Style


Considering style is absolutely essential when constructing an argument, and that holds for the same reason argument selection is important: audience. Audiences, if they are more or less homogeneous, because they are composed of real, concrete people with certain similar expectations and backgrounds, will more readily warm to certain varieties of language, or registers, than they will others. Individuals in heterogeneous audiences, though, may have diverse expectations for language usage.* Knowing what register to employ "in the given case," then, is vital to the success of our presentation.

Now, in using the word "style," we haven't said very much; it sounds rather vague. So what does it mean? Style, like argument (of which style is a part), requires more explanation.

As we said in our presentation of persona, style is really a combination of two things: syntax (the grammar or structure of a sentence) and diction (word choice). Combined, these two components also result in what's often called tone (obviously a metaphor), or the author's inferable attitude or stance toward the subject matter and the audience. Separating "tone" from style can be difficult when discussing written discourse. Spoken discourse allows tone to come through by hearing; the words' selection and arrangement aren't the only things "doing the work." The speaker assigns accent, pitch and volume to the words as s/he speaks them. Inflection and intonation, quite often, trump even the strongest ordinary connotations of the words themselves. A speaker could, for instance, say a word with a sarcastic tone, letting us, the audience, know that she doesn't mean the word to be understood in a common way. Written discourse, on the other hand, does not often provide us with these clues so overtly.

Sometimes tone and style are considered to be synonymous, sometimes as closely related, and sometimes one (tone) is considered a subset of the other (style). In our PowerPoint presentation on persona, we consider them separately; here, we can profitably consider them as being the same or, at the very least, inextricably bound up together. However we relate them in theory, it's much more important that we know how to put style and tone to effective argumentative uses.

Style, as we're already beginning to see, then, is a highly significant factor in making arguments. We can infer several things from style: the genre, the occasion, the possible audience and, if those inferences hold (they do not always), a likely estimate of the success or failure of the given argument. But to reach those conclusions, we have to first understand (why, yes, I did just split my infinitive) that styles are varied both by situation (kairos) and individual rhetor. Along those lines, Harmon and Holman's A Handbook to Literature says styles are appropriate to different spheres of rhetorical activity: "We speak, for instance, of journalistic, scientific, or literary styles." As it goes on to explain, however, understanding style more closely requires accounting for very specific linguistic features in each text because "no two styles are exactly comparable."

In the PowerPoint below, we'll look at some of those features so we can analyze style more precisely.


Style in the news


This news article about a NASA lunar mission uses style in interesting ways. Look at the language chosen. Compare it to how else this story might have been talked about. What effects does the author (probably) seek to have on his audience? What bias can you infer from the style?

NASA Attacks the Moon

*In this course, as we stated earlier, we assume a more or less homogeneous audience composed of academics, at least as far as certain expectations for suitable discourse go.

†In the example of sarcasm, written discourse does have one delightful stylistic feature, called scare quotes, that conveys the biting irony often conveyed by oral/aural tone in spoken discourse.