When we talk about writing style, we mean one of two things: a set of rules and conventions regarding words and punctuation (sometimes known as the "house style" of a given publication); or a distinctive, identifiable way of assembling words and punctuation (sometimes known as "tone" or "voice"). The first kind of style is all about standards: it's why newspaper writers spell out all numerals under ten and why New Yorker editors -- alone of all their tribe -- spell vendor as vender. The second kind of style is about deviations from the standard. It's what makes us recognize a passage of prose as indisputably Ernest Hemingway's or Joan Didion's or David Foster Wallace's or Maureen Dowd's.
I recently read two books that gave me fresh perspectives on both kinds of style. The Elephants of Style, by Washington Post copy chief for national news Bill Walsh, offers "A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English." (The title is a puckish jab at the biggest elephant in the room, the excessively revered The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, now in its gazillionth printing.) Walsh, who also writes the edifying Blogslot blog, is both opinionated and entertaining, which makes Elephants a reference book you'll actually want to read (and perhaps even take to heart). On "lies your English teacher told you" -- never split an infinitive, never end a sentence with a preposition, never begin a sentence with a conjunction, etc. -- Walsh writes: "Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong." On spelling: "If you're looking for all-purpose guidelines on spelling beyond 'look it up,' keep in mind that we're dealing with English here." On jargon: "We all know that radio ad salespeople are the coolest people in the world, but do we have to talk like them? Market is not an all-purpose synonym for metropolitan area."
Walsh devotes an entire chapter to commas and hyphens and titles it "The Adventures of Curly and Stitch." Little Curly is a troublemaker: for proof, observe the epidemic of comma splices (joining two sentences with a mere comma when a period or semicolon is called for). There are rules, and Walsh generously shares them, but there are also gray areas. Consider, for example, the difference in effect between "Of course, you will be allowed to use the restroom" (which Walsh says has a "by the way" quality) and "Of course I need to use the restroom!" (more emphatic, and not only because of the exclamation mark).
It's those gray areas that interest Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, an irresistible hybrid of advice, inspiration, and surprise. (Yagoda is also the author of a book on the parts of speech, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.) Like Walsh, Yagoda is interested in commas, but for different reasons. "Generally speaking," he writes, "commas are the best punctuational style gauge because a good deal of the time, even within the rules of standard English, they are optional."
Not surprisingly [Yagoda continues], the house style of the New Yorker magazine mandates the serial comma. This is the publication where, as [New Yorker contributor and Elements of Style co-author] E.B. White once said, "commas ... fall with precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim."
English writers, Yagoda adds, "tend to use fewer discretionary commas than do Americans, with their weakness for literalness and their ambiguity complex." But British writers at all levels of professionalism seem awfully fond of comma splices. I've been reading the excellent novels of British writer Kate Atkinson, who is profligate with comma splices. (I don't think she uses a semicolon anywhere in her prose.) I can't tell whether comma splices are considered kosher in Scotland, where Atkinson lives, or whether this is one of Atkinson's stylistic idiosyncrasies. As Atkinson might write: I was annoyed at first, I've gotten used to it.
Elsewhere in The Sound on the Page you'll learn the Greek and Roman approaches to style ("To Demosthenes, the three most important things in oratory were locution, locution, and locution") and also what Dave Barry has to say on the subject ("Humor is two things: the joke and the timing. I'm fanatical about whether to use but or although because of the timing. Or should I change a number like 853 to a number like 2,040? Which is funnier? Which one is big enough to be really stupid, without being too big? I spend a lot of time thinking about things like that").
And you'll also learn the Big Secret of acquiring a writing style: imitation. This is hardly a recent trend: Benjamin Franklin taught himself to become what he called "a tolerable English writer," Yagoda tells us, "by attempting to reproduce, from memory, articles he had read in the Spectator; sometimes he would render them in verse, and then turn them back to prose." Yagoda endorses not only imitation but copying as a writing exercise: "[B]ecause it forces you to slow down, simply copying a passage is a great way--much better than mere reading--of internalizing an author's sensibility and cadences." He's a fan of memorization, too (as am I):
Give this a try with authors to whom you're drawn. It will attune you to the literary-speech ratio in their style; it will help you feel their rhythms; it might clue you in to their characteristic clinkers. At the very least, it will help pass the time when you're waiting for a plane to lift off.
Imitate, copy, memorize--but don't stop there. At some point, you've got to take what you've absorbed and turn it into something original. And that's the real fun of writing.