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A Matter of Style: The Speaker in the Text
An Introduction to Stylistics

Style is the characteristic way in which people (or texts, if you allow yourself to think of a text as something which behaves like a person) choose to express themselves. In speaking or writing, people make choices among different ways of saying things, choosing among different words which have similar meanings, or between one sort of sentence structure and another. When you meet someone in the street, for example, as a speaker of English you will have a whole range of possible greetings—each one a way to recognize another person in passing. But which one you choose will depend on who that person is, how well you know them, whether you like them, your mood at the time. “How do you do, sir?” “Hello, how are you”; “Say man, what’s happening?” “Hi, guy!”—each of these expressions (and you can think of many more) are standard greetings (even if you personally don’t choose to use all of them), and they mean just about the same thing. Each is a formulaic recognition of someone else’s presence, and an invitation to respond with the same. [None of these expressions, by the way, usually asks for any particular information. When we say “How are you,” we rarely are interested in a person’s health. In fact, if someone were to answer, “Well, I’ve got a cold actually, and I have had trouble with my back” we’d find their reply strange.]

But though these different expressions all mean “about the same thing” (linguists would say the expressions are “cognitively synonymous”), they still all have effect on an audience and make important implicit contributions to what we say. Were you to see some important authority figure in the street, someone with whom you were not close friends but knew well enough to greet, you’d unconsciously consult your inner register competence and you would probably use “How do you do?” or “Hello, how are you?” before you’d go with “Say man, what’s happening?”—and if you DID try the slang register version, you might well get a response you weren’t looking for.

One of the most important ways stylistic choices affect their readers or hearers is by projecting a speaking voice. Read the following two passages aloud (since hearing may make the effect more clear):

1. Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

2. I haven’t checked these figures, but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual.

Passage 1 is the first sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” It is one of the best known sentences in English. In it Lincoln begins his address by immediately projecting a voice which is formal, controlled, thoughtful, yet also direct, authoritative and sensible. It is a voice perfectly appropriate to its occasion—the dedication of a part of the Gettysburg battlefield as a cemetery for men killed in the Civil War—and it is in large part the sense of voice which Lincoln’s stylistic choices create that has made his words so memorable.

Passage 2, by contrast, is from a Time magazine satire by Oliver Jensen of the way President Eisenhower conducted his news conferences. It obviously echoes Lincoln—it is in fact a translation of Lincoln’s sentence into what in the 1950's was called “Eisenhowerese.” But though both passages say generally the same things, in passage 2 the satirist has made stylistic decisions about how to say those things that are very different from the decisions Lincoln made, and the result is that the passage projects a vastly different sense of speaking voice. In place of the succinct rhythms of Lincoln’s prose which project a sense of a man who is clear about his beliefs and direct in asserting them, this passage projects a sense of a speaker who is sure of nothing, and can do little more than wander vaguely in search of a point to make. Here the speaker seems tentative and disorganized, utterly without authority or conviction.

The implications of this example are several. First, it illustrates that whether drawn from a formal and even archaic register like Lincoln’s remarks on one hand, or whether from an impromptu and informally conversational register in the way the satirist presents Eisenhower, all discourse projects some kind of a speaking voice. Second, the examples also show how the voice projected is a product of words used, sentences written. “Fourscore and seven years ago,” Lincoln begins, purposefully choosing a way of saying “87” that even in the nineteenth century was old-fashioned and formal sounding, and by doing so immediately sends a signal that this is a formal occasion and that the speaker is serious, high-minded, and respectful of tradition. What we perceive as the "voice" of the speaker is the product of the words the writer uses.

Third, and this is most important for the kind of analysis that you will be doing here, even for those English speakers who (unlike you at this point!) don’t know how to describe clearly the voice of passages like 1 and 2 above, and even if they haven’t yet developed the conscious awareness of language necessary to describing how particular words have particular stylistic effects, nevertheless everyone who knows English also knows enough to recognize these different voices, and to do so with a great deal of skill and reliability. In the same way you do not consciously translate words you hear into particular meanings, but rather understand them unconsciously without even trying to do so, you also automatically “hear” style, and you also automatically imagine, even if only vaguely, the speaker behind it.

