Friday, April 18, 2008


STYLISTICS is the study of varieties of language the properties of which position that language in context. For example, the language of advertising, politics, religion, individual authors, etc., or the language of a period in time, all belong in a particular situation. In other words, they all have ‘place’.
• Stylistic analysis in linguistics refers to the identification of patterns of usage in speech and writing.
• Stylistic analysis in literary studies is usually made for the purpose of commenting on quality and meaning in a text.
Stylistics also attempts to establish principles capable of explaining the particular choices made by individuals and social groups in their use of language, such as socialization, the production and reception of meaning, critical discourse analysis and literary criticism.
Other features of stylistics include the use of dialogue, including regional accents and people’s dialects, descriptive language, the use of grammar, such as the or passive voice, the distribution of sentence lengths, the use of particular language registers, etc.
Many linguists do not like the term ‘stylistics’. The word ‘style’, itself, has several connotations that make it difficult for the term to be defined accurately. Stylistics is a distinctive term that may be used to determine the connections between the form and effects within a particular variety of language. Therefore, stylistics looks at what is ‘going on’ within the language; what the linguistic associations are that the style of language reveals.
1. A stylistic analysis of a road sign which reads NO RIGHT TURN might make the following observations.
 The statement is a command.
 It is cast in the imperative mode.
 The statement lacks a subject and a verb.
 These ( a subject and a verb) are implied [THERE IS].
 The statement is unpunctuated.
 Capitals have been used for emphasis.
 Simple vocabulary to suit wide audience.
 Extreme compression for rapid comprehension.
 Form entirely suited to audience and function.

2. Take the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
A stylistic analysis might reveal the following points:
 the play is written in poetic blank verse
 that is - unrhymed, iambic pentameters
 the stresses fall as follows
 Now is the winter of our discontent
 [notice that the stress falls on vowel sounds]
 the first line is built on a metaphor
 the condition of England is described in terms of the season ‘winter’
 the term ‘our’ is a form of the royal “we”
 the seasonal metaphor is extended into the second line
 ... where better conditions become ‘summer’
 the metaphor is extended even further by the term ‘sun’
 it is the sun which appears, ‘causing’ the summer
 but ‘sun’ is here also a pun - on the term ‘son’
 ... which refers to the son of the King
 ‘York’ is a metonymic reference to the Duke of York
• In a complete analysis, the significance of these stylistic details would be related to the events of the play itself, and to Shakespeare’s presentation of them.
• In some forms of stylistic analysis, the numerical recurrence of certain stylistic features is used to make judgements about the nature and the quality of the writing.
• However, it is important to recognise that the concept of style is much broader than just the ‘good style’ of literary prose.
• For instance, even casual communication such as a manner of speaking or a personal letter might have an individual style.
• However, to give a detailed account of this style requires the same degree of linguistic analysis as literary texts.

The situation in which a type of language is found can usually be seen as appropriate or inappropriate to the style of language used. A personal love letter would probably not be a suitable location for the language of this article. However, within the language of a romantic correspondence there may be a relationship between the letter’s style and its context. It may be the author’s intention to include a particular word, phrase or sentence that not only conveys their sentiments of affection, but also reflects the unique environment of a lover’s romantic composition. However, by using so-called conventional and seemingly appropriate language within a specific context (apparently fitting words that correspond to the situation in which they appear) there exists the possibility that this language may lack exact meaning and fail to accurately convey the intended message from author to reader, thereby rendering such language obsolete precisely because of its conventionality. In addition, any writer wishing to convey their opinion in a variety of language that they feel is proper to its context could find themselves unwittingly conforming to a particular style, which then overshadows the content of their writing.
In linguistic analysis, different styles of language are technically called register. Register refers to properties within a language variety that associates that language with a given situation. This is distinct from, say, professional terminology that might only be found, for example, in a legal document or medical journal. The linguist Michael Halliday defines register by emphasising its semantic patterns and context. For Halliday, register is determined by what is taking place, who is taking part and what part the language is playing. (H’day, Lang’, 23) In Context and Language (1995), Helen Leckie-Tarry suggests that Halliday’s theory of register aims to propose relationships between language function, determined by situational or social factors, and language form. The linguist William Downes makes the point that the principal characteristic of register, no matter how peculiar or diverse, is that it is obvious and immediately recognisable.
Halliday places great emphasis on the social context of register and distinguishes register from dialect, which is a variety according to user, in the sense that each speaker uses one variety and uses it all the time, and not, as is register, a variety according to use, in the sense that each speaker has a range of varieties and chooses between them at different times. For example, Cockney is a dialect of English that relates to a particular region of the United Kingdom, however, Cockney rhyming slang bears a relationship between its variety and the situation in which it appears, i.e. the ironic definitions of the parlance within the distinctive tones of the East-End London patois. Subsequently, register is associated with language situation and not geographic location.

