Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage
Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
Style Is More than a Look
Like regional accents, there are variations in writing. Rhetorical modes can be as distinctive as speech, especially when conveyed within the parameters of a profession or discipline such as medicine, law, literature or the military. English classes teach grammar, structure, and vocabulary. Lessons might even bow to the various forms of narrative, persuasion, description and classification. But within each form, there are variables. What makes the difference is purpose and audience. The style underscores the message and is a kind of shorthand, not unlike the Army, Navy or Air Force uniform which instantly transmits authority and intent.
The literary form of writing seeks to explore every possible interpretation, inviting dialogue and discussion. It covers every eventuality, every nuance, every anticipated tangent, re-assessing long-held ideas and beliefs, performing mental gymnastics in the playground of ideas. It uses imagery and analogies to elicit feelings as well as intellectual response. For example, in the poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, Wilfred Owen describes soldiers in World War I, saying, “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile ....” Owen uses analogy (bitter as the cud) to picture a scene, and rich imagery (froth-corrupted) to elicit an emotional response. And in the novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque tells of the young soldier under fire.
We crouch behind every corner, behind every barrier of barbed wire, and hurl heaps of explosives at the feet of the advancing enemy before we run. The blast of the hand-grenades impinges powerfully on our arms and legs; crouching like cats we run on, overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God only knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our own deliverance.
It takes a strong sentence structure to handle the weighty demands of such intensity. The bricks and mortar of nouns and verbs strung together as simple sentences would not be an adequate foundation. So the work rides upon a maze of subordinating clauses, phrases and semi-colons, a safety net to catch ideas that might tumble from their lofty heights. There is also a sprinkling of modifiers to zero in on any leftover vagueness. An arsenal of images and carefully chosen alliteration (barrier of barbed wire ... crouching like cats) to further underscore the essential urgency. Reading works like this is a vicarious experience. The writer intends to launch his audience into the midst of battle, feeling his own lungs bursting with terror along with the characters in the book. He wants the reader to feel.
While literature re-visits events, examining further ramifications, scientists see themselves on the cutting edge with vistas both novel and new. They begin by using a combination of present and future tense which helps underscore immediacy. They then employ strong nouns and verbs and the precise jargon of their profession which signals universality in whatever field that might be. Hardly any modifiers are employed, for modifiers convey feelings and tend to dilute and soften. Unlike the literary writer whose cache is depth and thoroughness, scientific writing conveys speed. Instead of reaching for subtle differences, the scientist wants assurance that what he is doing has validation. Hence, one might expect the sentences to be short and direct. And they are - not short, but certainly direct. A medic on the battlefield using such findings probably has read that “Infections may occur when pathogens are transferred from one part of the body to another or which have been encouraged by compromised immune activity or by an imbalance in relative population as through treatment for another disease or condition.” Note the absence of internal punctuation, something not needed, for the sentence contains no subordination. Where the novelist or poet asks, “Which interpretation speaks to you?” The medic knows that treatment in precisely the same manner should produce the same results. No shades of gray here. This is an authoritative voice, confident and sure.
In contrast, the judiciary chooses objectivity as its mantra, declaring the law as blind and impartial. Those who come before the bar of justice shall receive a fair hearing, the ideal reflected in legal writing. Like scientist, lawyers have a Latinized lexicon, the common denominator of a single language, once more implying universality. Beyond that is a determination to be dispassionate and unprejudiced. A memo might read that “The court finds that the parties have agreed and it is ordered and decreed that in the event that a dispute arises between the parties as to any matter arising from this final agreement, including enforcement and clarification of its terms, and if said dispute cannot be resolved ....” Again, the sentences are long, conveying careful thought. In addition, legal writing is often replete with explanatory phrases rather than direct modifiers. Note the six prepositions in this short piece alone. Nouns are non-specific and verbs are of the linking rather than active variety establishing a stolid tone. Emotions have no place in a court of law.
Closely related to legal writing style are the government documents familiar to everyone who has faced the IRS. Governmental bodies are designed to administer the legislative process. Because most laws are written and adopted in committee, compromise and adaptation broadens if not discourages individualization. Where the lawyer’s style works to maintain objectivity, the bureaucrat prefers to mute any connection between the implementer and the recipient. The grammatical passive voice is well able to do this, making accountability non-specific. “Private Johnson sent the letter,” identifies the actor. “The letter was sent.” leaves the actor unidentified. In the same vein, the IRS will tell you that a form “... is provided to you as information only ....” (provided by whom?) and the VA declare that “This record and report of separation was lost in a box of records which disappeared ....” How this happened is never explained, nor are we told who was responsible.
On a day to day basis, you and I feel most comfortable with newspaper or magazine style. Whether living in New York or New Orleans, we are always in a hurry, completing one task in order to move on to the next. We smile indulgently when hearing of Roman oratory and Victorian romanticism. Then was then; now is now. So sentences are short, relying on strong nouns, energized by active verbs. Internal punctuation is minimal since there is little subordination. A paragraph might consist of only one sentence and no one objects, provided that it is crisp and clear. It reflects the world’s rapid pace, matching TV sound bites, computerized e-mail and slice of life entertainment. Sentence fragments are okay. Like this. Comma splice? Not okay, but a good copy editor or secretary will catch it. You may even have had a teacher who saw English as more than creativity, sneaking in a few snippets of grammar along the way.
Which is best? It depends on the writer’s intent. If the piece deals with literature, it probably has a style that explores deeply and in detail, seeking out every aspect. If written by a legal aide or clerk, it would take pains to be objective, eliminating words and phrases that evoked feelings or emotion. A government worker would maintain stylistic distance, keeping the reader at arm’s length.
Most of us live, think and work within the casual style of conversational English, with writing that’s simple, direct and clear. It reflects speech albeit more systematized, for writing cannot incorporate body language or instant feedback. But if adapted to reach its targeted audience, the choice will ultimately be right. One only needs a basic understanding of the form.
contributed by Beth Staas