Given these facts, the analysis we’ll be doing here has a three-fold object. First, it will give you a chance to learn or review a set of basic linguistic and writing concepts. Second, seeing how various writers employ particular language choices in order to accomplish certain purposes should also put you in a better position to make such choices as a writer yourself. And third, it will help you become a more empirically grounded close-reader of language. Whether you have thought about it before or not, whether you want to or not, reading (and on the generative side its sibling writing) well absolutely requires that you be aware of the range of stylistic options the language supplies you. Obviously, the more you know about those options, the more control you’ll have of the reading, writing and speaking you do.

RESPONDING TO SPEAKERS—What you may not know that you know

What sorts of stylistic particulars does an audience intuitively respond to? First, we are well trained to respond to explicit Characterizing Cues, certain features of language through which a text both characterizes its speaker and audience, and establishes a particular relationship between the two. That sounds complicated, but sending and receiving such cues is something speakers and listeners do all the time. Through various stylistic choices, we make ourselves seem friendly or distant, stuffy or informal, straightforward or comic. In fact, whether you know it or not, whether you wish to or not, you can neither listen nor speak to someone else without responding, or causing your audience to respond, to one language-defined role or another.

To become aware of this process, you only have to think of the different tones of voice you would use to (or hear from) a baby as opposed to a college professor, your mother as opposed to your lover, your best friend as opposed to the mayor of Seattle, your worst enemy to whom you wish never again to say a word, as opposed to your worst enemy to whom you still speak (!). Part of knowing a language is knowing that the way we speak to one person will not always be appropriate to the way we speak to other people. We are, in fact, constantly at work adopting and interpreting roles—though we often do so without any conscious awareness of the process.

In addition to responding to explicit characterizing cues, we are also well-trained to respond to the ways in which certain stylistic choices carry Situational Cues, where the context in which someone says something adds something important to what the lexical meanings (dictionary definitions) of the passage’s words overtly declare. These Situational Cues are important; at times, in fact, they may have even more force than lexical meanings, though more usually they work along with lexical meanings to constitute the whole speech act. Consider, for example, “irony,” an effect whereby a speaker can use a tone of voice, or some inappropriateness to the speaking situation of what he or she says, in order to invert meaning. Imagine, for example, a rainy and unseason-ably cold summer day on which a speaker enters a room and says: “What a lovely day!” Since the conventional judgment of such a day is just the opposite—not lovely, but ghastly—the very inappropriateness of such a remark will lead most listeners to suspect that the speaker is being “ironic”—pretending to praise the day, but really disliking it just as much as the rest of us, and in fact saying so, but doing so ironically.

The point, though, is that in context the net meaning of the sentence “What a lovely day!” is that the day isn’t lovely at all—though the simple lexical content of the words, taken by themselves, would say that it is. The Situational Cues for irony, then, create extra-lexical meaning; and they do so by partaking of a linguistic convention which plays the lexical meaning of an utterance against the particular speech situation in which the utterance occurs, thus making the sentence mean more than (adding something “extra” to) what the words alone would support. (The study of such extra-lexical linguistic effects is called Pragmatics.)

In general, whether through explicit Characterizing Cues or through implicit Situational Cues, speakers and texts bring about certain responses in their listeners/readers, and it’s important that listeners/readers be able to see them working. Remember that there is simply no way to avoid causing some kind of effect. Words create response whether we want them to or not. The question here concerns how we can become more skilled in characterizing our own responses when we read, and more effective in creating responses in our readers when we write.

