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Literary Styles in the English Language

Literary Styles in the English Language

by William H. Benson

September 26, 2013

     “September 30, 1659. I, poor, miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked, during a dreadful storm in the offing, came on shore on this dismal unfortunate island, which I called ‘the Island of Despair,’ all the rest of the ship’s company being drowned, and myself almost dead.”

     So writes Daniel Defoe in his classic tale, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. I have always liked Defoe’s book, ever since I first read it. I like Robinson Crusoe’s resourcefulness, his ability to thrive despite adversity and isolation, elements that make a great story.

     But I also like Defoe’s literary style, his no-nonsense and straightforward English, without embellishment. Pick a sentence, any sentence, and you will see and hear his sense of pace, his rhythm, his workmanlike style, his matter-of-fact explanations.

     “But being now in the eleventh year of my residence, and, as I have said, my ammunition growing low, I set myself to study some art to trap and snare the goats, to see whether I could not catch some of them alive.” Forty-three words, all Anglo-Saxon, except the French words ‘residence’ and ‘ammunition.’ 

     I am partial to the writers, like Defoe, who work the English language, like a craftsman who chisels a wooden block, who shape and form an image.

     Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work.” Emerson’s style is wise, gentle, and cerebral.

     On the other hand, the curmudgeon H. L. Mencken observed, “Here was wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagination—and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgraced a race of alley cats.” Note his exaggeration in one direction and then his quick reversal. Two extremes contrasted and then the blazing image of alley cats, pure Menckenesque.

     Literary style is comparable to a fingerprint, a palm-print, or a face, individual and unique.

     Yet, an author’s style should not overshadow the content of his or her words. A “bad good writer” has important ideas to share, but expresses them in a haphazard manner. A “good bad writer” phrases his words and sentences with care, such that they sparkle, but alas, their content is empty, meaningless, misguided, or just plain wrong.

     The historian Jacques Barzun writes that “English has a great advantage over German” because ‘it possesses two vocabularies, nearly parallel” to each other: the first is Anglo-Saxon and the other is French derived from Latin. We can write “concede” or “give in;” “assume,” or “take up;” “deliver” or “hand over;” “insert” or “put in;” “retreat” or “fall back.” The French gave to modern English the first of those pairs, and the Anglo-Saxons gave the latter.

     Barzun says that “the existence of the quasi duplicate makes for a wide range of coloring in style and nuances in thought.” In other words, a writer in English can display shades of meaning and distinctions of thought that writers in certain other languages may not.

     Most composition teachers encourage students to stick with the more concrete Anglo-Saxon word and avoid the more abstract and stilted French word, but Barzun cautions that “Only a mechanical mind believes that the so-called Anglo-Saxon derivatives should always be preferred.”

     Mark Twain, who knew a few things about an English literary style, hated the German language and suggested that it “ought to be trimmed down and repaired.” He disliked the way that German relies upon the parenthesis, that it capitalizes its nouns, that the verb appears last in a sentence, that the gender classification makes no sense, and that it builds long words by splicing together other words.

     For example, Unabhaengigkeitserklaerungen means, according to Twain, “Declarations of Independence.” Where an English-speaking man or woman drops a preposition between words to convey meaning, the Germans sew together a series of words and create “a mountain range” of a word.

    Twain wrote as a critic would write, pointing out mistakes, finding fault, and suggesting improvements. I would suspect that at least one German critic in turn criticized Twain’s literary style.

     The English stylist Peter Elbow writes in his book “Writing with Power,” that “Scholars like to tell the history of language as a story of things we gained that our forebears lacked—in terms of the stupid mistakes the ancients made.” Elbow sees the opposite, and asks, “But how about what we lack and what they had? They had power in language that’s hard to capture now.”

     Consider Homer, the other ancient Greeks, and the early Anglo-Saxon writers. They displayed a style, a power, and a magic that casts a spell upon their readers, as does Daniel Defoe.

     Elbow believes that the great writer “paralyzes the reader, prevents him or her from moving away, and compels him or her to experience the words, the story, and its meaning.” That, he says, is  magic.