ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
Three Classic Styles:
Most college handbooks on writing advise students to use a variety of sentence patterns to avoid monotony. Fine. But if you have anything complicated to write about, and if you write about it honestly, you won't have to worry about sentence variety. It will be there. Your sentences will be varied, complicated, and complex because sentences expand and contract to express the reality of the issue at hand. Things are not often as simple as the simple sentence:
Because of all of the if's, but's, and however's of your subject, your words are likely to be varied enough. Clarity, not variety, is the biggest problem that most serious writers face.
Some writers of course throw the idea of variety to the four winds. Their work, because of its sameness or repetitiveness in sentence patterns, gets into textbooks on style. For many centuries, rhetoricians in Greek and Latin and English alike have observed three distinct styles based on clauses.
Let's begin with the simplest, known as the "paratactic" or "low" style. Consider the following passage from Joy Williams' essay "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp." (Williams is addressing a Young, Urban, Professional in this very eighties popular essay.)
What's the variety here? Some of the language uses sentence fragments, but where there are sentences they are simple and short. The phenomenon of simple sentence after simple sentence after simple sentence is highly noticeable because strings of simple sentences aren't normal in speech. Nobody really talks this way. Even kids don't talk this way. (Kids have a tendency to string all their little sentences together with the conjunction 'and.' ) So when a writer uses a series of simple sentences, the language is calling attention to itself, or to some physical aspect of the meaning of the words.
There are two different terms for this style.
Here's the world's most famous use of parataxis, and some of its literary descendants:
(Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars).
I came. I saw. I had a good time(Hallmark Cards).
I came. I sawed it. I fixed it(tee shirt).
In Teaching Prose, Fredric V. Bogel, to whom I owe the above definition of parataxis, exemplifies it in the following passage, a description of "life in corporate America" by Russell Baker:
Bogel explains, "The dominant impulse in this passage is paratactic, and the commonest conjunction is the coordinating 'and.' The effect, here, is one of numbing sameness and of disconnection: all those people doing things with paper, and yet doing them, it seems, in relative isolation from one another" (185).
Disconnection might be the basic message of the paratactic style. But is it always? Can parataxis embody other kinds of reality? Pure energy? Sarcasm? Demented focus? Aggression? Guerrilla [syn]tactics? Or will the impression created by this sentence type depend on other things in the passage? The meaning of the words for instance?
A second exaggerated style that we can look at, to contrast with the paratactical style, is closer to natural speech but not much closer to standard academic writing. What the late James E. Robinson (in his book The Scope of Rhetoric) calls the extended coordinate style is the lacing together of several clauses with the coordinating conjunction 'and.' (This style is ancient and went by other names in other literary traditions.) This can be a style for kids, poets, mystics, seers, and others who are interested above all else in connections, in seeing things whole, because this style can link anything and everything in the world:
Robinson describes this passage as a series of clauses, "each of them independent but all together gathering the whole universe into being" (257). He also excerpts this passage from Ernest Hemingway's short story "In Another Country":
Robinson remarks on the unity of this passage, too. But this style can have other effects as well. What do you think of the above passage? Is the effect not only one of unity but of simplicity, too? Perhaps there's even a disregard for the logical relationships that would exist among the clauses (if the writer chose to use subordinating conjunctions)?
Here's another modern example, a parody of the style:
The extended coordinate style is unsuitable in most academic writing contexts.
Take a look at what happens in the subordination of clauses. Subordination is a way of making pieces of information less important than other pieces of information. It's a way of subordinating some of the things we say to other things we say.
For example, if I say "Jennifer is quiet, and she's perceptive," I have two independent clauses, equally important. But if I say "Because she's quiet, Jennifer's very perceptive," then I've done two things:
Actually, in classical rhetoric the term used for the extended subordinate style is hypotaxis. This word comes from the Greek verb hypo-tassein, to place under. 'Placing under' is just what I'm doing when I subordinate one piece of information to another piece of information. So, in a real sense, this style is hierarchical in nature. "A prose style that makes considerable use of subordination--and thus of complex or compound-complex sentences--will organize things in an intensely hierarchical (hypotactic) way" (Bogel 184).
The hypotactic style is important for at least two reasons. First, this closely reasoned, logical style is the style of most academic discourse. Its clauses are connected not by the loosely unifying conjunction and of the extended coordinate style, but by all the subordinating conjunctions--the conjunctions that express causality, consequence, sequence, condition, contingency; the conjunctions that show logical relationships, the ones that explain things. Knowing this can make you sensitive to the webs of meaning in an academic text.
Second, hypotactic style can be highly literary and oratorical. "Such a style rearranges linear sequence as hierarchical structure," says Bogel. Among its effects are transforming what is basically "a linear process of thought" into "a simultaneous comprehension" of the ideas expressed; in short, "the yellow brick road becomes a twelve-story hotel" (185).
Look at the following passage from Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and notice all his subordinate clauses (the ones starting with "when"). If you find yourself unable to let go of all the information in the subordinate clauses until the independent clause hits at the very end, then you will experience the power of hypotaxis:
Left: Julius Caesar, classical master of the paratactic style.
Left: the Stoic philosopher Seneca, a Roman from the province of Spain, is regarded as the classical master of the extended coordinate style, which is sometimes called "the Senecan amble." If he looks a little haggard, maybe it's because he got the job of teaching young Nero. When the lessons were over, Nero ordered him to commit suicide.
Left: Roman lawyer and senator Cicero, classical master of the extended subordinate style.