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The Concept of Style


Style has been an object of study from ancient times. Aristotle, Cicero, Demetrius and Quintilian treated style as the proper adornment of thought. In this view, which prevailed throughout the Renaissance period, devices of style can be catalogued. The essayist or orator is expected to frame his ideas with the help of model sentences and prescribed kinds of ‘figures’ suitable to his mode of discourse. Modern stylistics uses the tools of formal linguistic analysis coupled with the methods of literary criticism, its goal is to try to isolate characteristic uses and functions of language and rhetoric rather than advance normative or prescriptive rules and patterns.

The traditional idea of style as something properly added to thoughts contrast with the ideas that derive from Charles Bally (1865-1947), the Swiss philologist and Leo Spitzer (1887-1947), the Austrian literary critic. According to followers of these thinkers, style in language arises from the possibility of choice among alternative forms of expression, as for example, between ‘children’, ‘kids’ ‘youngsters’ and youths, each of which has a different evocative value. This theory emphasizes the relation between style and linguistics, as does the theory of Edward Sapir, who talked about literature that is formed-based and literature that is content based and the near untranslatability of the former.

The term ‘style’ is used in linguistics to describe the choices which language makes available to a user, beyond the choices necessary for the simple expression of a meaning. Style has been defined or approached from many perspective by different scholars and has various meanings based on what a writer wants to use it to achieve. Style and languages are interwoven, they cannot be studied in isolation; they are related and can best be described as two sides of a coin that cannot be separated. A writer differs from another writer either through the unique personal characteristics or language use register expression of thoughts and emotions as well as tone. For instance, the writer Ifeoma Okoye is known as easily recognized through her expression of thought and calm tone of relating the ills in the society.

Style can be viewed as the linguistic habits of a particular writer. It can also be applied to the way language is used in a particular genre, period and school of writing. Style is the choice of language used by the writer in his/her own unique way in which he or she employs or demonstrates his/her linguistic repertoire to convey his/her intended message across to his/her readers. Murray posits that “personal idiosyncrasy of expression by which we recognize a writer” (4). The scholar agrees with the concept of style as an individual being identified through a writer’s unique features in his expressions. Dobree states that ‘style is the knowledge of what one wants to say and saying it in the most fitting words.’ (28) This implies that a writer’s choice of words must be appropriate. Robinson commenting on the concept of style states that:

A full study of style and varieties of style must take into account the length and schemes of sentences, use of figurative language and imagery, the rhythm of words and syntax; the quality of words (171).

This scholar suggests that a good style should be in agreement with the rules of concord in grammar, which includes the sentence pattern, appropriate arrangement of words or syntax and good use of imagery. However, Brooks and Warren gave their opinion of style as ‘a result determined by the working together of sentence structure, vocabulary, figures of speech, rhythm and many other elements’ (312).

Leech and Short have described style as referring to ‘the way in which language is used in a given context, by a given person, for a given purpose (30). This implies that, language can be used to achieve a specific purpose within a specific context to which it is being used by a writer or individual.

Azuike in the course “An Introduction to style” defines style as “a choice of alternative ways of expressing the same idea”. There are different ways in which an idea can be expressed. No two words mean exactly. For instance; ‘regular’, ‘frequently’ ‘always’, ‘often’ etc. A writer must make deliberate choices of linguistic patterns while writing.

Fowler originally gives the following definition of style: ‘style- a property of all texts, not just literary-may be said to reside in the manipulation of variables in the structure of a language or in the selection of optional or ‘latent’ ‘features’(15). In his later evaluation, Fowler rejects the term style as a working term, arguing that it lacks precision. He claims that the word has an inevitably blurring effect, because the kinds of regularities referred to are so diverse in their nature. However, style has been redefined by him as “a recognizable and characteristic way of doing something” (185).

Style can also be defined as choice from linguistic possibilities. It is also viewed as a particular choice of language made by an author in a sense, embodies that author’s achievement, and way of experiencing and interpreting the world” (Leech et al 1982. 158).Style differ according to features which influence the speaker’s/writer’s choice of means of expression. Halliday (1978) has introduced three concepts which are crucial in the interpretation of messages, namely field, tenor and mode. These concepts have been used as reliable indicators of stylistic differences. Field, tenor and mode are factors influencing the choice of language means and posing limitations on the repertoire of phonological grammatical and lexical devices.