Halliday classifies the semiotic structure of situation as ‘field’, ‘tenor’ and ‘mode’, which, he suggests, tends to determine the selection of options in a corresponding component of the semantics. It is the ‘tenor’ that stands as a roughly equivalent term for ‘style’.
For an example on which to comment, here is a familiar sentence:
I swear by almighty God that the evidence I will give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
For Halliday, the field is the activity associated with the language used, in this case a religious oath tailored to the environment of a legal proceeding. Fowler comments that different fields produce different language, most obviously at the level of vocabulary The words ‘swear’ and ‘almighty’ are used instead of perhaps ‘pledge’ or ‘supreme’. In addition, there is the repetition of the word ‘truth’, which evidently triples and thereby emphasises the seriousness of the vow taken. (Incidentally, this linguistic technique is often employed in the language of politics, as it was for example in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memorable ‘Education, Education, Education’ speech to the Labour Party Conference in 2000.) The tenor of this sentence would refer to the specific role of the participants between whom the statement is made, in this case the person in the witness box proclaiming their intention to be honest before the court and those in attendance, but most importantly God. Fowler also comments that within the category of tenor there is a power relationship, which is determined by the tenor and the intention of the speaker to persuade, inform, etc. In this case, the tenor is an affirmation to speak the truth before the court by recognising the court’s legal supremacy and at the risk of retribution for not doing so from this secular court and a spiritual higher authority. This, of course, is not directly stated within the sentence but only implied.
Halliday’s third category, mode, is what he refers to as the symbolic organisation of the situation. Downes recognises two distinct aspects within the category of mode and suggests that not only does it describe the relation to the medium: written, spoken, and so on, but also describes the genre of the text. Halliday refers to genre as pre-coded language, language that has not simply been used before, but that predetermines the selection of textural meanings. For instance, in the sentence above the phrase ‘the evidence I shall give’ is preferable to the possible alternatives ‘the testimony I will offer’ or even ‘the facts that I am going to talk about’.
As well as recognising different registers of language that appear to be suitable for a particular situation, stylistics also examines language that is specifically modified for its setting, an example being the alteration in tenor from informal to formal, or vice versa.
Consider the quotation below:
‘I was proceeding on my beat when I accosted the suspect whom I had reason to believe might wish to come down to the station and help with enquiries in hand.’
This language only belongs in a UK policeman’s notebook and may be read out in a court of law. The sentence is not only formal but highly conventional for the location in which it is found. In addition, it is also extremely ambiguous (a common feature of so-called conventunal language). Why ‘accosted’, for example, and not ‘arrested’, ‘collared’, ‘nabbed’, ‘nicked’ or even ‘pinched’? Either of which would express more accurately what occurred in language more suitable for the typical British ‘bobby’, rather than the pre-scripted text that is simply being recited parrot fashion.
The “uncouth rhymes” of epitaphs and greetings cards
As well as conventional styles of language there are the unconventional – the most obvious of which is poetry. In Practical Stylistics, HG Widdowson examines the traditional form of the epitaph, as found on headstones in a cemetery. For example:
His memory is dear today
As in the hour he passed away.
(Ernest C. Draper ‘Ern’. Died 4.1.38)
Widdowson makes the point that such sentiments are usually not very interesting and suggests that they may even be dismissed as ‘crude verbal carvings’, as does the English poet Thomas Gray in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, who refers to them as ‘uncouth rhymes’. Nevertheless, Widdowson recognises that they are a very real attempt to convey feelings of human loss and preserve affectionate recollections of a beloved friend or family member. However, what may be seen as poetic in this language is not so much in the formulaic phraseology but in where it appears. The verse may be given undue reverence precisely because of the sombre situation in which it is placed. Widdowson suggests that, unlike words set in stone in a graveyard, poetry is unorthodox language that vibrates with inter-textual implications.
This is by Ogden Nash:
Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads,
And not the road.
Nash is satirising the form. The epitaph is humorous but it is perhaps more funny because of the solemn location with which this language is normally associated.
Below is a standard rhyme that might be found inside a conventional Valentine’s card:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
[Tum-tee tum-tee tum],
I love you.