SPEAKER ANALYSIS--Step 1: Intuitive Responses, or, Where to begin

To analyze a passage to describe its speaker you’ll find it easiest to begin with the Speaker Checklist below. Since you already know a great deal about characterizing speakers, even if you don’t have much conscious control of what you know, all the Checklist does is to supply a set of questions to start the process of making you more aware of what your intuitions about language can tell you. For the most part, the kinds of judgments involved here are those which you are already quite accustomed to making—though again, usually without even noticing it—in ordinary speaking, reading, and writing.

Speaker Checklist

1) How does the writer set the rhetorical situation? Does s/he speak in the first person? third person? Does the writer project a strong sense of personality, or does s/he try to stay unobtrusively in the background? If the text is a poem or a story, does the writer present him or herself as a kind of “character”? If so, how would you describe that character? Does she seem old? young? stable? a bit odd? What makes you think so?

2) How would you characterize the “tone” of the speaker? friendly? formal? distant? stuffy? uneducated? “down home”? vatic? weird? controlled? academic? poetic? authoritative? (Keep in mind that English has hundreds of words that can characterize tone. Often you will need several in order to capture a full sense of your speaker.)

3) What does s/he offer you with which to construct an image of himself/ herself? How learned (say)? Or nervous? Or humorous? Or cynical? Or earnest? How does the language reflect the sorts of things this speaker knows? How far, in short, can you use the speaker’s language to fill out his or her character? Is she a mother? a doctor? a Queen? Is he a kid brother, a student? Is she sixteen? From the East? Does she/he reveal any fears? Desires? Interests?

4) What does the speaker seem to expect of you? Are you to be respectful? Attacked? Reassured? Curious? Flattered? Amused? What does the role the speaker has set for you imply about the speaker’s own character? If you feel yourself attacked, for example, the speaker may seem correspondingly accusing, or offensive, or just plain pushy. Or does the speaker seem to coddle you? cozy up to you? flatter you? What sort of character would do that? Or does the writer simply ignore you? leave you to your own devices? Again, what sort of character would do that?

SPEAKER ANALYSIS--Step 2: Particularizing your intuitions (or, finding and giving reasons for the responses you’ve made)

Making clear your general responses to a speaker is a good way to start an analysis. But once you’ve made some judgments about what the language implicitly asks of you, and about how it implicitly characterizes its speaker, your next task will be to explain as precisely as you can what you think it is about the speaker’s language which creates the effects that you intuitively feel. Suppose, for example, that your intuition tells you that a speaker seems “friendly.” Analysis wants you to find specific characteristics of the style which create this effect. If the voice seems “friendly,” there will be specific stylistic characteristics which will create this sense for you. Perhaps (for example) the writer’s point of view is first person—the speaker says “I want,” and “I believe” instead of “It is imperative that,” or “One believes.” Or perhaps the writer’s word choices (“diction”) are informal and familiar (“If you want to know more about it”), instead of formal and distant (“Should the reader wish to be better informed”).

Alternatively, if you had a sense that a speaker seemed to be expecting a great deal of sophistication and education from you, your task would be to point to specific words, phrases, or syntactic structures which you felt led you to the response you made. Perhaps there are a number of passive constructions, or the diction is heavily Latinate, or the subject matter is relatively abstruse, or there are allusions to classical authors, made with the brevity one would use only with those for whom such allusions are mere reminders of what they already know. Any or all of these stylistic characteristics would tend to create a sense that the speaker is educated, complex, maybe even academic, and, correspondingly, that you, as reader, ought to be able to handle relatively complex matters. All such characteristics are part of a writer’s style, and are relevant to understanding and explaining (“analyzing”) your original responses.

