5365: The Importance of Style

Topic: Why is style important in your current and/or future workplace?  (A short, hasty posting.)

Style, as I define it for my students and as I was taught to define it, is the set of choices a writer makes about word choice and sentence structure in their writing.  There’s more to it than that, certainly, but at a fundamental level, I think this is a workable and useful definition (more on that in a later post).  Defined in this manner, it should go without saying that style is important in the university classroom.  Its location as one of the major canons in so many rhetorics from Aristotle on down the row is a firm basis for such a supposition.  Its appearance as the subject of so many pedagogical and theoretical articles speaks to the importance of style as well.  When teaching writing from a rhetorical perspective, a purposive nonindexical conception of style that incorporates and goes well beyond conventions in grammar, usage and punctuation ought to be one of the central things being taught–or at least being learned–in the class.  Of course, teaching style for the sole reason that it ‘ought to be done’ (because Cicero did it, because Corbett wrote about it, etcetera) isn’t much of a rationale…  Still, the burden of history and the discipline is useful for making sense of one of those writing teacher questions that seems to come up every so often: “Is style teachable?” (Yes. More on that another time.)

Those are a few badly offered reasons for why style is important in my current workplace. (It also ignores the other dimensions of my work: my own research writing, committee and administrative writing, etcetera–all of which demand that I, as an expert in the language, be at the very least a moderately effective stylist.)  But what about the future?

As the world changes, as contexts and purposes and subjects and locations and technologies for writing change, style (we can hopefully assume from a purely logical standpoint) will change along with them.  What’s permanent about any text, after all?  From the perspective of technological determinism (an element of Baron’s A Better Pencil, one of the texts I’ll be exploring here over the next few weeks) the causal relationship is obvious–as technology changes, so changes writing.  So changes style.  To ignore how language changes would be to fossilize ourselves as language users and teachers of language users.  Pretty soon we’re not teaching writing, we’re curating textual exhibits in a museum to English.  That’s not of itself a bad thing to be, but it’s not being a writing teacher.

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2 thoughts on “5365: The Importance of Style

  1. Hey Chris,
    Nice post. I think style does have lots to do with word choice, and certainly the fact that style gets its own place in the rhetorical canon is compelling evidence of its importance. Also, your thought that style will change along with changes in contexts and technologies makes good sense. I expect we’ll examine “how” it changes, and why, as our course progresses. This is still a question of much debate.

    One change I often hear people rant about is that the web has made our writing style more curt and blurb-like. I think that usually the people who say so are referring to writing on the web. And I think it’s true, to some extent, but maybe it’s necessarily a bad thing, depending on the type of content it is, who’s the audience, and so on. What do you think?

  2. I like the idea of style changing with time. I hope that the academic love-affair with overly complicated sentence structure will die a swift and painful death. While I know it is not likely to happen, given the love affair of politicians, lawyers, and academics with complicated wording.

    There is a place for all the big, beautiful, and rare words in a language. Sometimes, they express meaning like no other, but they do not need to be shackled with pretentious garbage.

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