The teaching of stylistics

Author: Nigel Fabb


Stylistics is the study of linguistic style, whereas (theoretical) Linguistics is the study of linguistic form. The term 'style' is used in linguistics to describe the choices which language makes available to a user, above and beyond the choices necessary for the simple expression of a meaning. Linguistic form can be interpreted as a set of possibilities for the production of texts, and thereby linguistic form makes possible linguistic style.

Table of contents

1. Stylistics

The term 'style' is used in linguistics to describe the choices which language makes available to a user, above and beyond the choices necessary for the simple expression of a meaning. Linguistic form can be interpreted as a set of possibilities for the production of texts, and thereby linguistic form makes possible linguistic style. Stylistics is the study of linguistic style, whereas (theoretical) Linguistics is the study of linguistic form. Linguistic form is generated from the components of language (sounds, parts of words, and words) and consists of the representations - phonetic, phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic etc. - which together form a code by which what we say or write has a specific meaning: thus for example the sentence 'Toby chased Kes onto the television set' encodes a specific meaning, involving a specific kind of past event with two participants playing specific roles relative to a location. The same event could be encoded in other ways (such as 'Kes got chased by Toby and ended up on the television set.') and the choice of which way to encode it is a stylistic choice. Stylistic choices are designed to have effects on the reader or listener, which are generally understood as:

  • (a) communicating meanings which go beyond the linguistically determined meanings,
  • (b) communicating attitude (as in persuasive effects of style), and
  • (c) expressing or communicating emotion.

Some of the areas included in the teaching of Stylistics are:

  1. narrative structure
  2. point of view and focalization
  3. sound patterning
  4. syntactic and lexical parallelism and repetition
  5. metre and rhythm
  6. genre
  7. mimetic, representational, realist effects
  8. metarepresentation, representation of speech and thought, irony
  9. metaphor and other ways of indirect meaning
  10. utilization and representation of variation in dialect, accent, and historically specific usages
  11. group-specific ways of speaking (real or imagined), as in gendered Stylistics
  12. examination of inferential processes which readers engage in to determine communicated meanings

Representative textbooks in Stylistics include Leech (1969), Leech and Short (1981), Montgomery (2006), and Simpson (1997).

2. From practical criticism to stylistics

The teaching of literature often requires the close reading of texts, with a focus on the specific choices made by a specific text, and the effect of those choices (particularly on the meaning of the text). From its earliest major manifestation in I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929), this practice was always seen as a corrective to otherwise unconstrained and undisciplined reading of texts; close reading, sensitive to language, is thus seen by its practitioners as having an ethical dimension. In earlier forms (including the New Criticism movement) various radical decontextualizations such as removing the author's name were applied to ensure an unprejudiced focus on the text. The university study of Practical Criticism was extended to the school teaching of close reading (in Britain) by Cox and Dyson (1965). Stylistics, emerging in the 1960s and in its initial stages often closely allied to the new types of linguistics (e.g. in the work of Michael Halliday or J. P. Thorne or Roger Fowler), inherits to some extent this sense of mission, and stylisticians sometimes see themselves as in righteous opposition to mainstream (e.g. poststructuralist) literary theory of the past few decades. The level-headedness of Stylistics thus risks losing out to the heady excitements of literary theory, particularly for undergraduates who seek intellectual excitement. On the other hand, the skills-orientation and democratic ethic of Stylistics courses can sometimes be a refuge for undergraduates who feel disempowered by literary theory in its perceived lack of method and reliance on unchallengeable authority and personality cultism.

Stylistics has had another educational role, in the teaching of literature to people learning English. Widdowson's 1975 book Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature was not only a major contribution to stylistic theory but also partly responsible for the idea that ELT could be integrated with the teaching of literature; literary texts were thought to provide real texts which gave opportunities to explore subtle aspects of language in use, or by their marked use of certain stylistic features could draw attention to the workings of language. This carried a political advantage; departments of foreign languages are often occupied by academics who have specializations in literature, but who are faced with the practical need to devote much time to the teaching of the language. The merger of Linguistics and literary study provided by Stylistics gave them a way to put their expertise to use in language teaching.

Stylistics has also underpinned the critical linguistic study of the mass media, which in educational terms is the attempt to teach students how to peel back the stylistic practices which conceal the illegitimate exercise of power. A set of related propositions, some more schematic than others, can be expressed by different stylistic choices; thus for example an action with an actor and something acted upon can be expressed by a proposition which can be coded more or less schematically by an active sentence, or a passive sentence, or a noun phrase, with each of these stylistic choices placing greater or lesser prominence on parts of the proposition (and hence giving a different impression of the event itself). Stylistics seeks to understand what the possibilities are in a given language, and asks why particular choices are made - for example, in a newspaper report, where 'bias' can simply be in the stylistic choices themselves. It is sometimes felt that there is a need to equip people with analytical tools which enable them to understand the stylistic mechanisms by which ideologies are communicated.

