Constantly Evolving: Style

There are plenty of definitions of what style is, the many dictionaries around do great job of that. However, I think it is incredibly hard to define what style is as there are so many different types. As students we are taught elements that make up style but our understanding takes time and our definition becomes slightly more obscure. According to Steven Pinker, a psychologist who studies language believes style changes and the 21st century is no exception.

In Steven Pinker’s article, he suggest that we are currently outgrowing the once popularly used and taught style of Strunk and White’s The Element of Style. We have been taught the proper way to use langue, both speaking and writing based off this book written in 1918. However, Pinker believes that following these rules does not define style, in fact, he thinks it can inhibit the writer.

We know that language changes. You and I don’t speak the way people did in Shakespeare’s era, or in Chaucer’s. As valuable as The Elements of Style is (and it’s tremendously valuable), it’s got a lot of cockamamie advice, dated by the fact that its authors were born more than a hundred years ago. For example, they sternly warn, “Never use ‘contact’ as a verb. Don’t say ‘I’m going to contact him.’ It’s pretentious jargon, pompous and self-important. Indicate that you intend to ‘telephone’ someone or ‘write them’ or ‘knock on their door.'” To a writer in the 21st century, this advice is bizarre. Not only is “to contact” thoroughly entrenched and unpretentious, but it’s indispensable. Often it’s extremely useful to be able to talk about getting in touch with someone when you don’t care by what medium you’re going to do it, and in those cases, “to contact” is the perfect verb. It may have been a neologism in Strunk and White’s day, but all words start out as neologisms in their day. If you read The Elements of Style today, you have no way of appreciating that what grated on the ears of someone born in 1869 might be completely unexceptionable today.

By acknowledging that style will continue to change, writers can become more free from the idea of following grammatical “laws”. Many writers have broken free from the standard and taken the use of writing unconventionally. For instance; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle(mixes passive voice), Shakespeare(ending sentences with prepositions), E.E. Cummings(capitalization), Charles Dickens(run-on sentences) and Jane Austen(double negatives). While these examples are on a smaller scale, there are others that have reached extreme levels of rule breaking. Most notable for me is Savages by Don Winslow. Winslow used short and often incomplete sentences, slang, screenplay interjected style chapters, improper spelling, as well as spacing.

The rest of the article by Pinker continues to explore where style is going and how writers should learn from the evolution of the change. While I don’t think we should completely neglect the basis of what we’ve learned, I think there is room for some new changes to the fundamentals of style.


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