The Problem With “Style”

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.

—Humpty Dumpty, in Through the Looking Glass

Mr. Dumpty would find “style” to his liking. The word has been used so promiscuously that it now signifies nearly every aspect of writing—and when a person uses it, you can never be sure what he’s talking about.

Style can mean whatever you want it to mean. Customer Service Departments give employees “style sheets” that suggest phrases to be used and phrases to be avoided (so certain phrases must be part of style). Most style sheets indicate the preferred format and typeface to be used as well (so format and typeface must be part of style). Corporations and government agencies distribute “style ...

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