The Elements of Style

Forthcoming in The Dolphin Handbook (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
copyright © Mark Turner 1996

Writing is torture for the writer who has not selected a style. A style comes not from surface choices large or small but from a set of answers to basic conceptual questions about truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships. Can truth be known? Can language be adequate to presentation? Who is speaking? What is the motive? Is there symmetry between writer and reader? Is the occasion formal or informal? Is writing a presentation of a completed thought, an engine of discovery, a self-replicating organism, a prison, or a fun-house mirror?

Questions like these are the elements of style. A consistent and mature suite of answers to them is a stand on the elements of style, and styles are defined by such stands. There are many styles, some specialized, some general: classic style, practical style, plain style, contemplative style, romantic style. We learn to write by learning a general style. From it, verbal skills and surface mechanical features flow. Writing is an intellectual activity that leads to verbal skills, but the verbal skills themselves do not lead to the activity. The relationship is not symmetric.

The distinction between the stand of the style and the acutal conditions of the writer is all-important. The writer may be nervous, unsure of facts and locutions, motivated by an imposed task, obliged to try to persuade an audience of a proposition he does not have the knowledge or experience to understand, driven to avoid punishment, or afflicted by any of the other conditions typical of the first-year student in a composition course, but he may choose a style in which the writer is competent and assured, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, prose is a window, the occasion is informal, and the model scene is conversation between equals. This is a substitution of classic style for an actual scene of mock argument, and it has an illustrious history of success.

What is good in one style may be bad in another. If you start off with a view of style as a list of verbal skills and surface mechanical elements at any level, then you can end up with the “correct” list and present it as constituting style rather than a style. There are many mature and effective styles. Each offers the qualities that follow from its stand on the elements of style. The virtues of classic style, for example, include the clarity and simplicity that come from matching language to thought on the motive of truth. Other styles have other virtues.

Thinking About Writing