after its noun, and then leads the way to the chief emphasis, which comes on the word “gold,” the last in the sentence. There is also an antithesis between the darkness below and the light on the peak which is bright enough to turn the water into gold. This also helps to emphasize “gold.” We have now had three long sentences and the fourth sentence, which concludes this portion of the subject, is a short one. “Golden River” is emphasized by being thrown quite to the end, a little out of its natural order, which would have been immediately after the verb. The emphasis on “gold” in the preceding sentence prepared the way for the emphasis on “Golden River;” and by looking back we see how every word has been easily, gracefully leading up to this conclusion.

Ordinarily this would be the end of a paragraph. We may call the first four sentences a “sub-paragraph.” The capital letters in “Golden River” mark the division to the eye, and the emphasis marks the division to the mind. We do not begin with a new paragraph, simply because the subject that follows is more closely connected with the first four sentences than with the paragraph which follows.

Beginning with “It was strange that none of these streams” etc., we have two rather short, simple, loose sentences, which introduce us in a most natural manner to the subject to be presented, and prepare the way for a very long, somewhat complicated sentence, full of antitheses, ending with the emphatic words “Treasure Valley.” These two words are to this part of the paragraph what the words “Golden River” were to the first part; and besides, we see before us the simple, beautiful picture of the Golden River above the Treasure Valley, presented in words whose power and grace we cannot fail to appreciate.

The second paragraph goes forward in the most matter-of-course and easy way. The first sentence is short, but the second is longer, with a pleasing variation of long and short phrases, and it ends with a contrast marked to the eye by the italic words “them” and “you.” The next two sentences are quite short, and variety is given by the simple transposition in “and very good farmers they were.” This is no more than a graceful little twirl to relieve any possible monotony. The fourth sentence in the paragraph is also very short, purposely made so for emphasis. It gives in a word what the following long sentence presents in detail. And observe the constant variation in the form of this long sentence: in the first clause we have “They shot … because,” in the second, “and killed … lest” (the subject of killed being implied, but its place supplied by and), while in the third, the subject of the verb is again expressed, and then we have the prepositional form “for eating” instead of the conjunction and verb in a subordinate sentence. Moreover we have three different verbs meaning the same thing―shot, killed, poisoned. By the variation Ruskin avoids monotony; yet by the similarity he gains emphasis. The likeness of the successive clauses is as important as their difference. There is also in each an implied contrast, between the severe penalty and the slight offense. By implication each word gives an added touch to the picture of hardness and cruelty of the two brothers. Ruskin finds a dozen different ways of illustrating the important statement he made in the second sentence (the first sentence being merely introductory). And at the end of the paragraph we have the whole summed up in a long sentence full of deliberate rather than implied contrasts, which culminate in the two words “Black Brothers.”

It is easy to see that much of the strength of these two paragraphs lies in the continued and repeated use of contrast. The first paragraph, with its beautiful description of the “Golden River” and the “Treasure Valley,” is itself a perfect contrast to the second, with its “Black Brothers” and all their meanness; and we have already seen that the second paragraph itself is filled with antitheses.

In these two paragraphs we have but two simple ideas, that of the place with all its beauty, and that of the brothers with all their ugliness. Ruskin might have spoken of them in two sentences, or even in one; but as a matter of fact, in order to make us think long enough about these two things, he takes them one at a time and gives us glints, like the reflections from the different facets of a diamond slowly turned about in the light. Each is almost like the preceding, yet a little different; and when we have seen all in succession, we understand each better, and the whole subject is vividly impressed on our minds.

In the third paragraph we have still another contrast in the description of little Gluck. This paragraph is shorter, but the same devices are used that we found in the preceding.

In these three paragraphs the following points are well illustrated:

1. Each paragraph develops one subject, which has a natural relation to what precedes and what follows;

2. Each idea is presented in a succession of small details which follow in easy, logical order one after the other;

3. There is constant variety and contrast, difference with likeness and likeness with difference.

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Cody, Sherwin, 2007. The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/19719/pg19719-images.html

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by Sherwin Cody @sherwincody.American writer and entrepreneur who developed a long-running home-study course in speaking and writing
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