This particularizing step of analysis—through which you move from an intuitive “feel” or “sense” of the style’s effect to a specific description of that style’s characteristics—will require that you develop a certain amount of knowledge about the choices the English language actually offers a speaker, and about what the conventional implications of such choices generally are. To help you with this step, the following considerations will help you to be specific about which features of the text have given rise to your intuitions:

Style Checklist

Diction, or Word Choice

From what level of diction are the writer’s words drawn? Are they simple, and often common, monosyllabic (predominantly from Germanic roots)? Or are they “dictionary” words, long, polysyllabic (predominantly from Latin or Greek roots)? Are they abstruse or recondite (!) (whether polysyllabic or not?) Formal? Conversational? Do you notice any other peculiarities of diction? Does the writer use neologisms? (i.e., make up new words)? Does s/he use slang? If the speaker does use slang, HOW are the words slangy? Is it the slang of dialect? is it an aggressive slang? is it obscene? Does s/he use old-fashioned language? Jargon? Are words used out of their proper contexts (are levels of diction mixed)? or are they borrowed from other languages?

Syntax, or Sentence Structure

a) Simple sentences? Compound? Complex?
b) Are the sentences Loose? Periodic?
c) What conjunctions does s/he use? simple ones like “and,” “or,” or a simple dash or semi-colon? Or more complicated ones like “if-then,” “in order to,” “although,” or “because”?
d) Sentence length: short, medium or long? And when medium or long, how does the writer manage to create such sentences? (See a, b and c.) Is there variation?
e) Are there parallel structures? What elements are in parallel? How often? Is there antithesis?
f) Active voice? Or passive?

Special Effects: Figures of Form, Metaphors, Images

First, for form: does the writer use phonetic patterns? Are sounds repeated? Is there Alliteration, for example, or Assonance? Are there rhythmic patterns? Or does the writer repeat words or structures to create patterns of words or sentences? If so, what effects do you judge these usages to have?

Second, for metaphors: does the writer use them at all? If so, are they new and imaginative, or dead or dying? are they clichés? From what sort of background are they drawn? Barnyards? Banquets? The sky and the heavens? (If they ARE drawn from special areas, what does that say about the speaker? If they are from barnyards, for example, what sort of speaker would know about barnyards? If they are computer talk, who knows that?) Is there/are there conceptual metaphors you can recognize? If so, how do they shape your perception of the writer?

Third, for images (metaphoric and not): are there any? If so, to what senses do they appeal? (Sound, sight, taste, touch, smell, movement?) What kind of awareness/knowledges do these images suggest the speaker has?


This Style Checklist is not complete—there are other choices writers can make. Moreover, neither will everything on the list be interesting in every piece of writing, nor does the list suggest very fully what sorts of effects are generally created by each of these characterizing cues. As I have already suggested, that is something the speakers of any language actually already know a great deal about, and finding ways to bring that knowledge to bear in conscious ways is a major goal in working with specific examples in class. Some of these cues will certainly occur in the passages you deal with, and you will first need to identify them if you are then to explain the effects you have intuitively (and provisionally) hypothesized.

SPEAKER ANALYSIS--Step 3: Correcting and Evaluating

In steps one and two you’ve identified your responses and you’ve described what you take to be their causes. The last step of the analysis has two parts. The first is simply to check and refine your original responses. As you become more familiar with the style, and have noticed and described more of the choices your author/speaker has made, you will often find yourself able to be more precise about the responses you first made in Step 1. You may even find that your original response—for whatever reasons—misfired, and that what you originally took to be an honest, straightforward style, for example, now seems to you ironic, or satirical. That’s fine. First responses are not sacrosanct, though they are still strong evidence with which to begin your work.

But having checked/refined your sense of the style, your final task is to connect your now well-informed sense of the text’s style to the passage’s overt meaning. Does the work’s style help, reinforce, or extend, the work’s overt sense? Does it “fit” the work? Is, for example, a text about the dignity of human life written in a “dignified” style? Or does the work’s style in fact run counter to its sense? In a composition textbook, for example, does the writer urge us to write simple and clear prose while using the jargon of education courses and an intimidating array of complex and periodic sentences? Again, a good example of a style that is brilliantly appropriate to its situation is to be found in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s object is to dedicate a cemetery—a serious and solemn task, and as we saw above, for doing so he creates a voice that is solemn, controlled, and properly respectful of tradition.)