We might ask why roses for the characteristic example of ‘redness’ instead of perhaps an Indian Letter Box, which is considerably redder than the petals of any rose? Or, indeed, why violets as the archetypical illustration of ‘blueness’ and not, say, the Indian brinjals that are always relished as Bhartha, a cooked vegetable? Maybe because roses and violets are traditional tokens of romance, and their association with particular colours (as not all roses are red, nor all violets blue) reinforces the imagery: the red of a lover’s lips, the blue of their eyes, or the sea, or the sky, etc. – all very romantic stuff. The conventional symbolism of the verse is certainly appropriate for the setting of a Valentine’s card, but is this poetry?
Here is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ (a fragment):
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
As with the eagle, Tennyson leaves the reader balancing precariously on the end of the first verse with the single word ‘stands’. Again, however, why ‘like a thunderbolt’ for an appropriate simile for the description of the eagle’s decent and not, for example, ‘a brick’, or ‘a stone’, or ‘a sack of potatoes’? Perhaps the answer lies in the word’s syllabic (or syllable) structure: ‘thun-der-bolt’.
In ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ in Style in Language (1960), Roman Jakobson explores the concept the ‘emotive’ or ‘expressive’ function of the language, a direct expression of the speaker’s attitude toward what they are speaking about, which tends to produce an impression of a certain emotion. The distinction here can be made between the spoken word and writing, spoken language having a possibly greater emotive function by emphasising aspects of the language in its pronunciation. For example, in English stressed or unstressed words can produce a variety of meanings. Consider the sentence ‘I never promised you a rose garden’ (the title of the autobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg, which was written under the pen name of Hannah Green. 1964). This has a multitude of connotations depending on how the line is spoken. For example:
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
I never promised you a rose garden
Or even:
I never promised you a rose garden
And there are many more besides these.
In ‘Poetic Effects’ from Literary Pragmatics (1991), the linguist Adrian Pilkington analyses the idea of ‘implicature’, as instigated in the previous work of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. Implicature may be divided into two categories: ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ implicature, yet between the two extremes there are a variety of other alternatives. The strongest implicature is what is explicitly implied by the speaker or writer, while weaker implicatures are the wider possibilities of meaning that the hearer or reader may conclude.
Pilkington’s ‘poetic effects’, as he terms the concept, are those that achieve most relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures and not those meanings that are simply ‘read in’ by the hearer or reader. Yet the distinguishing instant at which weak implicatures and the hearer or reader’s conjecture of meaning diverge remains highly subjective. As Pilkington says: ‘there is no clear cut-off point between assumptions which the speaker certainly endorses and assumptions derived purely on the hearer’s responsibility.’ In addition, the stylistic qualities of poetry can be seen as an accompaniment to Pilkington’s poetic effects in understanding a poem’s meaning. For example, the first verse of Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘The Mower’s Song’ (1611) runs:
My mind was once the true survey
Of all these meadows fresh and gay,
And in the greenness of the grass
Did see its thoughts as in a glass
When Juliana came, and she,
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.
The strong implicature that is immediately apparent is that Marvell is creating a pastiche (distinct from parody) of the pastoral form: the narrator being the destructive figure of Demon the Mower and not the protective character of the traditional pastoral shepherd. The poem is also highly symbolic. In literary criticism grass is symbolic of flesh, while the mower’s scythe with which he works represents human mortality (other examples being Old Father Time and the Grim Reaper). Even the text on the page can be seen as a visual representation of the Mower’s agricultural equipment: the main body of each verse is suggestive of the wooden shaft of the scythe and the last flowing line of each verse the blade. (This visual similarity of text on the page and the poem’s subject is known as concrete poetry.) However, it is the concluding phrase, repeated in every stanza, that is most stylistically effective. This long sweeping line that extends beyond the margins of each verse does not simply recall the action of the scythe through the grass, but occurs at the exact moment of every pass and further illuminates the mower’s physical and emotional disquiet. These conceits do not appear by accident and are precisely intended by the poet to enhance to the poetic effects of the verse.
Here is another example from William Shakespeare’s ‘71’, Sonnets (1609):
No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
On the face of things the poet appears to be saying: ‘When I have passed away, do not grieve for me.’ A full stop at the end of the first line, and nothing further, would certainly be enough to convey and satisfactory conclude the principal sentiment. Yet there is not a full stop. Indeed, there is no full stop until the end of line eight!
