Style at the Scale of the Sentence

What makes Middlemarch?

Detail of William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience.
Detail of William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience. 1853, oil on Canvas. Tate Britain, London. Photo by Steven Zucker.

We have made two notable changes to the original text with the authors’ permission. These are (1) omitting three graphs and (2) translating the graphs that remain from color into grayscale. We have also made minor alterations to the text to account for these changes. The full-color original is available online at http://litlab.stanford.edu.  — Eds.

A Discussion on Style (April 2011)

In April 2011, the Literary Lab held a broad retrospective discussion of its first year’s work. Among other things, we talked about our first pamphlet — “Quantitative Formalism” — and wondered whether its object had been style, as we had rather casually claimed at some points in the pamphlet, or whether the method followed had been too reductionist to capture that elusive object. A chart from “Quantitative Formalism” will clarify the point: in figure 1.1 [not pictured],1 Jacobin novels (on the right of the diagram) are separated from gothic ones (on the left) by the different frequency of the words that appear in the chart: “you,” “if,” “not,” “she,” “were,” “the,” and all the other terms included in a program created by Matt Jockers, which we ended up calling Most Frequent Words, or MFW. For gothic novels, MFW included third-person pronouns, verbs in the past tense, locative prepositions, articles, and more; for Jacobin ones, second-person pronouns, conjunctions expressing uncertainty like “if,” and the conditional auxiliary “would.”

The units employed by MFW (articles, pronouns, prepositions, et cetera) were clearly functional to the central aim of the two forms; in fact, it was precisely because they were so profoundly functional to narrative suspense (for the gothic) and argumentation (Jacobin novel) that they were so good at separating the two genres. But could the different frequencies of “she” and “you” and “the” really be called “style”? On this, we disagreed. Some of us claimed that, though all styles do entail linguistic choices, not all linguistic choices create style; others countered this argument by stating that style follows necessarily from this fundamental level and that all we need to analyze it is the set of linguistic choices made by an author or a genre. This was the genuinely reductionist position — style as nothing but its components — and the more logically consistent one; the other position admitted that it couldn’t specify the exact difference or the precise moment when a “linguistic choice” turned into a “style,” but it insisted nonetheless that reducing style to a strictly functional dimension missed the very point of the concept, which lay in its capacity to hint, however hazily, at something that went beyond functionality. Our job should consist of removing the haze, not disregarding the hint.

We will return at the end to the “not merely functional” nature of style. For now, let’s just say that since the antireductionist position was the more common one, we used it as the basis for developing the next stage of the argument. We considered a series of linguistic structures of increasing complexity to try and capture the moment at which style became visible. The series went something like this: gothic novels have many locative prepositions; but a thousand occurrences of “from,” “on,” “in,” and “at” are not style in any conceivable sense of the word. Jacobin novels have a lot of conditionals; a little better, perhaps, but not much. Then came the formula Franco Moretti had noticed in gothic titles and analyzed a few years earlier in “Style, Inc.”: “The X of Y.” The Castle of Otranto, or The Rock of Glotzden: the formula was a perfect expression of the gothic obsession with space. But, once more, functionality was not really style. The next layer was a formula that Marissa Gemma had identified in Poe and discussed in her dissertation: “The X of Y of Z,” she had called it — as in The Fall of the House of Usher, or “the gray stones of the home of his forefathers.” This authorial exaggeration of a generic trait, with its defiance of any mere functionality, offered a first glimpse of what we were looking for; maybe it was style, maybe it wasn’t, but we were finally getting close. And with the next instance, the opening words of Middlemarch — “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress” — we all agreed we had entered the territory of style proper. As Sarah Allison had shown in her dissertation’s analysis of this type of sentence, a whole series of connections and transformations coalesce around the relative pronoun “which.” As the past tense of the main clause becomes the present of the dependent one, narrative distance turns into engaged comment, and character description (“Miss Brooke had beauty”) into a nuanced qualification of the type and meaning of that beauty.2 One reads the sentence and immediately gets the sense of a work capable of modulating from novel into essay, and from the relative simplicity of the story to the subtlety of reflection. The sentence is certainly perfectly functional to the opening of a novel — but it also possesses many other layers of meaning, all closely interconnected. Now, this was style.

We had found a starting point. We would study not style as such, but style at the scale of the sentence — the lowest level, it seemed, at which style as a distinct phenomenon became visible. Implicitly, we were defining style as a combination of smaller linguistic units, which made it, in consequence, particularly sensitive to changes in scale — from words to clauses to whole sentences. Yet we also hesitated, because the sentence wasn’t at all an obvious choice for stylistic analysis; Auerbach in Mimesis and Watt in his essay on The Ambassadors had, for instance, operated at the quite different scale of the paragraph: ten, twenty, thirty lines that included a much greater variety of linguistic traits and could thus be seen (most clearly in Mimesis) as a model and miniature of the work as a whole. Sentences seemed much too short to play the same role. Perhaps they could play a different one? Did something happen at the scale of the sentence that could not happen at any other scale?

  1. See “Quantitative Formalism: An Experiment” in n+1 Issue 13 (“Machine Politics”). The graph referred to here appears on page 104 of that issue (figure 7.8).  — Eds. 

  2. A version of this argument is forthcoming in ELH as “Discerning Syntax: George Eliot’s Relative Clauses.” 

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