Style as a Deviation from Norm

Style is often related to deviation, meaning a variation that deviates from the standard or norm. The writer is said to deliberately recourse to the use of his/her own style, marked by the non-respect of grammar rules so as to better attract the attention of his/her readers. These devices he/she uses are the style markers and they help him/her to achieve the aim sought by attracting the attention of the readers. In fact, style as deviation can be linked to style as a choice for they practically have the same aim which is to convey in a very clear manner the author’s message. It is mostly marked by the author’s refusal of the use of standard language, by his/her non-conformism and the non-respect of grammatical rules. This non-conformism on his/her behalf can indeed be considered as style marker. In doing so, the author attracts the readers on matters that the latter did not find interesting at all.

The aim of an author using style deviation may differ according to the message he/she wants to convey. The refusal to use standard language for example may be related to the author’s need to describe the way of speaking of the people he describes. Any writing or material that has intentionally jettisoned the rule of language in some way is said to have deviated. Traugott and Pratt (1980) believe that the idea of style as deviance is favoured by the “generative frame of reference”. It is an old concept, which stems from the work of such scholars as Jan Mukarovsky. Mukarovsky relates style to foregrounding and says that violation of norm of the standard…“Is what makes possible the poetic utilization of language” (Traugott and Pratt.31).

Chinua Achebe for instance, can be taken as the epitome of this kind of non-respect of grammar rules in mostly all his novels. His main concern however is to reflect the social reality of his society, by showing the very way they express themselves without any respect of grammar rules or syntax illustrated in this passage extracted from his book Anthills of the Savannah: “you mean to say dem no tell you? Wonderful! Na for President Guest House for Abichi lake na there dem say make I take you and dat must correct because why? The president been de there since yesterday, he no dey for palace at all. Style is a deviation from the norm and not an error.

Style as the Individual

Style as an individual is based on the notion that every individual has his/her own unique way of doing things and that no two persons are the same; thus in literary style, one can differentiate between the writings of Achebe and Wole Soyinka based on their use of language amongst other things. A person’s style may also be shaped by his social and political background, religion, inclination, culture, education, geographical location etc. The notion of style as a man sees style as an index personality (Trauggot and prrat. 31). For instance, Achebe tells us a lot about the social and cultural backgrounds of the tradition, Achebe is a preserver and promoter of the African culture; he uses proverbs and his use of language is easily and well understood by the uneducated. ‘… As elders said, if a child washes his hands, he could eat out with kings (8)”.

“When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.” (10)

The first proverb describes Okonkwo as a great warrior and defender of his people when deity calls (war). He has achieved great things as a young man and so he has been honoured to dine with the chiefs of the land. Wole Soyinka, in his poem titled Night, expresses his unique ideas through the use of figurative language and imagination. This poet is unique in his own personality or characterization and can be identified by his readers. He describes the nightfall and its effect on him using images or his imaginative power. The mist that announces the evening and the warmth experienced during the early part of the night, the evil activities that accompany it.

Your hand is heavy, night upon my brow.

I bear no heart mercuric like the clouds to dare exacerbation from your subtle plough.

…hide me now when night children haunt the earth.

I must hear name! these misted calls yet undo me; naked, unbidden, at nights mated birth

These writers have their own unique way of expressing their ideas across to their readers. This proves that style is an individual or a man.

Style as Content and/or Form

Style as a content and form denotes that content (ideas or subject matter) and forms are two separate entities known as ‘dualism’. Style is ornamental in this sense because it arise only when aesthetic over turns are imposed on a hither to ‘pure’ semiotic content of a linguistic item. The content according to the view is constant while the form is the variable function. This concept is likened to palm kernel, the shell is synonymous to the form while the content is synonymous to the palm kernel nut. On the other hand, the conception of style as content or form known as ‘Monism’ stipulates that content or form are inseparable. It insists on the inseparability of content or meaning and form or surface realization. Both ‘how’ and ‘what’ are merged and are indistinguishable from the other for an ardent monist view of style. Roland Barthes (1971) asserts that style is an irreducible content. He likens a text to an onion consisting of layers ‘or levels or system whose body contains finally no heart, no kernel, no secret, no irreducible principle, nothing except the infinity of its own enveloped which envelopes nothing other than unity of its own surface” (31). According to Barthes, the text is not double or more exactly, the text in its entirety is only a multiplicity of forms without content.

For instance, the following poems by two distinct poets express their ideas in their unique way, in respect to style as content and/or form (Same ideas or Subject matter).

“Gentle Giants” – Amaka Azuike

“The macabre Dance”

Come my love

Come let us dance

The macabre dance

That dance befitting Kegities

In a congenial company

Doing their rituals; clad naked

Bodies glistering with talisman rounded their necks

Dancing till the break of dawn… (16)

The poet describes the act of sexual intercourse by two lovers as the macabre dance, she gives an invitation to her lover (Spouse) to come and dance the kind of dance likened to the kind of dance by the Kegities, the Gyratun, passion and pleasure derived during the dance. She uses her imaginative power to paint pictures in the mind of her readers.

