Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


Style is a flexible concept in literature, art, fashion, sports, etc. Style can describe a range of appearances, techniques, and contents, or focus on particular details, devices, or affects.

The word's popular uses, e.g. "S/he's got style," connects to OED #25 below: "A person's characteristic bearing, demeanour, or manner, esp. as conducing to beauty or striking appearance."

In literary terms, style more specifically identifies "the manner of expression characteristic of a particular writer . . . or of a literary group or period." (OED II.12.a.)

 Literary style may combine an author's, movement's, or period's techniques, subject matter, and themes.

Admiration of a particular writer's style may revert to the popular usage, indicating a "beauty or striking appearance" to the experience of reading an author; e.g., "Fitzgerald's style in The Great Gatsby is ravishing, evocative not only of youth's beauty but also its pain."

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. NY: Macmillan, 1979:
"Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald's style, we don't mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognitio." (66-7)

Movement or period styles may be distinguished as Romantic or Realist, for example, Renaissance or Medieval, Transcendental or Satirical, or Modern vs. Postmodern. These descriptions may also apply to individual writers or artists.

A writer or artist may develop a style across his or her career. With the best writers, it is sometimes impossible to disentangle literary techniques from subject matter:

  • Hawthorne's use of the Gothic (technique) to depict the Puritans (subject matter)

  • Henry James's explorations of psychology (subject) through manipulations of viewpoint (technique)

  • Ernest Hemingway's efficient, graceful depictions (technique) of people acting carefully but decisively under pressure (subject)

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's vivid, dramatic, sensual representations (technique) of gorgeous youth (subject)


Oxford English Dictionary

I. stylus 1a. Antiq. An instrument made of metal, bone, etc., having one end sharp-pointed for incising letters on a wax tablet, and the other flat and broad for smoothing the tablet and erasing what is written: = stylus

II. [Developed in Latin from sense 1] Writing; manner of writing (hence also of speaking).

II. 13.  a. The manner of expression characteristic of a particular writer . . . or of a literary group or period; a writer's mode of expression considered in regard to clearness, effectiveness, beauty, and the like.

14. In generalized sense: Those features of literary composition which belong to form and expression rather than to the substance of the thought or matter expressed. Often used for: Good or fine style.

2.1.a. A particular mode or form of skilled construction, execution, or production; the manner in which a work of art is executed, regarded as characteristic of the individual artist, or of his time and place; one of the modes recognized in a particular art as suitable for the production of beautiful or skilful work.

26. A person's characteristic bearing, demeanour, or manner, esp. as conducing to beauty or striking appearance.

1869 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oldtown Folks (1870) vi. 61 "There are some very homely women who have a style that amounts to something like beauty."

Instructor's notes: Most definitions of literary style limited style's meaning to the manner, fashion, mode, way, or means. However, literary styles also often merge with content or subject matter.

Think of how when you see something a friend would like to own or do, you say, "That's just his or her style."

Comparably, when we discuss certain authors' styles, we almost invariably discuss what their styles represent. Examples:

F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby): parties, glamor, youth, beauty.

Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises): tests of manhood as "grace under pressure"


Style: manner of expression; how a speaker or writer says what he says. Notice the difference in style of the opening paragraphs of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

     In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

     You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.