3. Style causes effect

The basic idea of Stylistics is that a stylistic choice has an 'effect' (on the reader), and that it should be possible to understand the causal relation between that stylistic choice and that effect. There is a discipline - Rhetoric - in which the relation between style and effect is prescribed or asserted; this discipline has classical origins, and can still be seen operating in self-help guides to writing and speaking. Stylistics is to rhetoric as theoretical Linguistics is to traditional prescriptive grammar. An important feature of Stylistics in terms of the extraction of meaning (and other 'effects') is that texts need to be examined as an integrated whole. In this way, Stylistics can help bring out meanings which are inaccessible to syntax or formal semantics, which largely focus on individual sentences.

Effects are assumed to be discovered by introspection. (Effects are too cognitively complex to be simply measured by for example laboratory techniques.) They typically include meanings on the one hand, and on the other hand persuasive effects, or emotional effects (including just pleasure or aesthetic experience). We discover effects only by looking inside ourselves, and formulating a description of what we see there, but in literary studies this is often reinforced or checked by discussing with others our own introspections, thus clarifying and correcting our own experience. The literary studies seminar with its individual focus becomes the Stylistics 'workshop' where collective discussion helps clarify the effects of a text, and also helps strip away individual variations in response, in order better to establish the precise function of stylistic choices. The introspective judgement of effects in Stylistics is analogous to the judgement of grammaticality or well-formedness in formal Linguistics; in both cases, it seems that people need to learn how to make such judgements, and improve in the ability to do so, and one of the goals of Stylistics education is to improve the students' ability to look inside themselves (in which Stylistics shares a general goal with all education in the Humanities).

What Stylistics attempts to discover is how stylistic choices cause the effects. Here the problem is to identify discrete stylistic choices. In a sense, a text is all stylistic choice; linguistic form simply the material from which the text is woven and all aspects of the weave are stylistic (see Goodman 1978 for an interesting disagreement with the stylistics tradition in this regard). Hence it could be difficult to separate off a specific stylistic choice as a discrete part of the text which causes some effect. The theoretical tradition helps us in this, with the notion of 'markedness' and general notions of salience; though the text is a weave of stylistic choices, some stylistic choices are isolated and prominent by virtue of being particularly noticeable in a text. Stylistics as a practice has often gravitated towards stylistic markedness, picking texts precisely for their peculiarities which make it easy to see that specific stylistic choices have been made; hence, for example, modernist (and postmodernist) texts are particularly popular.

The identification of effects and of specific stylistic choices is tied to the problem of identifying a causal relation between style and effect. Though this is the most difficult problem among the three difficult problems identified in this section, we as Stylistics teachers nevertheless generally expect students to do this. A typical homework or exam question would be: "Identify [some particular stylistic feature] and describe its effects". Though we ask this question all the time, it is difficult to tell exactly what we are asking the students to do here, in the sense of giving us verifiable answers. The risk we run is of falling back into a prescriptive practice reminiscent of the discipline of Rhetoric, by encouraging only stereotyped answers about style and effect, such as claims for example that any passive sentence has a significant effect of de-emphasising agency. This seems to me the biggest problem for the teaching of Stylistics.

4. Stylistics and student creativity

Stylistics can stimulate creative activity in students. I once taught a Linguistics class to creative writing and journalism students. In formulating assessments for these students, I asked them to put theoretical notions into practice, and then comment on what they had done. Different tasks required them to consider metarepresentation (quotation, other ways of attributing thoughts and utterances, transcription), narrative well-formedness, and facework. Results included a story exemplifying 'facework' (a metaphor for our need to be respected and to respect others) which is taken literally as being about the reader's face, as well as texts which disappear into a receding set of metarepresentations, and also interviews in which transcriptional choices reshape the event being reported. Students' commitment to understanding the theory is greater because the quality of their own writing is at stake; they are also able to find the complexities and metaphorical underpinnings of the theory underpinning Stylistics by turning it into writing. In another long-running class, 'Ways of Reading', some of the most memorable work has come from asking students to put stylistic notions into practice; I particularly remember a class on juxtaposition, with a homework for which students submitted a scythe with Marvell's poem 'The Mower Against Gardens' attached to it, and a Charlie Brown cartoon blown up to poster size with a Charles Olson poem inserted into the speech bubbles. In another class, on the book as an object, students are required to turn a book (bought cheaply for the purpose) into another object or set of objects. Stylistics has always had a ludic, playful, side to it, which opens up possibilities not available from more straight-faced literary criticism - and this combines with a 'workshop' or problem-solving ethic drawn from Linguistics (and progressive educational ideas from the 1960s). Students have fun doing these kinds of exercises, and the quality of the products suggests that they are learning something; but here, too, we fall back into the same problem of getting a clear and verifiable description of how particular stylistic choices (here manifested as creative decisions) cause particular effects.

5. The relation between stylistics and linguistics

The teaching of Stylistics depends on a technical terminology with which students can describe the stylistic choices. Much of this technical terminology is in practice taken from traditional grammar or from some linguistic theory. In addition, students will need to be able to construct diagrams of texts (such as tree structures for sentences, or some equivalent for syllable structure, or word structure or discourse structure), and again various linguistic theories provide methods for doing this.

