Prose Styles, Genres, and Levels of Analysis

By MacDonald, Susan Peck | Style, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Prose Styles, Genres, and Levels of Analysis


MacDonald, Susan Peck, Style


Defining style or determining how to analyze it has frequently been pronounced problematic, but recent work on another problematic concept--genre--can help clarify our understandings of style. The increasing attention to non-fictional genres now coming from discourse studies--the interconnected fields of rhetoric and composition and applied linguistics--often makes little mention of style, but it nevertheless helps illuminate parallels between patterns of genres and patterns of styles. I review here some of the ways in which work on written, but non-fictional, genres can help bridge two kinds of disciplinary divides in the study of style and genre: one between literary studies and discourse studies as well as another within discourse studies. I then discuss one of the most frequently studied non-fictional styles, the epistemic style, which stands in opposition to a more verbal style typical of fiction, and some of the territory in between the epistemic and the verbal.

Disciplinary Approaches to Style

The divide between literary studies and discourse studies has been rooted in understandings about value and purpose. Literary studies has traditionally assigned value to fictional prose that it considered elevated, unique, or impressively difficult to achieve. On that hierarchy of value, non-fictional styles have been considered less important subjects for stylistic analysis except when the writer of non-fiction has had a highly distinctive style. A non-fiction writer like Carlyle, for instance, might be of interest for literary or unusual qualities in his style.

Discourse studies, on the other hand, has increasingly ignored literary style as a result of its own disciplinary mission: to help novice writers reach higher levels of proficiency in academic, professional, or workplace genres. Discourse studies, therefore, has often been interested in humbler non-fictional texts or texts appearing to contain plain functional prose. New work on genres over the last decade or two and new understandings of the highly differentiated nature of writing in different contexts have led to increased focus on the conventions and patterns in non-fictional genres--not the distinctive or individual traits of style that might earlier have led a scholar to compare Howells and Hemingway (Gibson) or Conrad, Lawrence, and James (Leech and Short). When we attempt to understand style in relation to genres, rather than individuals, the patterns of genre correspond closely to the patterns of style within them, and some of the larger patterns become clear.

A second divide occurs within discourse studies and involves levels of analysis. The conceptual difficulty surrounding the term style seems to me best approached by seeing style as a level of analysis to be understood in relation to other more macro and micro levels. The story of this divide is told partly in word choice. Style, as a subject for analysis, occurs here and there in discourse studies, but not as often as it might. Style, for instance, has been slowly disappearing from titles of sessions at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication. Work on style still turns up in various guises, however, in rhetoric and composition. Among rhetorical analysts, for instance, style may be discussed under the heading of tropes or figures of speech (Fahnestock and Secor).

Similarly, linguists have their own disciplinary preferences for analyzing what the literary scholar might call style. In 1971, linguist Nils Erik Enkvist wrote that "style and register are types of linguistic variation that linguists have tended to neglect" (49), and this seems still true despite increasing interest in genre among applied linguists. Style seems not to be the word of choice or the level of analysis most comfortable for the linguist, who is likely to have disciplinary reasons for choosing register or lexicogrammatical. In 1969 Crystal and Davy criticized the concept of register (61), but register has continued to be a preferred category among applied linguists. …

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