What is style in writing? Writers — and their editors, of course — must think about this, but not everyone agrees on what is appropriate. A writer of non-fiction, for example, probably aims for an unobtrusive style in which the language — the words and phrases, the syntax and grammar — takes second place to the content. However, if the writer wants to make a particular point, then strategic use of conspicuous language fits the bill.
One aspect of style in writing that especially interests me is register, i.e. degree of formality. The unmarked, default register for most prose is what is often called standard: more or less the middle of a spectrum with formal at one end and informal at the other. It can be no surprise to anyone regularly dealing with language that what is considered standard shifts over time and that today’s standard is more informal than it was, say, 50 years ago.
All usage handbooks include mention of the notion of register, with a short description of the terms for the different levels (which are by no means consistent among the various handbooks). But the question of how to identify actual occurrences of formal or informal usage is shied away from, and the reader is ultimately sent to a dictionary to read the labels.
An axiom of good writing is consistency of style. However, judicious use of words or phrases belonging to a different register within a piece — especially informal register — can be a powerful stylistic device. Judicious is the operative word here, for if clumsily or inappropriately used, register change can be jarring for the reader and may result in the writer not being taken seriously, even if the reader isn’t quite sure what’s wrong.
That informal usage has become more widely accepted is pretty clear. But distinctions of register are still evident, and untrained native speakers can generally identify the distinction between formal/standard and informal, though they may not be able to articulate the distinction. Is there anyone who, if presented with the words children and kids in isolation, would not subconsciously slot the words into separate mental register frames? Or the pair alcohol and booze?
The Globe and Mail’s “Report on Business” tends to feature articles written in a rather lively style, which, in general, is handled successfully, but on occasion verges on forced. A recent article on Bombardier contained this: “Bombardier, Alstom and Siemens no longer can claim top-dog status globally. The top spot now belongs to CNR and CSR, the state-controlled Chinese train makers that are set to end their rivalry and merge, creating a train colossus with a mandate to take on the world…. The merged company will have about $32 billion in annual revenue, which exceeds the combined rolling-stock revenue of the three Western biggies.” However, this style works out well at the end of the article with a telling metaphor as the last sentence: “The globalization train has left the station and it is bound to pick up passengers from China.”
Another example of a startling dive into the informal register, which I have saved for many years, is this, from a 1998 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, in a review of the book Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204: “Before focusing in detail on his two unlovely exemplars [of Byzantine courtiers] — he could have chosen nicer guys — [the author] notes the interesting contrast between the pan-Western notion of “court”, whence courtly, courteous, … and the much less resonant aule, likewise a physical metaphor for a social phenomenon …”
When you want to make a linguistic impression, it’s all about style, isn’t it?
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