Style in writing and speech plays a profound role in human communication. If people dislike a writer's style (or their tone, voice or persona), they are likely to dismiss the writer's ideas. Learn about the importance of style (and design) to composing and communication.

Style Definition – Summary

Style in speech and writing refers to

  1. how a text, application, or product is composed — its composition or design — as opposed to what it means or does
  2. the degree to which writers, coauthors, and members of a discourse community adhere to discourse conventions. For example, an academic writer may make composing decisions based on their desire to conform to
  3. the degree to which writers, coauthors, and discourse communities reject or remix discourse conventions. The moments in discourse when writers and speakers express themselves in unique, idiosyncratic ways
  4. the attributes of a writer’s, speaker’s or discourse community’s text(s), including
  5. the shape of content (Shahn 1992)
    • For some artists, style and content are so interwoven that they cannot be considered separately. From this perspective, it’s an overgeneralization to say that what matters is how you say something as opposed to what you say.

Related Concepts: Persona; Point of View; Register; Rhetorical Analysis; Text; Tone; Voice.

Guide to Style in Speech & Writing

“What’s important is the way we say it. Art [and writing] is all about craftsmanship . . . Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters” [emphasis added].

Federico Fellini

Why Does Style Matter?

All communicative acts are imbued with style. Even the bot that answers the phone when you call in to question your Verizon Communications bill has a style.

Style matters. A lot. A writer’s or speaker’s style impacts whether readers will scan much less read and comprehend a text.

Style is more than writing grammatically correct sentences or speaking with correct diction; it’s about crafting texts that snag the reader’s attention and refuse to let go. Style is a marker of creative expression, personality, identity and community. Writers may use style to soften the blow of bad news or to make the prosaic somehow interesting. Writer’s may use appeals to pathos and ethos in order to keep the audience’s focus away from the logos of content.

Audiences may dismiss a writer or speaker’s content if they dislike or distrust that person’s style or persona. Alternatively, audiences may follow someone because they like their style. That’s why, for example, advertisers pay athletic superstars millions of dollars to endorse their products.

Educated audiences, people trained in critical literacy, are likely to dismiss the authority of texts that do not follow the expected style. For instance, in school settings, teachers are likely to assign low grades to papers that do not follow adopt an academic prose style.

Photo Credit: “Text Fist” by Andrew Mason is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Style is a major concern of writers during the composing process. Writers create style by using a variety of elements of discourse, including

In turn, speakers may alter the sound or tone or cadence of their voice; they may use more sensory language and figurative language. From everyday experience, speakers know audiences will be reading their facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, and movements to assess whether they are being authentic or playing a persona.

In academic and workplace writing contexts, audiences of written and spoken discourse assess a rhetor’s style (even if they do this unconsciously/tacitly) because they tend to be concerned with the authority of the author’s text. From schooling–and because it’s a dog-eat-dog world–people want to determine if they can trust the speaker and writer. And style is a barometer of the author’s ethos–their character.

What is Style?

1. Style Reflects a Writer or Speaker’s Identify, Personality & Literary History

Your style in writing and speech, your unique point of view, plays a major role in whether your audience will listen or read your work . Photo Credit: Moxley

As a writer, over time, you are likely to develop a repertoire of styles that is uniquely yours. Your personal style is a composite of your literary history, including all the texts you’ve read and written–and how your teachers, loved ones, and other audiences have responded to your past communications. Your style is a reflection of your thought and reasoning patterns. Your style is a reflection of your political, religious, and other personal beliefs. Your style simmers in the discourse of your home language and school language. Some aspects of your style–such as a penchant for metaphor, simile or hyperbole–may characterize the bulk of your works whereas other aspects of style you may try on like a persona for halloween when you face a new exigency, a new call to write.

During deliberations on a legal matter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once remarked “I know it when I see it” to indicate what does and doesn’t constitute obscenity (Lattman 2007).

This same assessment may be made with regards to style. When trying to figure out your own unique style, your unique way of communicating, you’ll know it when you see it.

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting. — E. E. Cummings

E. E. Cummings

2. Style Reflects Community Values and Conventions

Style in speech and writing, like style in dress and behavior, reflects community values and practices. Photo Credit: Moxley

Style is a social construct. Styles of speaking and writing are codified by discourse communities/communities of practice. Style functions as a marker of community.

