Tough, Sweet, & Stuffy Prose Styles

Learn about Walter Gibson's model of tough, sweet, or stuffy prose styles. Learn to work on your voice, tone, and persona in prose.

airport security area with warning signs

What are Tough, Sweet & Stuffy Prose Styles?

In 1966, Walker Gibson theorized “the way we write at any given moment can be seen as an adjustment or compromise among these three styles of identifying ourselves and defining our relation with others”:

  1. The Tough Talker
    • “The Tough Talker, in these terms, is a man dramatized as centrally concerned with himself — his style is I-talk.”
    • Prose style is concise and straightforward. Example: Hemingway’s prose.
  2. The Sweet Talker
    • “The Sweet Talker goes out of his way to be nice to us — his style is you-talk.
    • The prose style of advertisements and manipulative texts
  3. The Stuffy Talker
    1. “” The Stuffy Talker expresses no concern either for himself or his reader — his style is it-talk.”

How can I Tell if My Writing is Tough, Sweet or Stuffy?

Evaluate your work or the work of others for the following the linguistic attributes:

 Linguistic CharacteristicsToughSweetStuff
1. Monosyllabic wordsover 70%60-70%60% or less
2. Words of three syllables and moreunder 10%10-19%20% or more
3. First and second person pronouns1 I or we per 100 wordsyou per 100 wordsno 1st or 2nd person pronouns
4. Subjects: neuters versus people1/2 or more people1/2 or more people2/3 or more neuters
5. Finite verbsover 10%over 10%under 10%
6. To be verbsover 1/3 of verbsunder 1/4 of verbsunder 1/4 of verbs
7. Passive voiceless than 1 in 20 verbsnonemore than 1 in 5 verbs
8. True adjectivesunder 10%over 10%over 8%
9. Adjectives modifiedfewer than 1 per 100 words1 or morefewer than 1
10. Noun adjunctsunder 2%2% or more4% or more
11. Average length of clauses10 words or less10 words or lessmore than 10 words
12. Clauses, proportion of total words1/4 or less1/3 or lessover 40%
13. “Embedded” wordsless than 1/2 S/V combinationsless than halfmore than twice as many S/V combinations
14. The definite article the8% of total wordsunder 6%6-7%
15. Contractions and sentence fragments1 or more per 100 words2 or more per 100 wordsnone
16. Parentheses and other punctuationnone2 or more per 10 wordsnone
Source: Walker Gibson, Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1966, p. 13, Appendix A


Gibson, Walker. Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy: An Essay on Modern American Prose Styles. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1966.

Read More: