Style: Styles of Writing
The way in which we choose and arrange our words is called diction or syntax –
I’ve got to go to town in the morning, but I haven’t got any change for
I have to go to town in the morning, but haven’t any change for the bus.
I must go to town in the morning, but have no change for the bus.
A style of writing is simply its diction or syntax considered from two points of view: the purpose of the communication and the social relationship
it establishes between writer and reader.
We would not, for example, submit an economics essay to a college tutor with an account of the interesting things that happened to us on the
way to the library, or write a short story about the break-up of a marriage with a scholarly account of family law. To do either of these would be to
misunderstand the purpose of writing. The purpose of the economics essay is to inform, explain or argue, and the appropriate writing style is
called exposition. The purpose of the short story, on the other hand, is to entertain, and the appropriate style is called narrative.
Similarly, we would not write a letter to a friend or close family member in quite the way we would write one to a prospective employer. An intimate,
conversational letter from a job applicant will almost certainly end its career in the shredder, while an impersonal and scrupulously grammatical letter
from a friend would probably be perceived as distant and cold. To make mistakes of this kind would be to misunderstand the social relationship
between the correspondents. Thus academic essays and business letters are written in formal English, and letters to friends and relatives, in informal
Very broadly, then, we have four essential styles of writing, two concerned with purpose and two with relationship –
Purpose: narration or exposition
Relationship: informal or formal
These styles then combine to form the four kinds of script most commonly encountered in modern English prose –
We all hung around outside the ice house. It was really weird-looking –
a bit like a small hill. They say it was built ages ago to keep food cold
before the days of fridges, but it was all covered with weeds now. The
door was small, and we could hardly get to it because of the grass and
nettles. We could only even see it thanks to Fred chopping them down
and stamping on them.
The purpose here is clearly to tell a story. There is some exposition (we are informed of what an ice house is), but the author is essentially narrating
a sequence of events, and we receive a strong impression that something significant is about to happen. From the point of view of relationship, the
author has chosen to write informally. The language is conversational and unsophisticated, like someone of average education relating an experience
to a friend or making a statement to the police, but it is no less intelligible for that. The author uses natural, everyday words, including slang (hung
around, weird-looking), and allows the reader to identify with the narrating character by the authenticity of her speech and the use of the first person
we. First-person narrative, in fact, is usually written informally because this is how most people speak.
They grouped themselves in a nervous huddle a few yards from the
entrance to the ice house. It was an unusual structure, designed and
built in the eighteenth century to resemble a small hillock. Its function
as an ice-store had ceased years ago with the advent of the refrigerator,
and Nature had reasserted her dominion over it so that ranks of nettles
marched in their hundreds around the base, making a natural fusion
between the man-made dome and the solid earth. The only entrance, a
wide low doorway, was set into the ice-house wall at the end of an
overgrown pathway. The doorway, too, had long since lost itself in a mass
of tangled brambles which grew over it in a thorny curtain from above and
below. It was revealed now only because Fred had hacked and trampled
the curtain aside to reach it.
(Minette Walters, The Ice House)1
The purpose of this passage, the original, is also to tell a story, but this time the narrative is formal, addressed impersonally to an educated reader
rather than conversationally to a friend. The author’s use of the third-person they enables her to take an omniscient viewpoint that allows the reader
to see all that is going on, unconstrained by the experiences of a narrating character, and frees her from the linguistic limitations of everyday speech.
The passage has longer sentences than the first (an average of 24 words compared with 14) and uses a much richer vocabulary. It includes dependent
clauses not normally encountered in speech and makes skilful use of such literary devices as metaphor and personification (Nature had reasserted
her dominion; nettles marched; a thorny curtain).
The ice house was the refrigerator of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries. A common feature of landed estates, it consisted of a domed
structure, wholly or partially underground, in which ice was stored for
the purpose of preserving food in the kitchens. The ice was usually
collected from local water sources and stacked in the earth-covered
building where, properly packed with straw, it could survive for over a
Our third passage has a very different purpose. There is no storytelling now, just explanation. Formality is chosen this time for didactic as well
as social reasons, because the business of explaining or defining ideas requires the greater subtlety and precision of formal English. Exposition
(exposing information) is therefore more detached and clinical than narrative and operates within tighter grammatical rules. Its relative objectivity
and lack of emotion make it wholly unsuitable for storytelling and it would be a rather pretentious way of speaking (except, say, as part of a
prepared speech or lecture). But it is precisely these qualities that commend it to prose whose purpose is to define, explain, interpret or academically
On a chilly March afternoon a few miles west of Shrewsbury, a sewage
workman sank his pick into a trench and almost died. No, this was no
electricity supply line. He had opened up a cavity and only just managed
to avoid falling in. Three days later, a caving team gingerly widened the
hole to accommodate the girth of a man. A particular man, in fact. John
Halderman, senior instructor with the Shrewsbury Caving Club and a
‘They winched me down slowly,’ he said, ‘and even in the darkness I could
sense the vastness of the cavern. Then several feet down, I switched my
torch on. On the south side of the passage was a curved doorway and I knew
at once we had found an ice chamber.’
Ice chambers, or ice houses, were what the eighteenth- and nineteenth-
century gentry used instead of refrigerators…
Here we have that combination of styles encountered in magazine and newspaper articles: exposition tempered with elements of informal narrative
in order to generate reader interest. The discovery of the ice house is narrated, creating a sense of mystery and danger, before the exposition
begins in the third paragraph. Known as the ‘narrative hook’, it is the writer’s device for capturing the reader’s interest quickly and encouraging him
to read on. This is important to the casual reader flicking through the pages of a magazine to see what interests him, rather than the dedicated
enthusiast of ice houses who would have more patience with the formal exposition of our third passage. This style is sometimes disparaged as
info-tainment, a style in which the bitter pill of education is sweetened with entertainment for the reluctant learner, but there is no reason why reading
should not occasionally be both informative and enjoyable. On the other hand, the passage is not likely to impress a college tutor unless the course
of study were one on journalism or creative writing.
Stylistic choice, then, depends on why we are writing and to whom we are writing, for no one style is in itself better than another. We choose our
writing styles in the way we choose our clothes: a suit for the wedding, T-shirt and jeans for the pub. We just need to be clear about the kind of
script are we writing and who our readers are by their expectations and linguistic standards.
1 Minette Walters, The Ice House, Macmillan, 1996. Reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.