Refining Language to Be Crisp, Clear, and Direct
Style Is About Choice
English has specific grammatical rules. However, these rules are very broad and sophisticated — within them, you can craft tremendous gradations of meaning. Think of it as writing with a rainbow — whatever topic you shine your light upon, you can choose the shades of color used to illuminate.
Functions of Style
Style represents the choices we make in how we use grammar to shape meaning. It provides rhythm and emphasis. Some functions of style include:
- Interest: it differentiates dull sentences from the interesting
- Seriousness: it indicates whether we are speaking as friends or professionals
- Tone: it declares whether we are joking or serious
The Four Major Writing Styles
There are four major purposes of writing, each one of these purposes carries specific expectations for the choice and arrangement of words. Many genres of writing will favor specific styles over others, but these styles are often blended to provide a combination of information and rhetorical impact.
- Descriptive writing describes people, places, or things. Examples include resumes and textbooks, though most forms of writing include descriptive elements.
- Expository writing explains concepts, procedures, or ideas. Examples include how-to guides, computer manuals, and stereo instructions.
- Narrative writing tells stories of events. Examples include novels, news reports, and memoirs. Narrative writing is often added to other genres to tell the history or backstory. Different fields of academic research may encourage or discourage narrative writing.
- Persuasive writing aims to influence the beliefs and actions of others. Examples include advertisements, opinion editorials (op-eds), and speeches. Academic writing generally discourages persuasive writing.
- Grammar represents the rules of language — the accepted standards of how words are arranged to provide meaning.
- Style is the choices we make within the rules of grammar. Style provides the rhythm and emphasis of language in order to support the purpose of the writing.
- Diction is the choice of words, particularly when selecting synonyms.
Diction: The Choice of Words
The first and perhaps most important aspect of style is diction, the choice of words we use. The English language includes over 40,000 words — for each statement you might give, there will be dozens of potential combinations of synonyms. The following are key considerations:
Conversational, Persuasive, and Analytical Language
- Informal Conversation with friends: "That car is hot!" [gestures to Ford Mustang]. Note that few specific words are needed because everyone already knows what the speaker is referring to.
- Persuasive Advertisement for Ford Mustang: "...an icon built for freedom, the open road, power, and rebellion." Note how words like "freedom" and "power" and "rebellion" convey positive messages for potential car buyers.
- Analytical Review from Edmunds: "The EcoBoost Mustang comes with a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that cranks out a stout 310 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque." Note how specific numbers are attached to professional terminology such as "horsepower" and "torque." However, terms like "cranks out" and "stout" still provide emotional overtones to indicate the writer's view of the numerical facts.
Implied Educational Level
- Educated Speaker: I believe that donuts lack the nutritional value necessary for a healthy breakfast. Note: adding "I believe" adds a degree of politeness known as hedging.
- Everyday Speaker: Donuts aren't exactly a healthy breakfast choice.
- Pretentious Speaker: It is conspicuously obvious that excessively sweetened toroidal dough pastries offer an entirely inadequate substitute for the nutritional needs of a healthy metabolism. Note: don't be this guy.
Adding Emphasis: Sentence Structure and Pacing
Thoughtful Academic Writing Uses Longer Sentences
Academic writing often uses complicated sentences. For many readers, these longer sentences feel ponderous and drawn out — i.e. they're boring.
However, there's a reason for this. Longer sentences offer more room for detailed information and analysis. They also sound more educated because it takes greater thought and attention to craft a long sentence that remains grammatically correct.
Rhetorically, longer sentences indicate the ethos of thoughtful analysis. By using longer, more complicated sentences, you may give the impression that you are educated and knowledgeable. However this can also backfire — if you write complicated sentences with grammatical mistakes, readers may assume that you are only pretending to be well-educated. This is a particular challenge for students from marginalized communities — wherever you grew up, you naturally learned the grammatical expectations of your family, your friends, and your school system. Often times, the grammatical expectations of conversational English differ from those of academic writing, and well-educated authors who naturally use complicated sentence structures in with conversational grammar may be incorrectly labelled as "uneducated" in their academic writing.
Additionally, academic writing does not make blanket declarations — instead, a well-written research paper will describe multiple possibilities and then weigh these different interpretations of reality. Because of this, academic writing must be cautious — your research papers should indicate your best interpretation of the facts and truth, but you cannot claim absolute knowledge because future research may disprove your findings. Because of this, academic writing often includes the cautious reservations of hedging.
Example: Why We Vary Our Sentences
When you write, the words alone must carry the intonations and rhythm of language that comes naturally when you speak. If every sentence has the same length and style, the effect is similar to speaking in a monotone.
Short Sentences Are More Direct and Emotional
Shorter, more direct sentences carry a stronger emotional impact. "I love children" feels more real and authentic than "I love the presence of children."
Rhetorically, shorter sentences often carry a greater effect on pathos. When combined with conversational diction, you can make strong declarative statements that will carry real impact with audiences. Additionally, such sentences may use more figurative rather than literal language to add emphasis.