One of the puzzles for Stylistics - and acutely a problem in teaching Stylistics - is the extent to which Stylistics depends on any particular linguistic theory, and particularly on any particular syntactic theory or theory of grammar. Ways of representing linguistic form were in the 60s and 70s drawn from the new (and mutually incompatible) theories of Systemic Grammar, Transformational Grammar, and Generative Semantics. Syntactic theory has for the past few decades been much too difficult to simply introduce in Stylistics teaching, and furthermore produces representations which are very distinct from the surface forms seen in texts; and Stylistics classes can rarely rely on students having a good understanding of Linguistics. This forces a certain decoupling of syntactic theory and Stylistics teaching It is this decoupling which enables Stylistics to be successful as a discipline even though it may be out of step with (formal) linguistic theory, and successful as a subject to teach to students even though they may have little understanding of linguistic theory. (On the other hand, it means that Stylistics is not necessarily a good introduction to linguistic theory, as is sometimes suggested.)

In suggesting that Stylistics and Linguistics may be disconnected theoretically, even though they both clearly relate to language, I assume along chomskyan lines that 'language' is not a theoretically unified domain. Linguistic theory is concerned with rules which build representations, and conditions which hold of those rules and representations; it is not - at least in most of its theoretical manifestations - an account of actual utterances or written sentences. While we can understand the construction of an utterance or a written sentence as the result of making a set of choices (which words to choose, in what order, phase, tense, aspect; how to relate subclauses, etc), those choices do not necessarily correspond to elements of linguistic form. Thus for example 'passive' is a way of understanding a surface choice, but it need not be theorized linguistically as a rule or set of rules of linguistic form (instead, 'passive' is the post-linguistic way of describing the a set of similar structures which emerge from a combination of underlying processes which may have no specific relation to one another within the system).

In Fabb (2002) I argued that in literary texts we are dealing with two quite different kinds of form, which I called 'generated form' (basically linguistic form and possibly some aspects of metrical form) and 'communicated form' (genre, narrative form, and probably every other kind of literary form); this distinction can be restated using the terms in this current article as the distinction between 'form' and 'style'. Generated form (now just called form) holds of the text by virtue of constituting it: being a noun, or a preposition phrase, or a specific phoneme are necessary formal aspects of the text which enable it to exist. On the other hand communicated form (now just called style) holds of a text by virtue of being the content of an assumption about the text which is licensed by the text. Form is the stuff from which a text is made, while style is what a text tells us about itself. (Goodman 1978 similarly focuses on the extent to which style is 'exemplified' by a text: the text is both denoted by a term such as 'parallelism' but in turn denotes that term - the text means parallelism, in much the way that a tailor's swatch of cloth means the colour or material which comprises it.) Style is thus a kind of meaning, holding of a text only as the content of a thought about the text. For example, parallelism holds within a text to the extent that a reader is justified in formulating the thought 'parallelism holds within this text', with the justifications drawn from various stereotyped deductions ('if the first and second lines have the same sequence of word classes, then there is parallelism in the text', etc). Or a text is in a specific genre to the extent that we are justified by the text in formulating that assumption about it. Linguistic form offers one of a number of different and potentially competing sources of evidence from which the presence of a style is inferred, and this is the relation - in this theoretical approach, much weakened - between form and style. Style can thus be indeterminate, ambiguous, metaphorical, ironic, strongly implied, weakly implied, and so on - having all the characteristics of a meaning, because style is a meaning. If this is true, it has a consequence which helps us resolve some of the problems for the teaching of Stylistics.

The key problem in Stylistics is to work out the causal relation between style and effect, where 'effect' includes various cognitive effects such as meanings, emotions, beliefs, etc. My proposal is that style is itself an effect; hence rather than mediating between two quite different kinds of thing (style vs. effect) we are really looking at the relation between effects, with the distinction between style and effect no longer clearly defined. This means that the theory of how style causes effect is now a theory of how thoughts are connected, which comes under the theory of Pragmatics. This suggests a route out of the problem of Stylistics which has been chosen by a number of authors: to assume that Stylistics basically falls under the theory of Pragmatics, and to start from here in the teaching of Stylistics.


Cox, B., and A.E. Dyson (1965) The Practical Criticism of Poetry London: Edward Arnold.

Fabb, N. (2002) Language and Literary Structure: the linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Goodman, N. (1978) Ways of Worldmaking Indiana: Hackett.

Leech, G. (1969) A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry London: Longman.

Leech, G., M. Short (1981) Style in Fiction London: Longman.

Montgomery, M., A. Durant, N. Fabb, T. Furniss, and S. Mills (2006). Ways of Reading. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.

Richards, I. A. (1929) Practical Criticism London: Kegan Paul.

Simpson, P. (1997) Language through literature: an introduction London: Routledge.

Widdowson, H. G. (1975) Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature London: Longman.

Related links

Poetics and Linguistics Association website

Lancaster's free online course on Language and Style

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