Peculiarities of prose style


This pamphlet is designed to introduce you to, or remind you of, the basic principles of prose style and mechanics. The Prose Style Section describes twelve basic principles of good prose style and illustrates most of these principles with examples. Since most writers and editors agree about the importance of these twelve basic principles, I have drawn from a wide vari

ety of sources. However, I would especially recommend two texts: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White and Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace by Joseph Williams.

All twelve principles described in the style section above are based on one overriding principle—that the essence of good writing is rewriting. You may attend to some of these principles spontaneously when you compose your first draft, but stylistic considerations become more deliberate concerns when you work on second, third, and fourth drafts. Remember that good writing is hard work, and as Samuel Johnson said, "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."

The Basic Punctuation and Mechanics Section of the pamphlet presents rules that govern the approximately fifty most common problems with punctuation and mechanics. Most of these rules are illustrated with examples, and many are cross-referenced with other rules with which they are frequently confused. This section is based primarily on The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition, generally considered the definitive reference on questions of punctuation and mechanics.


Treatises devoted to the study of style can be found as early as Demetrius's On Style. But most pre-twentieth-century discussions appear as secondary components of rhetorical and grammatical analyses or in general studies of literature and literary language. The appearance of stylistics as a semiautonomous discipline is a modern phenomenon, an ongoing development in linguistic description that is closely tied to the similar rise of literary criticism and linguistics as academic subjects and departments. Modern stylistics, in general, draws much of its analytical power from the analytical methods and descriptive intentions of linguistics, while modern literary stylistics, in particular, draws upon that area and adds to it the interpretive goals of modern literary criticism. In both cases, the use of linguistic methodology has allowed stylistics to move beyond earlier normative and prescriptive descriptions of "correct" styles to a fuller analysis of language itself and the purposes to which language regularly is put[1].

Whatever the limits of previous approaches to style, or the difficulties that have arisen from the practical application of linguistic methods to stylistic analysis, the desire to begin with a set of well-defined terms and procedures lies at the core of the initial formation of stylistics as a discipline. While all versions of literary stylistics have dedicated themselves to the study and interpretation of literary texts, it was the growing importance of European historical linguistics during the mid-nineteenth century that produced the most easily recognized component of early modern stylistics: a deeply rooted concern with formal linguistic description of literary language. The methodological benefits that stylistics gained by uniting literary interpretation and linguistic analysis were matched by institutional gains as well[2]. Historical and general linguistics were well-established academic disciplines at the turn of the twentieth century, and stylistics could expect to benefit from that status. The use of linguistic procedures thus offered stylistics both an affinity with an established discipline and the possibility of founding the description and interpretation of style upon the bedrock of science. .

While its air of scientific analysis made linguistics attractive, linguistic science was not itself a monolithic entity. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, linguistic study oscillated between a desire to define language through efficient analytical methods (often requiring a-contextual descriptions) and another, competing desire to define language as a social and cultural phenomenon. The work of the neogrammarians, key figures in the formation of linguistics as a modern scientific discipline, displays the tension well. Although the neogrammarians began their work with the intention of reintroducing behavior into linguistic description, the attractiveness of scientific method dictated the slow elimination of the user as a complex part of the description. The result for some linguists, notably the philologians, was a sacrificing of the real heart of linguistics to a sterile formalism; for many, however, the shift was the logical result of a move into the modern scientific age. It was in terms of these separate views of the proper role of linguistic description that the predominant approaches to modern stylistics developed, and because of the strong Continental influence of Romance Philology on historical linguistics, modern stylistics usually is seen as having begun there.

The roots of modern stylistics can be uncovered in the work of Charles Bally (1865-1947) and Leo Spitzer (1887-1960). Bally's Précis de stylistique (1905) stresses the description and analysis of a language's generally available stylistic properties. Literary texts, in Bally's formulation, are particular examples of language use, and the analysis of their style is not a central part of the general stylistics he emphasizes. Nevertheless, Bally's work, and its later realization in the work of Jules Marouzeau (Précis de stylistique française, 1946) and Marcel Cressot (Le Style et ses techniques, 1947), strongly influenced the formation of literary stylistics. Such analytical work offered literary critics a relatively precise methodology for describing the components and features of a text. In place of an open-ended and evaluative interpretive process, linguistics both underwrote the need for a more precise analytical attitude toward language study and provided specific categories for characterizing sound, rhyth, and eventually syntax, as well as points of comparison and contrast between registers, forms, and functions within genres and literary periods.

In contrast to the stylistique of Bally and his proponents, Leo Spitzer insisted upon following the more philologically based tradition of textual (and often literary-textual) analysis. Such work, while using the analytical techniques of modern linguistics, strives to unite the analytical description with a critical interpretation that relates the style to a larger conceptual or situational frame. Style is seen as an expression of a particular psychological, social, or historical sensibility or moment rather than as a general property of a particular language. In undertaking these wider interpretations, critics such as Spitzer did not, however, assume that they were defining their stylistics as separate from, or even as a subset of, linguistic analysis. In both his etymological studies and his more specifically literary-critical interpretations[3], Spitzer insisted that he was promulgating a general program of linguistic study, offering his stylistics in opposition to what he saw as the more reductionist analyses of general, scientific linguistics. Spitzer himself emphasized the split until the end of his career, regularly referring to his work as Stilforschung (literary, cultural interpretation of style--philology in his eyes) to set it apart from that of Stilistik, or Bally's stylistique (e.g., "Les Études de style et les différents pays" 23-39). At the same time, he assumed--as did fellow critics of style such as Ernst Robert Curtius, Karl Vossler, and Helmut Hatzfeld--that he was not reducing the scientific aspect of linguistics but only offsetting a false, positivistic tone that was becoming increasingly predominant in the field. The tension in linguistics between general linguistic description and less formal sociocultural interpretation thus was mirrored in this early separation in stylistics between linguistic stylistic description and literary stylistic interpretation. It is a separation, and a tension, that remains at the heart of modern stylistics[4].

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