Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Plain Style

There is an interesting quote about plain style: “The plain style . . . is completely unadorned. It is straightforward and void of any figures of speech. It is the style of much contemporary newspaper prose. Cicero thought it was best suited for teaching, and indeed, the plain style is the idiom of the best schoolbooks of our age” (Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight Over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. Univ. of California Press, 1990). Plain style, just as its name implies, is a platform for everyone to understand. Unlike official style, it strips off the sophisticated ornament such as figures of speech, leaving the core information only.

I choose the summary of book one (part one) of native son from spark note. Native son is one of the famous novels of Richard Wright, which tells a story of a black boy- Bigger Thomas who killed a white female accidently, and how the whole society including black people, white people as well as communists react to his killing. With flesch-kincaid reading ease of 74.4, flesch-kincaid grade level of 6.6, average grade level of 7.4, the text is a  7th grade average reading level. The summary has 923 words and 63 sentence, whereas the first part of book one has approximately 30 pages. The summary basically consists of important plots of the story in terms of chronological order, which happens to be the content that my professor will discuss in class. Consequently, I don’t have to spend much time reading thirty pages. Instead, I can only spend 10 minutes or so to finish my assigned reading, and I still can participate in the discussion. Other than that, if I read the summary in advance, I can follow the professor’s instruction easier because I can locate myself in context to analyze professor’s questions. Therefore, it is no doubt that using Spark notes is a good way to save time in reading. Especially nowadays, “time is treasure” has become most students’ motto. As a student of UW-L, I have 16 credits for this semester. Each subject has a strict homework schedule. Once I fail to finish my assigned homework, it is so hard for me to follow the schedule again because other subjects will take up my time.
Nonetheless, I miss lots of details embodied in the story. Basically, the summary is a display of the fact. Further, the summary often uses active voice, which intends to show the actions clearly like “who kicks whom”. For example, the text summarizes the opening scene with two sentences: “A huge black rat runs across the floor. Vera cowers and Mrs. Thomas jumps on the bed while Bigger and Buddy frantically to kill the rat.” From the two sentences, we can see what exactly happened, but other than that, we get nothing from the summary such as “how did Bigger kill the rat?” The novel involves more descriptions of actions: “Abruptly, they all paused, holding their clothes in their hands, their attention caught by a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room. They forgot their conspiracy against shame and their eyes strayed apprehensively over the floor.” Obviously, we can see character’s reaction through the words like “paused, holding and strayed.” When I read the novel, I can feel as though I were in the actual scene. Also, through their facial expression, I can tell how nervous they were when they faced the rat, which helped me to figure out the traits of the characters. Furthermore, the pieces of description of environment such as “thinly plastered walls of the room” and “garbage dump” contribute to locating readers in the context of the story. It is hard to judge whether plain style is good or not because it largely depends on the specific situation. As we can see, although we can save much time reading plain style, we kind of omit the valuable parts from the original intention of the authors. We know “when, where, what”, but we don’t know “how”. What’s more, sometimes I feel that plain style is more like a well-done steak without any expectation. The narrator tells the story in a pretty dry way, which leaves no space and imagination for readers. I find a really interesting quote: “Just as some women are said to be handsomer when unadorned--this very lack of ornament becomes them--so the plain style gives pleasure when unembellished. . . . All noticeable ornament, pearls as it were, will be excluded; not even curling irons will be used. All cosmetics, artificial white and red, will be rejected. Only elegance and neatness will remain. The language will be pure Latin, plain and clear; propriety will always be the chief aim” (Cicero, De Oratore). It compares plain style to an unadorned woman without any make up or splendid outfit because plain style doesn’t use lots of rhetorical devices in order to minimal redundancy. And Most of the time, plain style only uses rhetorical devices for clarity rather than for embellishment.
Despite of its merits and disadvantages, spark note has become the most popular study guide especially for students of universities. It had been recorded that 24372392 hits per week on October 2002. The famous motto of spark note is “when your books and teachers don’t make sense, we do.” Sometimes our text books are obscure, and some of them are occupied with theoretical arguments. It is hard for students to get the point in a short time. Additionally, when professors try to make the text clearly, somehow they can’t fulfill students’ expectation because some professors get used to official style in terms of speaking and writing. I am not saying that the professor can’t make the point clear, but they might make the point become harder when they teach students with high level language. This motto implicates that spark note translates high level into plain level, which contributes a lot for readers to make sense of the ideas of the book, to make sense of what professors say. Therefore, spark note becomes an irresistible website among students because of saving bunch of time and getting a better grade easier.
On the other hand, our professor might not be very happy that students use spark note all the time because it is a kind of cheating. What’s more, it has become a concern that students will lose the ability to analyze the textbook, to digest the knowledge by themselves. I think that “make sense” is not enough for students. The purpose of students is to train their ability to learn rather than gaining the fruits directly. Plain style, to some extent, shuts up all of the possibilities to develop. If plain style cover and dominant every field of study, it will not come up with fresh challenges and expression.
Let’s think of the people who have already graduated from colleges. In contrast, they prefer to use official style to demonstrate their authority and credibility rather than using plain style. It becomes a paradox that what students learn in college doesn’t contribute to what they do in the future. I begin to question that how to connect plain style with further development of language? How can we not separate plain style from credibility and authority?

By Chuying

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