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· Toward a Definition of Style: Clarity, Emphasis, Tone, Rhythm ·

Jacques Barzun's The Modern Researcher (5th ed., with Henry F. Graff) includes a chapter — "Clear Sentences: Emphasis, Tone, and Rhythm" — defining the term Style. I've thought to quote two paragraphs to prepare the ground for an analysis of some successively revised sentences also included. Together, Barzun's several passages offer stylish words for some substantive reflection.

Everyone's mind [Barzun writes], however eager it may be for information, offers a certain resistance to the reception of somebody else's ideas. Before one can take them in, the shape, connection, and tendency of one's own ideas have to yield to those same features in the other person's. Accordingly, the writer must somehow induce in that other the willingness to receive the foreign matter. He does so with the aid of a great many devices which, when regularly used, are called the qualities of his speech or writing.

These qualities go by such names as: Clarity, Order. Logic, Ease, Unity, Coherence, Rhythm, Force, Simplicity, Naturalness, Grace, Wit, Movement. But these are not distinct things; they overlap and can reinforce or obscure one another, being but aspects of the single power called Style. Neither style nor any of its qualities can be aimed at separately. Nor are the pleasing characteristics of a writer's style laid on some preexisting surface the way sheathing and plaster are laid on the rough boards of a half-finished house. Rather, they are the by-product of an intense effort to make words work. By "making them work" we mean here reaching the mind of another and affecting it in such a way as to reproduce there our state of mind. Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 5th ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992, 250-51; below, 253-55.

With these two paragraphs in view, I have thought to cite Barzun's revisions of a sentence analyzed successively in the clear interests of "Emphasis, Tone, and Rhythm." Only twelve words long, it marks a tightening vision — a movement of mind if not precisely towards Anatole France's single-minded goal of Clarity (D'abord la clarté, puis encore la clarté, et enfin la clarté: "First, clarity; then again clarity; and, finally, clarity"), then toward Barzun's more multi-valent definition of Style. For Barzun's aim is the difficult "inducement" of foreign matter, and his schoolbook example (drawn perhaps from his own education), of a domestic reflection of and on substance. In any case, below are his successive revisions, listed with his precise analyses blocked, truncated, and paraphrased for easy, intelligible reading.

Original Sentence: The wind blew across the desert where the corpse lay and whistled.

Analysis: The sentence is a howler, for we all laugh at how the short phrase "and whistled" makes the corpse whistle a sad, solo tune. Yet adding a comma after "lay" won't help, since we realize that our comma would just make the whistling but an afterthought. So the problem is, as Barzun explains, that "the parts that occur together in the world or in our mind" are not united.

Revision 1: The wind blew across the desert and whistled where the corpse lay.

Analysis: This is better, since the parts are so united, and our sentence is "no longer comic." But now, as Barzun says, the blowing wind seems to be "whistling" just near the corpse. So yet again.

Revision 2: The wind blew and whistled across the desert where the corpse lay.

Analysis: As Barzun now claims, "we have the limbs correctly distributed — no front leg is hitched on to the hindquarters." But say it aloud, he notes, and "it leaves the voice up in the air, and with the voice, the meaning, because the emphases are off beat." Simply, the stresses fall flat. So yet again.

Revision 3: The wind blew and whistled across the desert where lay the corpse.

Analysis: Now we've gone backwards since, in positioning the verb "lay" before the noun "corpse," we have learned that "to defy idiom is to lose force." As Barzun explains, "to sound natural we must stick to 'where the corpse lay.'" So yet again.

Revision 4: The corpse lay in the desert, across which the wind blew and whistled.

Analysis: This is evidently a new route in the desert, as Barzun notes, the product of some frustration — if perhaps the "best [draft] yet." We discover, though, that the stiffness of the "about which" suits "a description of scenery rather than that of a lonely death." So yet again.

Revision 5: The corpse lay in the desert, and over it the wind blew and whistled.

Analysis: This alternative is frankly "too weak for this gruesome vision," Barzun claims. As a compound sentence, it "separates what the eye and ear bring together in the mind. We have dismembered and reconstructed without success." So yet again.

Revision 6: Across the desert where the corpse lay, the wind blew and whistled.

Analysis: Finally, Barzun writes, a two-part periodic sentence gives our topics proper stress. Indeed, "its suspensive opening phrase does not monopolize the emphasis we associate with beginnings," and its "second part . . . completes its own meaning by finding a main subject and verb," with our desert wind whistling. We catch, so to speak "The Spirit of Style."

So what then of Substance? It is little more than the "real things" we have so much in mind today: the thematic words sadly reverberating in Iraq: "desert," "wind," and "corpse." Soon, of course, they'll be beyond anybody's proper "revision."

Clearly, this is the foreign matter others, and events, are "inducing" us to see.


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