Teaching Style, by Edward P.J. Corbett

Posted: August 18, 2009 in Uncategorized
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I just finished reading Corbett’s article, published in  Style in Rhetoric and Composition (a critical sourcebook) edited by Paul Butler. The article seems to be mostly about why students are unable to analyze style, along with a few suggestions of ways to do it.

What’s interesting is that Corbett seems to believe that the reason students are unable to analyze style is as simple as just not realizing that they can do it. That students don’t quite understand what style is, seeing it “represented as a curious blend of the idiosyncratic and the conventional” (210). He seems to think that students don’t understand style mostly because teachers don’t know how to teach it.

One of the problems, of course, is grammar. Corbett says that “If style represents the choices on makes from the available grammatical options, then students must have at least a basic awareness of what the grammatical options are if they are to profit from stylistic studies” (211). So students have to know grammar in order to understand that using different grammatical structures. But, Corbett suggests, students can learn grammar WHILE learning style, rather than before.

Corbett also talks about analyzing versus improving style, suggesting that the two need not be mutually exclusive, and that in fact doing one will help with the other (211).

As for how to actually study style, Corbett suggests looking at the objectively observable: “length of sentences (in number of words); grammtical types of sentences (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex); rhetorical types of sentences (loose, periodic, balanced, antithetical); functional types of sentences (statement, question, command, exclamation); types and frequency of sentence-openers; methods and location of expansions in sentences; amount of embedding” (212). He also suggests that we need only a corpus of around 1000-1500 words, though the larger the sample, the better (213).

This objective study has the value of showing students specific things that are being done, drawing their attention to how certain effects are achieved. There’s definitely value in that. But I think this is a very limited type of study. More on that in a bit.

Corbett talks about figures of speech, something I was wondering about when he talked about grammar. He defines a figure of speech as “any artful deviation from the ordinary way of speaking or writing” (214), which I think sometimes includes intentional grammatical errors. I also believe that some figures of speech would defy the objective analysis Corbet outlines.

I think that Corbett is taking too simplistic a view of studying, and thereby teaching, style. The problem, though, is what to do instead. As Corbett states, “improving our students’ synthetical skills should be our main concern as teachers of composition” (216), and he’s right: we should be concerned with making our students better and more effective writers. With teaching them to make better stylistic choices.

But I think this objective analysis is too simple. It will let a student see the way Hemingway structures his sentences, and may, as Corbett suggests, lead to analysis and consideration of why he made such choices. Corbett does say that “the gathering of data is a necessary stage but should not be the stopping point” (213). The problem is that I don’t see much of where to go from there. Yes, Corbett does suggest that students ask why certain things occur. But I’m not sure that’s enough.

The problem, from my point of view, is that I am able to say that I don’t think Corbett is going deep enough, but at the same time, can’t really say what would be deep enough. I’m not sure where to go from here. I can agree with Corbett’s suggestion of having students imitate styles and attempt to reproduce or alter the style in a given sample of writing (217), but I think there is more.

A student needs to be able to identify the style of an author, not just in an objective sense, but also in the subjective sense that Corbett derides early on in the article (and rightly so). A student does not know what ‘lilting style’ is, Corbett suggests (209), and so cannot know how to change that or how to identify it. But that’s what they should be learning. They should know what makes a style lilting, when lilting is a good thing, and how to change the style. Corbett’s suggestions are the first step to this, but there has to be more.

Of course, there was only so much room in the article, and Corbett himself agrees that more needs to be done. I just found myself dissatisfied with stopping where he did. But maybe that’s good. Maybe that dissatisfaction will help drive me to think on how to teach these things that I believe need to be taught.

  1. Henaku Nancy says:

    I loved your critique of Corbett’s article. If you have a soft copy, I would be very glad if you can send a copy to me. Thank you so much.

  2. cogitas says:

    The only copy I have is the one posted here. Why not print off a copy of it for yourself? (Just please attribute it appropriately)

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