The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Style: Used generally, the way in which a literary work is written. The message or material that the author communicates to the reader, along with how the author chooses to present it, produce an author’s individual style. Critics who analyze literary works on the basis of style are called stylisticians and are said to practice stylistics.

Style can be investigated from a number of vantage points. It has traditionally been divided into three major categories — high (grand), middle (mean), and low (base, plain) — all generally associated with the subject matter of the work. Thus, for instance, a high style was considered appropriate to lofty works, such as epics, a middle style to love poems, and a low style to comedies. Accord between style and subject matter was a key element of literary decorum, an important convention in Renaissance and neoclassical times, as was compatibility between the style of a work and its action, characters, and setting. Style has also been broadly divided, however, based on the binary oppositions classic(al) / romantic and poetry / prose, with some advocating a special poetic diction distinct from ordinary discourse. Furthermore, in the twentieth century, Canadian archetypal critic Northrop Frye formulated a new stylistic distinction based on whether a work employs the language of everyday speech or makes use of formal devices and conventions associated with literariness. In The Well-Tempered Critic (1963), Frye called these styles the demotic and the hieratic, respectively, and identified a high, middle, and low level in each.

Still other approaches include viewing style in light of the means an author uses to create an effect and discussing it with regard to a literary genre, period, movement, or even the author him- or herself. In the first case, a critic might focus on elements ranging from diction to imagery to rhetorical devices. In the second, the critic is likely to draw on a set of descriptive terms that have been developed over the years to characterize particular genres, periods, movements, and authors — terms such as medieval, postmodern, Victorian, alliterative, decadent, didactic, formal, journalistic, scientific, Shakespearean, Joycean — particularly if he or she is focusing only on the aspects of a work that reflect the general style in question.

In discussing prose style in particular, critics frequently consider whether the sentences of a work are predominantly periodic or loose. A periodic sentence, unlike a loose sentence, which begins with an independent clause, is not grammatically complete until its very end; hence, its meaning cannot be ascertained until the entire sentence has been read. As a result, periodic sentences seem more formal or elevated than loose sentences.

Works predominantly featuring periodic or loose sentences can often be classified as having hypotactic or paratactic style, respectively. Predominantly hypotactic works feature sentences containing subordinate clauses and often employ logical connectors. Paratactic works, by contrast, exhibit sequences of sentences bearing only a loose logical relation to one another; elements within those sentences tend to be joined by simple conjunctions (e.g., and) that do little to show or explain causal or temporal relations.

Although there is a high correlation between hypotactic style and periodic sentences on the one hand and between paratactic style and loose sentences on the other, the members of each pair of terms are not synonymous. The terms periodic and loose refer to sentences, whereas hypotactic and paratactic refer to the overall style of a work. Furthermore, even when hypotactic or paratactic is used more loosely to refer to the structure of a given sentence, it simply describes patterns typical of periodic or loose sentences, respectively. For instance, a periodic sentence with a hypotactic structure contains hypotactic elements — multiple dependent clauses linked by connectives such as therefore — but also exhibits an element that may or may not be present in a hypotactically structured sentence: lack of grammatical completion until its very end.

Whereas paratactic style is characteristic of many well-known classic works of literature (e.g., the Old Testament of the Bible, Beowulf [c. A.D. 700], La chanson de Roland [c. 1100]), hypotactic style is usually found in works that appeared at a later stage of language development. It should be noted, however, that certain modernist authors whose works are by no means simple or simplistic (Ernest Hemingway, for instance) employed loose sentence construction and a casual, paratactic style.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: The following passage from Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men (1946) exhibits paratactic style:

And the bonds were issued and the schoolhouse built and more than a dozen years later the big black Cadillac with the Boss whipped past the schoolhouse, and Sugar-Boy really put his foot down on the gas and we headed out, still on the almost new slab of Number 58.

Hypotactic style is exemplified in the following passage from Victorian novelist George Meredith’s The Egoist (1871):

Nevertheless, she had been so good as to diminish his apprehension that the marriage of a lady in her thirtieth year with his cousin Vernon would be so much of a loss to him; hence, while parading the lawn, now and then casting an eye at the room where his Clara and Vernon were in council, the schemes he indulged for his prospective comfort and his feelings of the moment were in such stirring harmony as that to which we hear orchestral musicians bringing their instruments under the process called tuning.