Appropriateness and Stylistic
Stylistics is the study of varieties of language whose properties position that language in context. For example, the language of advertising, politics, religion, individual authors, etc., or the language of a period in time, all belong in a particular situation. In other words, they all have ‘place’.
Stylistics also attempts to establish principles capable of explaining the particular choices made by individuals and social groups in their use of language, such as socialisation, the production and reception of meaning, critical discourse analysis and literary criticism.
Other features of stylistics include the use of dialogue, including regional accents and people’s dialects, descriptive language, the use of grammar, such as the active voice or passive voice, the distribution of sentence lengths, the use of particular language registers, etc.
Many linguists do not like the term ‘stylistics’. The word ‘style’, itself, has several connotations that make it difficult for the term to be defined accurately. However, in Linguistic Criticism (1996), Roger Fowler makes the point that, in non-theoretical usage, the word stylistics makes sense and is useful in referring to an enormous range of literary contexts, such as John Milton’s ‘grand style’, the ‘prose style’ of Henry James, the ‘epic’ and ‘ballad style’ of classical Greek literature, etc. In addition, stylistics is a distinctive term that may be used to determine the connections between the form and effects within a particular variety of language. Therefore, stylistics looks at what is ‘going on’ within the language; what the linguistic associations are that the style of language reveals.
Consider the quotation below:‘I was proceeding on my beat when I accosted the suspect whom I had reason to believe might wish to come down to the station and help with enquiries in hand.’
This language only belongs in a UK policeman’s notebook and is usually read out in a court of law. The sentence is not only formal but highly conventional for the location in which it is found. In addition, it is also extremely ambiguous (a common feature of so-called conventional language). Why ‘accosted’, for example, and not ‘arrested’, ‘collared’, ‘nicked’ or even ‘pinched’? Either of which would express more accurately what occurred in language more suitable for the typical British ‘bobby’, rather than the pre-scripted text that is simply being recited ‘parrot fashion’.
In ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ in Style in Language (1960), Roman Jakobson explores the concept the ‘emotive’ or ‘expressive’ function of the language, a direct expression of the speaker’s attitude toward what they are speaking about, which tends to produce an impression of a certain emotion. The distinction here can be made between the spoken word and written text.
As well as conventional styles of language there are the unconventional – the most obvious of which is poetry. In Practical Stylistics (1992), HG Widdowson examines the traditional form of the epitaph, as found on headstones in a cemetery. For example:
His memory is dear today
As in the hour he passed away.
Widdowson makes the point that such sentiments are usually not very interesting and suggests that they may be dismissed as ‘crude verbal carvings’ (W’son, 3), as does the English poet Thomas Gray in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751), who refers to them as ‘uncouth rhymes’. Nevertheless, Widdowson recognizes that they are a very real attempt to convey feelings of human loss and preserve affectionate recollections of a beloved friend or family member. However, what may be seen as poetic in this language is not so much in the formulaic and institutional phraseology but in where it appears. The verse may be given undue reverence precisely because of the somber situation in which it is placed. Widdowson suggests that, unlike words set in stone in a graveyard, poetry is unorthodox language that vibrates with inter-textual implications. (W’son, 4)
This is by Ogden Nash:
Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads,
And not the road.
‘Lather As You Go’, Collected Verse (1952)
Nash is satirizing the form. The epitaph is humorous but it is perhaps more funny because of the solemn location with which this language is normally associated.
Below is a standard rhyme that might be found inside a conventional Valentine’s card:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
[Tum-tee tum-tee tum],
I love you.
We might ask why roses for the characteristic example of ‘redness’ instead of perhaps a British pillar box, which is considerably redder than the petals of any rose? Or, indeed, why violets as the archetypical illustration of ‘blueness’ and not, say, the distinctive cobalt hue of the shirt worn by the tragic 1978 Scottish World Cup squad in Argentina? Maybe because roses and violets are traditional tokens of romance, and their association with particular colors (as not all roses are red, nor all violets blue) reinforces the imagery: the red of a lover’s lips, the blue of their eyes, or the sea, or the sky, etc. – all very romantic stuff. The conventional symbolism of the verse is certainly appropriate for the setting of a Valentine’s card, but is this poetry?
Here is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ (a fragment):
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
As with the eagle, Tennyson leaves the reader balancing precariously on the end of the first verse with the single word ‘stands’.
Although language may appear fitting to its context stylistics also reveals itself in many grammatical disguises. Widdowson points out that in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798), the mystery of the Mariner’s abrupt appearance is sustained by an idiosyncratic use of tense. For instance, in the first line Coleridge does not say: ‘There was ancient Mariner’ or ‘There arrived an ancient Mariner’, but instead not only does he immediately place the reader at the wedding feast, Coleridge similarly throws the Mariner abruptly into the middle of the situation:
It is an ancient Mariner
And he stoppeth one of three.
- ‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am the next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
This language gives us a new perspective on familiar themes and allows us to look at them without the personal or social conditioning that we unconsciously associate with them. So, although we may still use the same exhausted words and vague terms like ‘love’, ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ to refer to human experience, to place these words in a new and refreshing context allows the poet the ability to represent humanity and communicate honestly. This, in part, is stylistics, and this, according to Widdowson, and it seems reasonable to agree, is the point of poetry.
There is a view that style is choice, which means stylistic is a discipline researching the appropriate way to putting something. People speak of racy, pompous, formal, colloquial, inflammatory, or even nominal and verbal styles. When writing a text, we will probably be more concerned with the style than the language itself, for it is the appropriateness, not the content makes the writing more interesting and appealing. So we should learn deeply, for the more one understands the linguistic system, the more one appreciates the infinity and variety of possible choices and combinations of choices available. then, we can creates structures that are deeply meaningful and imaginatively fulfilling, and expressive of our most fundamental feeling.