5365: What Is Style?

Topic: What is style, why do we write things down, and in what ways does technology determine style?

In my previous post, I defined style thusly: the set of choices a writer makes about word choice and sentence structure in their writing.  I’ll reiterate that–style is a matter of choice.  Williams points out in his second lesson on correctness that aside from grammatical rules (what he refers to as “Real Rules”), “we choose when we can.”  We manage language kairotically, with a sense of what is needed in a particular situation.  What style “ought to be” in any given situation is tricky–as Lanham points out in his criticism of C-B-S theories of style, “There are times in life when one must be absolutely clear, brief, and sincere, but not many; the whole of civility lies in learning how few they be.”

Lanham describes people who have an “instinctive grasp of the radical diversity of human motives,” a diversity that a kairotic, contextual sensibility of style appeals to. (He also notes that this grasp can be taught.)  What style “ought to be” in any given situation, then, is intimately tied to why we write things down–that is, purpose helps us to define stylistic qualities like Williams’ “clarity and grace” contextually, rather than as static abstractions.

Lanham frowns upon any limitation of human motive to simply purpose, welcoming play and competition into his triumvirate, and so he would probably frown upon my mixing together of the concepts purpose and motive, but generally speaking, when we think of rhetoric, we think of purpose.  As I teach in my writing classes, a sense of purpose can lead a writer to make decisions about content, form, argument, and–of course–style.

That being said, the question “why do we write things down” in the topic for this blog was perhaps offered in a more general sense.  Baron offers two major reasons for the rise and continued existence of written texts–memory and trust.  I’ll offer these words from a colleague that has some bearing on the matter: “Writing is, currently, one of the most effective methods of transferring that information from one person to the next.”  We transfer information to make sure we’ve saved it for later, to help us to enter it into our memories, to share it with someone else, or to have some effect on someone/thing else.  I’d have to define his “information” here in broad speech-act terms, of course, but I think it holds water.  We write things down because we hold information valuable, and writing brings a level of permanence (not reality) to that information that speech just can’t approach. (Yet.)  If you want to increase the chances that you won’t lose something, what do you do? You write it down.

To briefly bring this back to style, we can make stylistic choices, we can contextually define clarity in terms of the purpose or motive of the speech act.  If I’m communicating to someone I’m in a relationship with uneven power distribution, a more “formal” style seems not only most clear but also most appropriate. (Otherwise, my students complain about tweets containing the words “booyah haterz.”)  In more distributed situations, however (say, a text message to my wife), the “traditional” style of text messaging is not only clear but sometimes necessary for our communications (I still have an old-fashioned number pad keyboard on the device I text from).  In notes to myself, stylistic demands are different, and clarity changes–notes that I know I’ll come back to only a few minutes later can be hastily scrawled and abbreviated, while notes that need to last more than a year will be carefully spelled and expressed so I’ll be able to understand them when my memory of the original writing has long since faded.

I’ve alluded in the previous paragraph to text messaging–it comes up often in discussions of style, usually fraught with declarations that “text messaging is killing SAE.”  As I think about this issue, I keep coming back to the following pair of concepts:

technology VS context

technology AS context

To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I mean by these, and will have to return to them, but here’s the tension as I’ve worked it out so far, with “traditional” texting style  in mind (‘u’ instead of “you,” I’m sure you can fill in a few of your own as further examples).

Is “txtStyle” more a result of technology or of kairos?   That is, is U/you technological or contextual? Anecdotally speaking (and I’d like to hear of any studies that may speak to this), I’ve found in my students’ writing that as mobile devices have become more ubiquitous and have begun to include more full keyboards, txtStyle actually seems to occur less often–in text messages and Facebook updates as well as in school essays.  Is this a result of people being naturally more precise when offered the opportunity to be so? (When it doesn’t take 8 keystrokes to spell a simple and common three letter word as opposed to 2 strokes for a single letter phonetic substitute–a technological solution.)  Or, is it a result of students becoming more aware of the need to use different styles in different contexts because they’ve listened to few years’ worth of institutional complaining about LOLs and emoticons–a contextual solution?

Baron argues that after their learning curve and acceptance (5), technologies spread language use (11).  Better (read: cheaper to reproduce in large quantity) styluses or chisels, better paints or inks, better vellum or paper, better type or keyboard, each of these has democratized reading and writing more than the previous available technologies afforded.  More people can write; more people need to learn to write; more things can be written; more new kinds of writing need to be invented. A newer, changing technology, I would argue, has the effect of necessitating that people become more aware of kairos in more of their utterances and speech-acts than they would have before.  Rather than thinking in terms of double-standards, then, we think of style in terms of choices, choices dictated by context and technology in rapidly developing textual situations.

(I’m totally coining “txtStyle,” by the way.)

I’ll gripe about SAE later.


One thought on “5365: What Is Style?

  1. I really enjoyed your reflection on “TxtStyle.” Since I do not teach, I have not had your personal experience with it. In addition, the content that I edit is exceedingly formal (scientific papers that have been accepted for publication), so I have never seen much writing done with TxtStyle. But, I have heard the complaints, from parents, teachers, and friends with teens.

    It is interesting to see that TxtStyle is fading with the full keyboard phones. In a way that makes sense and demonstrates technology’s impact on writing. People invented and learned a texting language when the circumstances of texting made it necessary. Now that it is easier to type full words, it is also easier to revert to the language that they have been taught since childhood.

    It baffled me that teenagers could invent and learn an entirely new language to text, while grumbling and groaning about how hard it is to learn a foreign language, such as French or Spanish. I was told that it was because they wanted to text and were driven to learn texting language to do so. Now, that it is no longer necessary, that drive would decrease and texting language would likely decrease as well.

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