If you’ve done your work well, this last step will be the pay-off, a place where you can see and judge how well writers have used the resources of English to achieve their purposes, and—more important in English 270/370—a place from which your own sense of style can be refined and extended. For writing well very much depends not just upon a clear understanding of what responses we want from any given writing we do, but also upon our knowing what resources the language provides with which those responses can be pursued.

Writing About Style, or,

How to Get This Down on Paper

Writing about style is no different from any other writing you do, but it may seem so owing to the step-by-step method I’ve given you for analyzing various texts. Some of you will find yourselves knee-deep in observations—burdened, in effect, with so much to say, and so much that is disparate and seemingly miscellaneous, that you won’t know how to proceed. The problem, though, lies not so much in the kind of writing you are doing as in the fact that this analytical procedure can be a very productive way to generate commentary. As a result, instead of having most students' traditional worry about whether you will ever think of enough to say, a full analysis of any of these passages may provide you with more material than you can possibly put in a single paper. Of course, not everyone likes that position, but it is an absolute godsend for good writing. Focusing and organizing a lot of information can be tough, but they sure as heck beat trying to make something out of nothing!

What, though, to do? In essence, writing about style is just the reverse of analyzing it, and thus what you do now is to go backwards. In analysis, the task is to start from the details of the text, observing, describing, classifying, in order to come to a general conclusion about the way the piece constructs its speaker, and how well or badly it manages the task. But when, by contrast, you are writing about style, the task is just the opposite: You begin by giving your general conclusion—the thing you’ve worked through your analysis in order to be able to say—and you then work step by step to set out your reasons for thinking what you do.

That is important enough to repeat: the analysis process is inductive. When you analyze something, you begin with small bits of information, with just intuitive responses to the text. But then as you work to understand the style of the passage, first by describing your responses, then by explaining those responses by describing the passage’s various stylistic features, you gradually put yourself in position to draw some sort of conclusion about what response the writer is aiming at, and how it is obtained.

A paper about style, on the other hand, ought to start precisely where analysis ends: with your conclusions (though now, since we’re writing an essay, we call those conclusions an "argument," or a "claim," or a "thesis"). Then, with your claim stated, and stated clearly and fully, you can proceed to show your reasons for having made your claim. And please keep in mind that until you give your reader reasons to believe you, your claim about the passage is just (and only) that: a claim. Remember that your reader will not have thought about the passage as closely as you have, and may not see it the way you do. Your job is to write fully, but also convincingly, about what you see your passage's effects to be.

To help yourself turn your analysis into an argument, imagine that your readers also have the kind of chip on their shoulders that says “show me!” before they will believe anything. Your role for such a reader is both to provide a clear description of the speaking voice you think the passage creates, and then to explain as clearly and as fully as you can just what you see in the passage that has led you to your conclusions. Even if the conclusions you have come to seem obvious to you, remember that your reader still may not share them. Here as in any other paper you write you are making an argument, giving grounds to support the results of your thinking. Your task (I say again) is thus to marshal your reasons effectively and efficiently in order to show your reader how they justify your argument.

Seeing it Work

I cited the first sentence of The Gettysburg Address above. I give you the whole of it now, and it is followed by a (very good) student essay written to characterize and explain its speaking voice. Read through the Address carefully and aloud. Then spend a few minutes trying steps one and two of the analysis I outlined above. Then, finally, go on to read the essay.

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

—Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 19, 1863

A Stylistic Analysis of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address"

“The Gettysburg Address” is obviously a very formal piece, but at the same time, it is intimate and the speaker identifies himself with the common man. The speaker is the leader of the people to whom he directs his remarks; but his distance from his audience is important: he is one of them, they are one family. The speaker comes across as well-educated, yet humble, with a firm sense of his own and his listener’s dignity. He is a man of conviction, he is patriotic, reflective, visionary. While capable of great eloquence, he seems by nature a laconic man, not at all gifted with the gab, but measured and deliberate in his utterance.