Discourse Communities have distinct styles of writing. Most broadly, e.g. the prose style of academic and school-based writing is quite distinct from the prose style of workplace writing.

Style is a rhetorical construct. How styles are defined, valued, and used is largely determined by discourse communities. For instance, to express their enthusiasm for a football game and community membership, FSU (Florida State University) fans may wear the team colors, may make a warrior chopping motion, and may sing the Florida State football war chant. These linguistic and nonverbal cues distinguish FSU fans from fans of other football teams, denoting community and shared linguistic and semantic practices.

Photo Credit: “St. Petersburg Bitcoin Bowl” by CityofStPete is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

In academic contexts, style is enforced by style books, the textual productions of community members, peer-review practices, and scholarly conventions. Much of schooling involves mastering the discourse conventions of particular communities of practice. In U.S. postsecondary education, students are introduced to writing in the disciplines (e.g., Writing in Business; Writing in Engineering; Writing in the Health Sciences; etc.). They take first-year or upper division courses to learn the composing and stylistic conventions of professionals in their chosen careers.

During high school and college, students are trained to critique their work and the work of others by evaluating a document’s prose style. Teachers provide feedback to students to help develop their rhetorical knowledge and mastery of different genres and media. They introduce students to a range of writing styles, introducing students to a variety of literary and nonfiction genres.

Since the publication of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style in 1918, teachers have exhorted students to consider the following textual attributes:

To do well in high school and college, to be considered literate, students need to be able to produce prose that demonstrates their correct use of these highly cherished textual attributes.

Writers must also consider the inclusiveness and usability of their compositions. Since writing has taken a visual turn, as writers use multimedia tools to expand the writing space, writers must also consider use of design elements, graphic design, page design, and universal design principles.

Writers in the social sciences and sciences understand they need to follow the formatting guidelines and citation style of the APA–Publication Manual of the APA: 7th Edition. In contrast, writers in the humanities MLA Handbook, 9th Edition:

Note how the curved exterior wall of this new condo building attracts your attention: it breaks alignment, symmetry, and convention. Photo Credit: Moxley

3. Style May Be Expressed as a Rejection or a Remix of Discourse Conventions

When composing, or in everyday conversation, people may express themselves in their own unique, and idiosyncratic ways. A writer’s unique style emerges when they stray from normal discourse and engage in abnormal discourse.

What is Abnormal Discourse?

Richard Rorty, a philosopher, defines abnormal discourse (aka abnormal communication) as “what happens when someone joins in the discourse who is ignorant of [the prevailing] conventions or [purposely] sets them aside” (1979, p. 320).

People may break with convention for any number of reasons: They may not understand the prevailing discourse conventions. They may feel existing communication methods aren’t working. They may wish to express themselves in a unique, idiosyncratic way. As artists, as creative people, they may take delight in surprising audiences. They may aim to help people understand a topic, event or person/character from in a new way–from a fresh perspective.

A writer or speaker’s style may ignite the curiosity of their readers: they may break with convention to wake audiences from the mundaneness of everyday life. Photo Credit: Moxley.

Style may also be denoted by a writer or speaker’s rejection of convention. Sometimes people create new styles of expression by breaking with the traditional ways of composing and communication. To achieve their goals in a communication situation, writer’s may depart from Standard Written or Spoken English. For instance, writers such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Toni Morrison, and TS Eliot wrote in a stream of consciousness style of writing, a style that rejects traditional punctuation conventions, creates a sense of poetic rhythm, and adopts a voice that mimics inner speech. Example:

“She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fraulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.”

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
A unique style may surprise readers and users. To achieve their goals, creative people may remix traditional ways of doing things. Photo Credit: Moxley

4. Style Reflects SocioCultural Historical Processes

Styles evolve in response to cultural, technological, and cultural changes.

In the early days, before the Internet — back when you had to find a good piece of bark to scribble your thoughts on — style was different from what it is now. The long sentences and page-long paragraphs of the 19th century have given way to short sentences & paragraphs, embedded hyperlinks and videos, and an increasing reliance on visual language.

Some stylistic changes are directly attributable to new technologies, such as Twitter or Instagram. For instance, you are likely to use a different writing style when you post something on social media (e.g., Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) as opposed to a handwritten note to a loved one.

