Since the 1950s the term stylistics has been applied to critical procedures which undertake to replace what is claimed to be the subjectivity and impressionism of standard analyses with an “objective” or “scientific” analysis of the style of literary texts.  Much of the impetus toward these analytic methods, as well as models for their practical application, was provided by the writings of Roman Jakobson and other Russian formalists, as well as by European Structuralists.

In the narrower mode of formal stylistics, style is identified, in the traditional way, by the distinction between what is said and how it is said, or between the content and the form of a ext. (See style.)  The content is now often denoted, however, by terms such as “information,” “message” or “propositional meaning,” while the style is defined as variations in the presentation of this information that serve to alter its “aesthetic quality” or the reader’s emotional response.  The concepts of modern linguistics are used to identify the stylistic features, or “formal properties”, which are held to be distinctive of a particular work, or else of an author, or a literary tradition, or an era.  These stylistic features may be phonological (patterns of speech sounds, meter, or rhyme), or syntactic (types of sentence structure), or lexical (abstract vs. concrete words, the relative frequency of nouns, verbs, adjectives), or rhetorical (the characteristic use of figurative language, imagery and so on).  A basic problem, acknowledged by a number of stylisticians, is to distinguish between the innumerable features and patterns of a text which can be isolated by linguistic analysis, and those features which are functionally stylistic – that is, features which make an actual difference in the aesthetic and other effects on  competent reader.

He ever-increasing technological resources of computers in the service of what has come to be called Stylometry; quantitative measurement of the features of an individual writer’s style.

Stanley Fish wrote a sharp critique of the scientific pretensions of formal stylistics; he proposed that since, in his view, the meaning of a text consists of a reader’s total response to it, there is no valid way to make a distinction in this spectrum of response between style and content (“What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About IT?” in is There a Text in This Class? 1980; see also reader-response criticism).  For extended critiques both of traditional analyses of style, and of modern stylistics, based on the thesis that style is not a separable feature of language.

In the second mode of stylistics, which has been prominent since the mid-1960s, proponent greatly expand the conception and scope of their inquiry by defining stylistics as, in the words of one theorist, “the study of the use of language in literature,” involving the entire range of the “general characteristics of language… as a medium of literary expression.” (Geoffrey N. Leech)

By this definition, stylistics is expanded so as to incorporate most of the concerns of both traditional literary criticism and traditional rhetoric; its distinction from these earlier pursuits is that it insists on the need to be objective by focusing sharply on the text itself and by setting out to discover the “rules” governing the process by which linguistic elements and patterns in a text accomplish their meanings and literary effects.  The historian of criticism Rene Wellek has described this tendency of stylistic analysis to enlarge its territorial domain as “the imperialism of modern stylistics”.


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