From his audience, Lincoln seems to expect serious attention. He seems to expect a mood of sadness, perhaps disillusionment or doubt. But he assumes that he and his listeners share the same broad fundamental beliefs in God, human dignity and democracy. He places himself on the same level as his listeners by joining them in an attitude of awe and respect for the dead they have come together to honor. This rhetorical stance of equality with the audience is crucial because it inspires their assent to his call for further courage and self-sacrifice.

Lincoln achieves these effects, first of all, by means of his choice of the first-person plural point of view. He stands equal with his listeners; “we” and “ours” is used throughout. Lincoln’s mixed diction also contributes to the feeling of his equal stance with his audience. Latin and Anglo-Saxon words are brilliantly combined to convey the sense of a speaker who is educated, capable of grasping abstract ideas, while still remaining a common man. It sends the message: “You and I may be regular guys, but we are capable of grasping ideals and of making heroic efforts.” Almost all of Lincoln’s political ideas are conveyed in Latinate terminology (e.g. “continent,” “nation,” “liberty,” “proposition,” “conceived,” “dedicated,” “engaged,” “civil,” “equal,” “proper”). Along side this abstract but not recondite vocabulary, making his message more accessible to his listeners, are a great number of simple, short Anglo-Saxon words, most of which are in common use (e.g., “fathers,” “men living and dead,” “field,” “ground,” “earth,” “work,” “God,” “brought forth,” “birth of freedom”).

Two or three phrases are worth special note. “Fourscore” is Anglo-Saxon; it is solid, definite, sure. The origin of the word is Germanic, giving it a common cast, yet it was not, I think, even l50 years ago, used frequently; it has an archaic flavor. The word suits Lincoln’s purpose perfectly; it achieves a formal tone without creating distance between the speaker and audience. Another phrase worth notice is “our fathers brought forth.” Again, the words are Germanic in origin. They are common and humble, yet measured and somber in their sound and rhythm, conveying almost a tribal sense between speaker and audience.

The rhythm of “The Gettysburg Address” is slow and measured, conveying not only the sense of the speaker as laconic and reflective, but the feeling that the occasion itself is a somber one. Repetition is a key device in the address: repetition of words, phrases, clauses (with slight variation) and syntactic forms. Some examples of repeated phrases are “a new nation . . . that nation . . . or any nation. . . that that nation.” A clause repeated with slight change is “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work. . . . It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task. . . .” Parallel constructions abound: “we cannot dedicate . . . we cannot consecrate . . . we cannot hallow . . .” and “conceived in liberty . . . dedicated to the proposition . . . so conceived and so dedicated. . . .” In the last sentence we have a kind of extreme of this repetition of parallel phrases, for “that from these dead we take . . . that we here highly . . . that this nation . . . that this government. . . .” Then, finally, Lincoln ends with still another set of parallels as his conclusionthe famous “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

For the most part, the syntax of the “Gettysburg Address” is loose, allowing for easy comprehension in oral speech. One of the ways Lincoln comes across as a laconic speaker who does not care to show off his education is through his frequent use of short clauses. He can thereby convey complex thoughts in the fewest possible words. Examples include sentence one: “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition . . .” and sentence two: “civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . .” Lincoln will also delete part of a complex conjunction to gain the same effect, (e.g., in sentence four, in place of “so that” he has “for those who here gave lives that that nation. . . .”)

In conclusion, Lincoln’s ability to use complex patterns and syntactic structures, as well as his use of Latinate diction, create a tone of formal, even distanced intellect, and supplies credence to the ideals he holds up to his audience. His Anglo-Saxon word choices and the simplifications of grammatical structures, on the other hand, as well as the point of view he has chosen, help put him on common ground with his listeners.