The Canterbury Tales in Middle English with translation, lines 1 to 18

5. Style is a Subjective Phenomenon

  1. How an audience interprets style is deeply subjective. For instance, readers of books, movie goers, and art critics may disagree with one another about how to describe a character’s style.
  2. People may disagree with one another about whether a particular speaker’s style is appropriate for a given situation.
  3. The judgment of critics about a particular writer’s style may vary over time. Thanks to sociocultural, economic, and technology changes, different audiences over time are likely to have different ideas about what constitutes an appropriate or effective style.
Writers may believe they have written a text as concisely as possible.Yet the audience may perceive their text to be verbose.
Writers may believe they have accomplished their intended rhetorical stance. For example, they may endeavor to employ the critical literacy practices of a judge, arbitrator, or mediator in a litigation dispute.Yet the audience may find writer’s stance to be overly emotional, vague or underdeveloped.

6. Style May Be Expressed Globally & Locally

Style is a composite of multiple language practices that are forged at both

  1. the Global – Rhetorical Level
  2. the Local, Syntactical Level.

When analyzing your style or the style of someone else, you may find it helpful to distinguish a writer’s stylistic moves at the global versus the local level.

Teachers, bosses, critics and others may critique a document at the local, syntactical level or they may talk about the document more h at the local/sentence-level and global/rhetorical level.

Global PerspectiveLocal Perspective
At the global level, a writer may be concerned with whether or not they’ve provided the examples and evidence their audience needs.

Writers may aim to adopt a consistent purpose, persona, tone, voice, and thesis throughout a document
At the local level–sentence-by-sentence–a writer may work to avoid common sentence errors, seeking to identify problems with diction, grammar, mechanics, punctuation. They may question their word choice and check to see that they’ve used concrete & sensory language, figurative language and concise language to exemplify key points. They may copyedit documents, looking for common sentence errors.

Illustration of Global Style vs Local Style Perspectives

Style in U.S. High Schools & Postsecondary Education

In school-based writing, teachers tend to grade for style. Teachers notice immediately when a student’s written work fails to use

By the conclusion of high school, students in the U.S. are expected to being able to produce prose that is relatively error free from the perspective of Standard Written English.

How to Adopt an Appropriate Style

Learn how to develop your unique style, For example, learn to check the register of discourse, the formality of the occasion, so you can code switch as necessary and develop an appropriate rhetorical stance, following rhetorical analysis, and rhetorical reasoning. 

  1. First, engage in rhetorical analysis–especially audience analysis
    To develop a style that is appropriate for a communication situation, question your audience’s expectations.
  2. Next, engage in rhetorical reasoning: Given the exigency, the call to write,
  3. Throughout the composing process, you might try reading your writing out loud. This can be a useful way of double checking whether your tone, voice, and persona are appropriate for the communication situation.

Style & Design

Style and design are interrelated concepts: both style and design are concerned with

Style & Voice

The terms style and voice may be used synonymously. Yet the difference is that style concerns the overall orchestration of the elements of discourse. Voice, in contrast, is more limited: it refers to the writer’s expression of their personality or their rhetorical stance regarding the topic.

Recommended Readings

Examples of Popular Style Guidelines:

Apple Style Guide
Published by Apple, this is a useful example of a company-based style guide.

A Plain English Handbook
Published by the Office of Investor Education and Assistance at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, this is a useful review of copyediting guidelines.

Professional Writing Prose Style
Learn about the style of writing that characterizes the texts of professional writers.

The Elements of Style
Published by Strunk and White in 1918, The Elements of Style remains a foundational text for aspiring writers interested in style, especially punctuation and mechanics.

Examples of Research and Theory on Style

Ray, Brian. (2015). Style: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy. Parlor Press; The WAC Clearinghouse. 

Works Cited

Bacon, N. (2013). Style in Academic Writing. In The Centrality of Style. Parlor Press.

Gipson, Walker (1966).  Tough, Sweet and Stuffy: An Essay on Modern American Prose. Midland Books.

Lattman, Peter (September 27, 2007). “The Origins of Justice Stewart’s ‘I Know It When I See It'”. Wall Street Journal. Law Blog at The Wall Street Journal Online. Retrieved December 31, 2014.

Rorty, R. (1979). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Shahn, Ben (1992). The Shape of Content. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Strunk, W. (1918). The elements of style. OCLC 781988921