Owemedimo .E. Iwoketok in her collection of poems titled Reminiscences writes on love.


Love, what are?

Sometimes you come like a flood

Consuming the soul, blurring.

Vision and opaquing imagination and reasoning

Are you weak? No!

For by your strength

Cities are leveled;

Nations are built…

Oh! That I May have a

Height to fall from

Than fall into the

Depth of love (14)

In the above poem, the poet’s confrontational, interrogative and demanding to understand what ‘love’ means. She describes love as flood, consumer of the soul, blurring visions, imagination and reasoning. The poet views love in lines 7-9 as strength, which is use in building and destroying of cities and nations. These distinctive personalities share the same ideas or have the same content embedded in their subject matter and have different ways of expression of form that is where content and form emerge.

Armah’s The Beautiful are not Yet Born, is all about corruption and decay that have eaten deep into the politick of Ghana. The vices are exemplified by the attempted bribery of the man by the timber contractor. The various sexual drawings on the wall of the lavatory show immorality or the level of moral decay obtainable in Ghana then. Armah used his contemporary locale of Ghana to paint a sordid picture of the horrendous cankerworm and graft that has eaten deep into the political and social landscape of Africa as a whole. In presenting the central idea of the work, Armah does not utilize the writing style of chronological plot. In other words, one story does not lead to another. There is a mix-up in the presentation of factual sense. Again, though the language is simple, it is raw, and could pose a problem of comprehension if one does not read in between the lines. Okoye’sMen without Ears, tells an absorbing story of men and some women who are society determinist or conformist. The author let her readers see the actions and feel the mood, reflections and thoughts of the characters through Chigo’s ‘eyes’. Chigo’s timidity and moral stand like that of the Man in Armah’s The Beautyful Ones serve the author’s deliberate ploy to expose ills and moral decadence in the society as a result of man’s insatiable quest for national wealth.

The general language of the text is simple, direct and straightforward. The simplicity of the language helps to look with pity and feel empathized by this obvious life of bribery and corruption, fake life, quest to acquire wealth either by hook or by crook and the plight of an upright man in such a morally bankrupt society. Both Armah and Okoye share the same idea and subject matter but Armah sounds raw and harsh while Okoye subtly projects her themes.

Style as a Manner of Expression

Styles as a Choice

Choice is a very vital element of stylistics since it deals with the variation and options that are available to an author. Language provides its users with more than one choice in a given situation and genre, the writer chooses in expressing thoughts and opinions. Traugett and Pratt (1980) classify the connection between language and choice as the characteristic choices exhibited in a text.

With the writer’s choice, there is a reflection of his ego and the social condition of his environment. In determining the appropriate choice of linguistic elements, two important choice plans are open to the writer: the paradigmatic axis is also referred to as vertical or choice axis while the syntagmatic is horizontal axis. The vertical axis gives a variety of choices between one item and the other item. The writer then chooses the most appropriate word. Thus, the paradigmatic axis is able to account for the given fillers that occupy a particular shot while still maintaining the structure of the sentence. Thus, in the programmatic level, for example, a writer or speaker can choose between ‘start’ and ‘commence’, ‘go’ and proceed (29 - 30).

Charles Hocket opines that ‘roughly speaking, two utterances in the same language which convey approximately the same information but which are different in their linguistic structure can be said to differ in style.’ (556).

For instance, the poem titled Akuzie by Amaka Azuike



The epitome of black beauty!

You come from the warmth of Africa

Africa, home of beautiful Amazons

Tigresses of the savannah

Firm guard like breast

Full rounded hips…

That gorgeous goddess of old

Who fought in muscled men’s are


A symbol of all that is in an African Woman

You are like Moremi of Ife

Cool, confident and courageous… (56)

The poet’s choice of register is strictly feminine, using adjectives in her description of who an African woman is or womanhood. She uses specific register and adjectives like ‘Black beauty’, ‘Tigresses’, ‘rounded hips’, ‘goddess’, ‘heavy thighs’ etc. all these attributes are ascribed to what woman mood is all about.

Style as a Good or Beautiful Writing

Style as a good or beautiful writing considers a text from a highly aesthetic perspective. A text is either said to be elegant and skillfully composed or badly written. In this approach, the need to show a precision of thought in writing is emphasized. This is the view of style which Adam Smith (1963) adopts in his lecture on ‘Rhetoric and Bella letters’ the perfection of style consists in expressing in most concise proper and precise or affection with which the writer designs to communicate to his reader.

