Students understanding the complexity of language
 

Chapter 09-03: Style and Choice

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chapter 9: style and choice

As we discussed,  writing and grammar are intimately linked at the editing stage, and we  can extend this connection by describing the ways that grammatical  choices can also be stylistic choices.
 
Style is rhetorical. This means that style is the conscious choices you make for  expressing ideas in writing. From our perspective, these choices are  always rhetorical choices. Rhetorical choice is most often represented as the rhetorical triangle:
Whether you are texting a friend, sending an email, posting to a blog, submitting a progress report, or turning in a formal paper,  your grammar use can say a lot about who you are as a writer (your ethos),  your relationship to your readers, the purpose for the text, the genre  of the text, and the larger context of the rhetorical situation. Grammar is about stylistic choice: is the text formal or informal? is your  reader concerned with “correctness”? can grammatical choices help you  achieve your purpose?
 
When we construct an argument, the intent is to ensure that the message is conveyed in a clear and concise manner. Choices about words  and grammatical structures are important considerations.
 
At the word level, for example, while we may have phrasal  verbs at our disposal, we should employ them judiciously in formal  writing. Phrasal verbs are often idioms —words or  phrases that have a figurative meaning; thus, our readers may not grasp  the true meaning of phrasal verbs unless they are familiar with the term  itself. For example, turn down is different for an  “offer” than for a “bed”; however, to assume all English speakers know  these differences without context is erroneous. (This is especially true  when dealing with English as a Second Language.) If we are writing to a  specialized, but unknown audience, then phrasal verbs (like specialized  language) may not be the best choice. We may want to minimize or avoid  phrasal verbs altogether.
 
Similarly phrasal verbs also make conciseness—or brevity—a  challenge. In most cases, our objective should be to use as few words as  necessary to convey our message. Considering phrasal verbs involve two  or more words to convey the same message as one, such structures may  make it difficult to achieve that objective. Observe the following  examples:
 
  1. He wasn’t going to put up with the zombies any longer.
  2. He wasn’t going to tolerate the zombies any longer.
While it is only two extra words, audience and purpose should be a consideration in word choice.
At the sentence level, your rhetorical choices can be elaborate or simple, but they must be conscious. Consider the following:
 
  1. After she hit the ball, Jenny ran to first base.
  2. Jenny ran to first base after she hit the ball.
  3. Jenny ran to first base, after she hit the ball.
What point are you trying to convey? Is your point made  more effectively placing the subordinate clause first? Or should it come  second? Do you want to slow the reader down by placing a comma after  the independent clause (as in #3)?
 
Even though comma use can help with pacing your readers,  you can’t just throw in commas at random or willy-nilly, as we discussed  earlier. Comma use is based on the grammatical principles we have described throughout this textbook, so if you want to use commas to slow your readers down, you need to use appropriate structures that will allow you to do so.
 
In general, when we write, we should always consider the rhetorical triangle when making our grammatical choices.
 
Another example of stylistic choice is the use of the passive structure. Many instructors and writing style guides advise against using the passive structure. But the passive structure can be rhetorically effective. The goal is to evaluate each use of the passive structure to  ensure that it is effective and appropriate for a particular audience  and purpose, in a particular genre and a particular context. Each use of  the passive belongs to a unique context, and individual writers need to  decide about the rhetorical effectiveness for using a passive  structure.  
 
As a reminder, the passive is best identified as a  grammatical structure: BE + [-en], and this auxiliary combination – BE +  [-en] – identifies the passive structure, and when you are analyzing,  this is the only thing that you need to look for. On the other hand,  stylistically, active voice and passive voice describe the relationship  between the subject and the verb in a sentence. Active voice refers to  the subject as the entity that is doing the action:
 
Leonidas leads the men into battle.
 
In this sentence, we can identify Leonidas as the subject who is completing the action: he leads the men. Since the subject performs the action, we can identify this sentence as being in the active voice.
 
The men are led by Leonidas into battle.
 
In this sentence, the subject of the sentence is the men; however, notice the relation of the subject to the main verb phrase are led. In this situation, the men are not the ones conducting the action, but they are being affected by it. Leonidas is the doer whereas the men are passive characters that are moved to action by another entity. Because the men do not carry out the action themselves, we can identify this sentence as being in the passive voice.
 
NOTE: Leonidas conducts the action in both  sentences, but what we have done in the second sentence is merely shift  the attention away from the doer—Leonidas—to the direct object— the men—by inverting its position in the sentence. This, in short, is what makes the choice between active voice and passive voice a stylistic (rhetorical) choice.
 
This all means that using the passive should not be  considered an error. It should also not automatically be considered a  stylistic misstep. Instead, it should be be considered rhetorically  effective when employed appropriately and judiciously. 
 
There are various reasons we may wish to use the passive, which include (but are not limited to) the following:
 
To create a better transition between sentences
Once numbering in the millions, Australia’s koala population has dwindled to about 400,000 as fur hunters [have taken] their toll. Today the koala is threatened by disease, road accidents and a steady shrinking of the eucalyptus forests, where the animal lives and feeds. (from Time, 17 September 1990)
 
It is because of these consequences of the Spiegel political affair that  we propose here to examine it, with emphasis on the causes of the  controversy and the responses of the political system to it. The meaning of the term “political affair”is largely conditioned by popular and journalistic usage. (adapted from Ronald F. Bunn’s German Politics and the Spiegel Affair)
 
Despite Snowden’s leaks, much of the public still misunderstands how the NSA works and what it does. In the past, the agency has welcomed this ignorance, since it helpd the government keep its secrets secure. (From Daniel Byman and Benjamin Wittes’ “Reforming the NSA”)
 
Notice how the subject of the second sentence was part  of the predicate in the previous sentence. This places old information  into the subject position to better connect sentences.
 
To emphasize (or draw attention to) the object. 
Thousands of citizens were affected by the fallout.
Emphasis on the citizens—the victims of the tragedy.
 
Thirty thousand telegrams were received by the White House on Friday.
Direct object of active sentence calls for more focus.
 
To mask a subject that is unknown.
In the wake of the panic, our car was stolen.
Who stole our car?
 
The dog was abandoned in the breakdown lane of the freeway?
Who abandoned the dog?
 
Agent is unknown.
Our mouthwash is preferred over all other brands.
Unknown possibly suggests a greater number of people.
 
To mask a subject that is (relatively) unimportant. 
They were born for this.
Yes, moms are important; however, it sounds awkward  to say “Their mothers bore them for this.” Also, it can be assumed that,  in almost all cases, someone gave birth to them.
 
To obscure an agent’s identity.
Our services are ranked #1!
We aren’t sure who ranks them as #1; however, it can  create the illusion that a greater audience prefers the services than  reality admits.
 
Sometimes, you may actually construct a sentence with a  passive unconsciously, but as you edit, BE + [-en] signals you that a  passive structure is there, and you can determine if that’s the most  effective rhetorical choice: to eliminate the agent of the action  because the agent is unknown, to focus attention on the direct object of  the verb (in the active sentence), or, when it is in the writer’s  interest, to obscure the agent’s identity. As with any stylistic choice,  however, it should always be deliberate and purposeful.
 
Use of the passive is just one example of all the stylistic choices that you have available to you as a writer, choices that invariably can be traced back to the rhetorical triangle. Keep this in mind whenever you write in the future.