Looking at these first four lines, the first is a full sentence but ends with a comma. The first and second lines taken together are not a complete sentence and encourage the reader to continue onto the third line, which, taken with the first and second lines, is still not a complete sentence. The fourth line concludes the sentence but ends with a semicolon, again persuading the reader on to the fifth line, which begins with an abrupt exclamation, reinforcing the opening statement, and continuing to hold the reader’s attention:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
Here, it appears that Shakespeare is simply paraphrasing the first three lines with the additional fourth line showing concern for the reader’s emotions should they spend too much time reminiscing over the dead poet. The contradiction is puzzling. Why should the poet repeat what is apparently being explicitly asked of the reader not to do? And, again, the final four lines emphasise the point, once more beginning with the seemingly by now obligatory exclamation:
Oh, if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
Furthermore, the poet asks the reader to not even repeat the ‘name’ of ‘the hand that writ it’, while the ending is tinged with more than a degree of false modesty within the realm of the unsentimental ‘wise world’. What on the surface appears to be one contention turns out to be quite the opposite. Shakespeare, far from telling to reader to forget him following his demise, is actually saying: ‘Remember me! Remember me! Remember me!’ And he does this through deceptively unconventional language that progresses and grows continuously into the traditional sonnet form.
Although language may appear fitting to its context, the stylistic qualities of poetry also reveal themselves in many grammatical disguises. Widdowson points out that in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798), the mystery of the Mariner’s abrupt appearance is sustained by an idiosyncratic use of tense. For instance, in the opening lines Coleridge does not say: ‘There was ancient Mariner’ or ‘There arrived an ancient Mariner’, but instead not only does he immediately place the reader at the wedding feast, Coleridge similarly throws the Mariner abruptly into the middle of the situation:
It is an ancient Mariner
And he stoppeth one of three.
- ‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am the next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
Coleridge’s play with tense continues in stanzas four to six, as he swaps wildly from past to present and back again.
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hands dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye -
The Wedding-guests stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
The Mariner ‘holds’ the wedding-guest with his ‘skinny hand’ in the present tense, but releases it in the past tense; only to hold him again, this time with his ‘glittering eye’, in the present. And so on, back and forth like a temporal tennis ball but all adding to the enigma. The suggestion could be made that Coleridge was simply careless with the composition and selected these verb forms at random. However, the fact is that they are there in the text of the poem, and, as Coleridge himself would recognise, everything in a poetic text carries an implication of relevance.
Another aspect of stylistics, as in the poem ‘I Saw a Peacock’, (‘A Person of Quality’, Westminster Drollery (1671) is when the meaning only becomes clear when the context is revealed:
I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud with ivy circled round
I saw a sturdy oak creep on the ground
I saw a *pismire swallow up a whale *[ant]
I saw a raging sea brim full of ale
I saw a Venice glass sixteen foot deep
I saw a well full of men’s tears that weep
I saw their eyes all in a flame of fire
I saw a house as big as the moon and higher
I saw the sun even in the midst of night
I saw the man who saw this wondrous sight
If we read the poem like this, it almost makes sense - but not quite. The reason is, perhaps, because we as readers are conditioned to reading poetry in a specific way, conventionally – line by line. By altering the phrases in each line, the descriptions are made coherent.
I saw a peacock
with a fiery tail I saw a blazing comet
drop down hail I saw a cloud
with ivy circled round I saw a sturdy oak
creep on the ground I saw a pismire
swallow up a whale I saw a raging sea
brim full of ale I saw a Venice glass
sixteen foot deep I saw a well full of men’s tears that weep
I saw their eyes
all in a flame of fire I saw a house
as big as the moon and higher I saw the sun
even in the midst of night
I saw the man who saw this wondrous sight
The anonymous narrator, sitting drinking by a fire and gazing at his mirror image in the ‘Venice glass’, is commenting on the reflected images that he sees in language that is similarly inverted.
There are, however, two important points worth mentioning with regard to the stylistician’s approach to interpreting poetry, and they are both noted by PM Wetherill in Literary Text: An Examination of Critical Methods (1974). The first is that there may be an over-preoccupation with one particular feature that may well minimise the significance of others that are equally important. The second is that any attempt to see a text as simply a collection of stylistic elements will tend to ignore other ways whereby meaning is produced. Nevertheless, meaning in poetry is conveyed through a multitude of language alternatives that manifest themselves as printed words on the page, style being one such feature. Subsequently, the stylistic elements of poetry can be seen as important in the interpretation of unconventional language that is beyond what is expected and customary. Poetry can be both sublime and even ridiculous yet still transcend established social values. Poetry is an original and unique method of communication that we use to express our thoughts, feelings and experiences.
This language gives us a new perspective on familiar themes and allows us to look at them without the personal or social conditioning that we unconsciously associate with them. So, although we may still use the same exhausted words and vague terms like ‘love’, ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ to refer to human experience, to place these words in a new and refreshing context allows the poet the ability to represent humanity and communicate honestly. This, in part, is stylistics, and this, according to Widdowson, and it seems reasonable to agree, is the point of poetry.

(Rishi Kumar Nagar, Jalandhar)

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