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


Stylistics: A critical method that analyzes literary works on the basis of style. Stylisticians focus on analyzing a writer’s choices with regard to diction, figurative language, phonology, syntax, vocabulary, and even spatial and graphic characteristics. They explore topics such as whether writers use everyday speech or elevated language, whether they use periodic or loose sentences, and whether they employ predominantly visual or auditory images. As a method of analysis, stylistics largely owes its origin to — and has been heavily influenced by — Russian formalism (particularly the writings of Roman Jakobson) and European structuralism. These two critical schools have provided stylisticians with models for analyzing literary texts.

There are two major types of stylistics. Formal stylistics upholds the traditional definition of style, that is, how a writer writes (the devices authors use to express their thoughts and to convey the subject matter of a work), as opposed to what the writer writes (the content, which these critics refer to as “information” or “message”). Formal stylisticians understand style as the ways authors can present the content of works, ways that invariably affect aesthetic quality and readers’ emotional reactions. They claim that particular writers, works, genres, and even historical eras can be distinguished on the basis of their style, but many critics dispute the feasibility of distinguishing stylistic elements from other elements of the text. Formal stylisticians have borrowed heavily from linguistics in identifying “formal properties,” such as auditory, metrical, or image patterns; diction; the use of rhyme; and sentence structure.

The second group of stylisticians takes a broader approach, arguing that stylistics encompasses the myriad ways in which language is used in literature. Although these stylisticians cross the traditional boundary of stylistics, especially given their interest in rhetoric, they maintain a text-centered approach and seek to detect those rules that generate the effects and significance of language in literary texts.

Stylisticians claim to study works in an objective, or “scientific,” manner. Many thus perform quantitative analyses of literary works, calculating the frequency with which various stylistic and grammatical elements appear (e.g., the percentage of sentences beginning with dependent clauses or the ratio of adjectives to nouns in a writer’s work). Some have used computer technology to produce frequency tables that they claim can distinguish one style from another, and some have even verged on conducting psychological analysis, seeking to identify the author’s characteristics or viewpoints based on stylistic “profiles.” Others, however, have rejected quantitative analysis and instead borrowed from other critical perspectives as different as speech-act theory and transformational linguistics.