Section 7: Style and Rhetorical Choice

As we discussed in Section 2, writing and grammar are intimately linked at the editing stage, and we can extend this connection by describing the ways that grammatical choices can also be stylistic choices.

Style is rhetorical, and while we don't need to get bogged down in all of the histrical nomenclature, we want to emphasize that style is the conscious choices you make for expressing ideas in writing. From our perspective, these choices are always rhetorical choices. Recall the rhetorical triangle we described in Section 2:

Rhetorical Triangle

Whether you are texting a friend, sending an email, posting to a blog, submitting a progress report, or turning in a formal paper, your grammar use says a lot about who you are as a writer (your ethos), your relationship to your readers, the purpose for the text, the genre of the text, and the larger context of the rhetorical situation. Grammar is about stylistic choice: is the text formal or informal? is your reader concerned with "correctness"? can grammatical choices help you achieve your purpose?

When we construct an argument, the intent is to ensure the message is conveyed in a clear and concise manner. Choices about words and grammatical structures are important considerations.

At the word level, for example, while we may have phrasal verbs at our disposal, we should employ them judiciously in formal writing. Phrasal verbs are often idioms —words or phrases that have a figurative meaning; thus, our readers may not grasp the true meaning of phrasal verbs unless they are familiar with the term itself. For example, turn down is different for an "offer" than for a "bed"; however, to assume all English speakers know these differences without context is erroneous. (This is especially true when dealing with English as a Second Language.) If we are writing to a specialized, but unknown audience, then phrasal verbs (like specialized language) may not be the best choice. We may want to minimize or avoid phrasal verbs altogether.

Similarly phrasal verbs also make conciseness—or brevity—a challenge. In most cases, our objective should be to use as few words as necessary to convey our message. Considering phrasal verbs involve two or more words to convey the same message as one, such structures may make it difficult to achieve that objective. Observe the following examples:

  1. He wasn’t going to put up with the zombies any longer.
  2. He wasn’t going to tolerate the zombies any longer.

While it is only two extra words, audience and purpose should be a consideration in word choice.

At the sentence level, your rhetorical choices can be elaborate or simple, but they must be conscious. Consider the following:

  1. After she hit the ball, Jenny ran to first base.
  2. Jenny ran to first base after she hit the ball.
  3. Jenny ran to first base, after she hit the ball.

What point are you trying to convey? Is your point made more effectively placing the subordinate clause first? Or should it come second? Do you want to slow the reader down by placing a comma after the independent clause (as in #3)?

Even though comma use can help with pacing your readers, you can't just throw in commas at random or willy-nilly, as we discussed earlier. Comma use is based on the grammatical principles we have described in Analyzing Grammar in Context, so if you want to use commas to slow your readers down, you need to use appropriate structures that will allow you to do so.

In general, when we write, we should always consider the rhetorical triangle when making our grammatical choices.