To Jonathan Swift, style is a matter of the ability to shot in the right words in the most appropriate position: proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style.

Style as a good writing is exemplified in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart:

After the death of Ekwefi’s second child, Okonkwo had gone to a medicine man, who was also a diviner of the Afe oracle, to inquire what was amiss. This man told him that the child was an Ogbange… (70)

Achebe’s language and diction are well constructed, comprehensive and it agrees with the rules of grammar. He uses some punctuation marks appropriately and capitalization of letters at the beginning of a new sentence and proper nouns like Okonkwo, Afa, Obanje efe.

Style as a Dress of Thought

According to Leech and Short ‘the distinction between what a writer has to say and how it is presented to the reader underlines one of the earliest and most persistent concepts of style: that of style as the dress of thought’. (15)

This metaphor of style as some kind of ‘adornment’ or ‘conveying’ of thought or meaning is no longer widely current, it frequently appears in Renaissance and rationalist pronouncements on style and is implicit.

Style as a dress of thoughts suggests that thoughts and the way of thinking are two different things. The thought may be the same but the way it is being thought may change according to the situation i.e. the words, phrases and language used to shape up the thoughts may vary without making any changes in what is being thought. It is something like what a writer wants to say and how he presents it to the readers.

The dress of thought – Metaphor retains some appropriacy, but only by virtue of an impression; a converse implication of the dress of thought, view is that, it is possible to write in a style, which is the nadir of plainness and neutrality. As Wesley puts it in an age stylistically more austere than that of Lyly:

Style is the dress of thought; a modest dress, neat but not gaudy, will true critics please.

This is another dualist view which suggests that the content of thought may remain the same but the manner of expression i.e. the words, phrases and the language chosen to express it may slightly change the meaning of the content. Style as a manner of expression is a more general and tenable version of dualism; that every writer necessarily makes choices of expression and that it is in these choices, in his way of putting things that style resides.

Style as a Product Context

Although many people relate style to choice, some scholars maintain that style is not a matter of choice or deviation, rather it is the result of the milieu in which the author originates and the context in which the work is produced. The environment defines the context and urges people to act in accordance with its production. This type of style may be linked to choice as well as to nature because people believe that it may not depend on the author’s will, it is imposed upon him/her naturally, without his/her knowing. On the other hand, it may be related to choice in as much as the author may decide to restart to a violent style because of a given context, without being violent in his/her other works. This type of style is mostly noticed through the workers of pre independence Africa as well as the proponents of Negritude. That is, the idea that Jean Paul Sartre develops in his book Situation II, by stating:

L’écrivaine est en situation dans son époque, chaque parole a des retentissements cheque silence aussi.

By this, he stressed on the fact that it is the context, which should dictate the attitude and the tonality of the writer. Achebe in his earlier novels describes women as just housewives, but in the last ones he gives a more beautiful depiction of women in giving them important places in their society. This is understandable because the pre-independence women were hardly given the right place they deserved in terms of leadership.

The importance of context as a source of style markers has been noted by several stylisticians. In addition to the intra-textual and inter-textual ordering of a text; it concludes extra-textual features to which the resolution of items local to a text can be sought. In this theory, style is deemed to be conditioned by the socio-cultural factors which influence the making of an utterance, whether written or spoken. Turner (1979) asserts that ‘a theory of style is incomplete without some attempt to describe the situation or context in which language is used (134). Crystal and Davy (1980) tie style with its social context to “analyze language habits with the main purpose of identifying on every conceivable occasion, those features which are restricted to certain kinds of social context to explain where possible why such features have been used as opposed to other alternatives and to identify these features into categories based upon a view of their function in the social context.” (80)

For instance, the language and literature of Britain during the nineteenth century serve as a good example of style as a product of context. David Jowitt in his book titled English language and Literature in Historical Context says that:

…During the century, the accent of those who in England typically used standard English grammar and spelling that is the most educated members of the community – also advances in prestige and the name ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP) began to be applied to it, ‘received’ here having the same meaning as ‘accepted’ since the most educated largely also belonged to the upper classes distinguished themselves from the lower, who spoke regional dialects such as London Cockney. In general, RP vowels were uttered with greater tension and the mouth more open. (196)

The above quotation explains the social stratification within England during the Nineteenth century. The social strata of England are divided into two groups or social groups. The upper class which speaks the RP and the lower class speaks what is called London Cockney. This is based on the social status of a given community.