What Is Style in English Literature?

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Ernest Hemingway wrote short sentences with simple words, while Henry James's massive, complex sentences filled whole pages. Both authors produced great literature, but their literary styles were entirely different. Style, as Literary Devices defines it, is the way writers put words together. An author's word choice and sentence structure make up his style. No one mistakes Don DeLillo for William Shakespeare. Their styles -- choice of diction and syntax -- are their signatures.

1 Similar Messages in Different Styles

Different authors send similar messages, but they may use vastly different styles. Nathaniel Hawthorne in "The Scarlet Letter" uses nature as a symbol for human emotion as he describes a riverbank where two lovers conceive a child: "[The river] kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing but melancholy, like ... infancy without playfulness." Hawthorne's ornate figurative style invests the setting with humanity, as if the river itself were childlike.

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2 Style in Figurative Language

Figurative language often characterizes an author's writing style. Ray Bradbury, in works such as "Fahrenheit 451," reveals his love of metaphor and simile throughout as he describes acts as simple as people smoking cigarettes: "Touching their sun-fired hair and examining their blazing fingernails as if they had caught fire." Bradbury's poetically extreme style is the opposite of Raymond Chandler's in "Farewell My Lovely," who describes the smoking habits of the jaded detective Philip Marlowe with a cruder simile: "I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber's handkerchief."

3 Poetic Themes in Differing Styles

William Shakespeare's and Emily Dickinson's stylistic differences emphasize their genre's common themes of lost love and universal disillusionment. While Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter in stanzas, with liberal use of inverted sentences and figurative language, Dickinson has no set stanza or rhythmic pattern, and uses plain and folksy rhymes rather than figurative usage. Despite this, their despair is shared as Dickinson cries to her lost lover, "you, who were Existence, yourself forgot to live," while Shakespeare's reaction to his desertion is contempt: "all men are bad and in their badness reign."

4 White's "Elements of Style" Has a Style

Cornell University professor William Strunk demonstrated that whenever you write, you achieve a style. His "Elements of Style," written with E. B. White, is a guide for grammatically correct usage, but Strunk's examples include his personal ideas of what correct writing style should be. His broader philosophy tells authors to "omit needless words," but he goes on to specifically label "certainly," "like" and "clever" as overused. His textbook becomes a statement of his own preferences, proving that even a technician discussing writing style cannot avoid a writing style.

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.