In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Stylistics

  • Introduction
  • Classics and History
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Handbooks
  • Journals
  • Book Series
  • Authors
  • Movements and Historically Based Subgenres
  • Translation and the Stylistics of Languages and Cultures
  • Metaphor and Irony
  • Pragmatic Stylistics
  • Multimodal Aspects of Style
  • Pedagogical Stylistics

Literary and Critical Theory Stylistics
Lesley Jeffries
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0048


Stylistics is the study of textual meaning. Historically, it arose from the late-19th- and early-20th-century Russian formalist approach to literary meaning, which endeavored to identify the textual triggers of certain literary effects from their structures. As a result, for much of its history, stylistics has been concerned with the style, and consequent meaning, of literary works. However, the burgeoning of modern linguistics in the early part of the 20th century and the simultaneous rise of mass media (newspapers, radio, and television in the first instance) led stylisticians toward two new concerns. First, they wanted to establish whether there was anything unique about the language of literature that differentiated it absolutely from other language use. For this project, new insights from descriptive linguistics were crucial as an objective and rigorous way of describing—and comparing—texts in terms of their style. The eventual consensus that developed from such work was that there is no absolute division, in linguistic usage, between literary and nonliterary texts, though genres of all kinds (including nonliterary genres) may have stylistic preferences that help to identify them. Second, stylisticians wanted to find out how style affected such important issues as political and social change, through the texts encountered by citizens in their daily lives. The result was the adaptation and application of stylistic analysis to nonliterary texts for the purpose of highlighting ideology—particularly hidden ideology—rather than for the purpose of explaining aesthetic effects. This development ultimately gave rise to what is now called “critical discourse analysis,” though this term now encompasses many studies that are minimally linguistic in their concerns. The initial enthusiasm for the insights that linguistics could bring to literary study, together with some of the principal notions from Russian formalism, such as “defamiliarization,” produced stylistics’ early theoretical core notions, such as foregrounding, external and internal deviation, and parallelism. These continue to be central to much stylistic scholarship, and for this reason it has not been possible to group texts relating to foregrounding and deviation together here, as they also range widely across the other categories necessary to map out the field. It is also worth noting that the increasing use of computational methodologies borrowed from corpus linguistics means that today it is possible to examine not only foregrounded, but also background features of style. Meanwhile, stylistics has continued to follow the “new” subdisciplines of the field (sociolinguistics, pragmatics, psycholinguistics, etc.), as well as developing connections with other disciplines, notably psychology, to develop a range of more subtle tools of analysis to understand how the texts that are its central concern make meaning.

Classics and History

It is generally true that each item in this list could have been categorized differently, but an attempt has been made to identify the publications that have most clearly made an impact on thinking about style that continues to the present day. These debates include the dissatisfaction of literary scholars with the lack of clarity of literary criticism where it has no shared framework of analysis or descriptive language, as seen in Ehrlich 1965, an introduction to stylistics first published in 1955; the question of whether advances in rigor and systematicity tend to produce analysis that is lacking in understanding of textual/literary meaning, in particular the many critical reviews that followed Sebeok 1960; the two parallel threads of a developing stylistics, arising from literary criticism on the one hand (as in Epstein 1978), and from linguistics, on the other (as in Sebeok 1960 and Fowler 1971). Other entries here, such as Fowler 1971; Fowler 1986, merge the two approaches more completely, and, in the case of Leech and Short 2007 (first published 1981), have been judged by peers to have made the largest contribution to the discipline in the last twenty-five years, as determined by the Poetics and Linguistics Association.

  • Crystal, David, and Derek Davy. Investigating English Style. London: Longman, 1966.

    An early, and at the time unique, application of linguistics to the study of stylistic differences between nonliterary texts. Crystal and Davy’s aim was a practical and systematic method for identifying textual style, based on regularity of occurrence of certain linguistic features in texts, linked to (situational and other) external features.

  • Ehrlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine. 2d ed. The Hague: Mouton, 1965.

    A critical but balanced study of the formalist origins of stylistics, this book traces the impetus for a new discipline with objectivity and rigor resulting from the impatience of literary scholars with “impressionistic criticism” and introduces the Russian formalists through the work of its most distinguished pioneer, Roman Jakobson. First published 1955.

  • Enkvist, Nils Erik. Linguistic Stylistics. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783111348926

    Enkvist showcases the methods and techniques of stylistics that drew most strongly on new insights from linguistics. His emphasis was on systematicity and transparency.

  • Epstein, E. L. Language and Style. London: Methuen, 1978.

    This book attempts to use linguistic description to address the question of whether there is a qualitative difference between personal (i.e., unique) style and public patterning of language. This ambition appears implicitly linked to the quest for a definition of literary and particularly individual author style as separate from “everyday” language, but it has been superseded by a more holistic view of style as being on a continuum between genre and individual author.

  • Fowler, Roger. The Languages of Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.

    A collection of papers republished from elsewhere that attempt to make the case for a linguistic approach to literature, though often reviewed negatively in failing to adequately illustrate with examples of analysis, beyond those dealing with meter. The collection reprints both sides of Fowler’s argument with F. W. Bateson about the value of linguistic criticism.

  • Fowler, Roger. Linguistic Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    This is one of the ground-breaking books of early stylistics which introduces the precision and systematicity of linguistic approaches to literary meaning. It explains in a clear style how the analytical insights of linguistics can illuminate the reader’s understanding of literary works and it illustrates from poems, plays and fiction. Whilst now relatively old, this remains a very good introduction to the field for readers new to stylistics. First published 1971.

  • Freeman, D. C. Essays in Modern Stylistics. London: Methuen, 1981.

    This collection of articles demonstrates a range of applications of linguistics to the style and interpretation of literature. It includes studies of individual authors, such as the poets John Keats and William Blake, as well as essays that consider the place of stylistics alongside literary studies and linguistics.

  • Leech, Geoffrey, and Mick Short. Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose. 2d ed. London: Pearson Education, 2007.

    Like many stylistics books, this one is partly aimed at students, though it also breaks new theoretical ground, particularly in relation to speech presentation and demonstrates the accuracy with which linguistically trained scholars can describe features of literary works. The second edition has new material. First published 1981.

  • Lemon, L. T., and M. J. Reis, eds. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. 2d ed. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

    This reissued book collects together four of the most influential essays by Russian formalist scholars from the early 20th century—work that laid down the foundations of what we would today call “stylistics.” The essays include two by Viktor Shklovsky, one that introduces defamiliarization, and one that puts forward a theory of narrative through analysis of Tristram Shandy. The others are Boris Tomashevsky’s “Thematics” (1925), which looks at the components of stories, and Boris Eichenbaum’s “The Theory of the ‘Formal Method’” (1927), which defends formalism from various criticisms.

  • Sebeok, Thomas Albert, ed. Style in Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1960.

    The papers and some of the discussion from a gathering at Indiana University in 1958. Participants came from a range of disciplines, including psychology and anthropology, as well as linguistics and literary studies, and the volume includes contributions from two of the discipline’s most renowned scholars, Roman Jakobson and I. A. Richards.

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