The Properties of Style: A Theory
NextSentence offers an approach to writing based on a theoretical framework of four rhetorical properties (velocity, vocality, visibility, and voltage). The frame is necessarily theoretical because whatever mental activities might lie behind the production of a
single sentence are, as far as anyone knows, beyond the reach of science, and thus can only be described in theoretical categories.
The NextSentence theory is that, as these categories converge in the making of any and every sentence, an understanding of this convergence offers a useful approach to sharpening prose style. You can see these four elemental properties arranged schematically around an idea in the blue quincunx (at left). And each is delt with at some length below.
VELOCITY (speed)* VISIBILITY (sight)* VOCALITY (sound)* VOLTAGE (sense)*
These categories are ways of getting at what propels a sentence. Like the pistons of a motor propel a vehicle. A sentence is a vehicle whose passenger is a thought. I make no claim that these properties of style are elemental in the scientific sense. They are elemental only in that I can think of nothing that might affect the passing of an idea from one brain to another through a written sentence which does not fall in one or another of these categories.
These are old concepts. They have had many names and have been sliced and diced variously over time.
With Velocity we are talking about pace, beat, or meter, the speed and pulse at which a reader takes in a sentence relative to other sentences. It is largely syntagmatic in nature, meaning that it is sequential and happens along a timeline. Visibility refers to the images and to the degree of clarity that a sentence presents to the mind's eye.
Vocality is the sound of words, their acoustical properties as produced in the human mouth, nose, and throat and preserved even on the silent page. It contributes to tone, timbre, and voice. Voltage (I don't know what else to call it) is the force generated by word choice and the tropes, figures, and literary devices at a writer's disposal. It is paradigmatic in nature, meaning that it is selective and looks outside itself to select material (visual, aural, syntactic, and semantic) available in the realm of language.
No single element operates in isolation. Each impinges to some degree on the other three. They are woven together in a sort of rhetorical Turk's head knot, and together these elements create a propulsive field of force around a sentence. (The fact that they all start with the same letter of the alphabet -- and one that has sorted itself out in English only in the last few centuries -- is just dumb luck.)
*NOTE: What's wrong with using more familiar words like speed, sight, sound, and sense to get at the essential qualities of a sentence? Nothing, much. They come very close to expressing the same categories as velocity, visibility, vocality, and voltage do, but for important technical reasons they are less precise and can lead to some confusion that I hope to avoid by choosing the four "V" words. (Navigate to the INSIDER page for a discussion.)
You may wish to keep this concept on your mental dashboard when you go about writing. I hope it is helpful, but of course there is a chance that it might be the opposite, like trying to ride a bicycle with a manual about how to ride a bicycle held up to your nose. My advice is to visit each element and use them as lenses to examine the sentences you read and rate the ones you produce.
If you do, you can ask these questions about each sentence: (1) Am I pleased with the speed and the pace of this sentence, the way it flows? (2) Are its vocalized sounds pleasing when I say it out loud? (3) What, if anything, do I see in my minds eye when I read the sentence? (4) Are there bright spots, little jolts or flashes caused by language tricks and rhetorical figures like metaphor or litotes or zeugma? And, of course, at the center of the quincunx is the message, (5) what is the idea contained in this sentence and how does it connect to other sentences?
These are the levers that will move your reader on to the next sentence. Don't fool yourself; it's hard work. Sentences are infinitely various, so the role any single rhetorical element plays in any single sentence will be various as well. We will explore each of these five points I’ll try to make it as easy and enjoyable as I can, but let’s be honest here, this is school stuff and the chances of real entertainment are quite limited. (But I can try. See STUDENTS.)
The Science of the Sentence
Please do not imagine that I am making any “scientific” claims by setting up these categories. They are pure convenience. The divergent and contradictory scientific treatments of the nature of language that have accumulated over the centuries (Aristotle, Quintillion, Descartes, Vico, Ramus, The Port Royal grammarians, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, Jakobson, Chomsky, et alia) still offer no successful unified theory of the phenomenon. That should be warning enough to anyone who might presume to add a serious scintilla to the heap.
What I offer here is purely a way of looking at a sentence for the practical purposes of constructing a good one. What a sentence actually is scientifically in all its linguistic, neurological, and philosophical granularity is way beyond my ken – and apparently everyone else’s. But the fact that the true nature of language remains stubbornly out of our reach is no help to you when you have to write 1,000 words in 50 minutes and you know that your own welfare may be affected by the success or failure of what you produce.
I have chosen words drawn some from science and others from our everyday lexicon. They seem to fit the task best. I am fully aware of the formal definition of, say, velocity in Newtonian physics. I do not want to be brow-beaten by science teachers who object to my commandeering the term for my purposes. Sentences do have a speed and a direction to them, and the complex mixing of those variables in even the simplest examples rivals the flight of any rocket. I will remind my materialist detractors that terms like mass, vector, and uncertainty lived loosely and happily in the language long before the cold fingers of science snatched them to its purposes. I now need some of them back for my little theory. We can share.
A theory, by formal definition, starts out as just a slutty old hypothesis until some of its parts start working in a promising (promiscuous?) way. Then it qualifies as a theory. It doesn’t have to be perfect. A theory can have holes in it. The relative universe, I’m told, does not sync happily with a quantum universe, but if enough of a hypothesis pans out against a hard reality check, as I'm told much of both Relativity and Quantum Mechanics does, then the hypothesis gains the dignity, and the name of Theory.
Clearly then, if what I’m calling a Theory of Style is going to hang on to its ambitious title, it has to deliver on some level. Please, you tell me. There is comment box on almost every page where I will be eager to hear from you if you find any of this helpful -- or in need of repair.
A Personal Note on Nomenclature:
Velocity, Visibility, Vocality, Voltage. I love these guys, and I hope they will work for you. But I'm a little nervous about their all beginning with the same letter. It seems a little hokey. You expect a lot of V-words in slogans, corporate names, drugs, fashion labels, or conquering Gaul. And while we are taking about the Romans, I confess I also do like it that my four v-words are drawn from Latin. (The front half of “voltage”, of course, is not really Latin, but it is an Italian last name.) Much of the best writing about writing was done in Latin, and nearly half the words in English have Latin roots. The rest, as my mother and father did, come down from the forests and wastelands north of Gaul where there seems to have been a lot less excitement about matters of style and rhetoric.