Stylistic analysis – how to do it

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Stylistic analysis – definition

stylistic analysis Stylistic analysis in linguistics refers to the identification of patterns of usage in speech and writing.

redbtn Stylistic analysis in literary studies is usually made for the purpose of commenting on quality and meaning in a text.


redbtn A stylistic analysis of a roadsign which reads NO LEFT TURN might make the following observations.

  • The statement is a command.
  • It is cast in the imperative mode.
  • The statement lacks a subject and a verb.
  • These are implied [THERE IS].
  • The statement is unpunctuated.
  • Capitals have been used for emphasis.
  • Simple vocabulary to suit wide audience.
  • Extreme compression for rapid comprehension.
  • Form entirely suited to audience and function.


redbtn In linguistics the purpose of close analysis is to identify and classify the elements of language being used.

redbtn In literary studies the purpose is usually an adjunct to understanding, exegesis, and interpretation.

redbtn In both cases, an extremely detailed and scrupulous attention is paid to the text.

redbtn This process may now be aided by computer programs which able to analyse texts.

redbtn NB! At this point, the study of language moves into either ‘stylistics’ or ‘literary studies’.

redbtn Stylistic analysis is a normal part of literary studies. It is practised as a part of understanding the possible meanings in a text.

redbtn It is also generally assumed that the process of analysis will reveal the good qualities of the writing.

redbtn Take for example the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

redbtn A stylistic analysis might reveal the following points:

  • the play is written in poetic blank verse
  • that is — unrhymed, iambic pentameters
  • the stresses fall as follows
  • Now /i/s the w/i/nter /o/f our d/i/scont/e/nt
  • [notice that the stress falls on vowel sounds]
  • the first line is built on a metaphor
  • the condition of England is described in terms of the season ‘winter’
  • the term ‘our’ is a form of the royal ‘we’
  • the seasonal metaphor is extended into the second line …
  • … where better conditions become ‘summer’
  • the metaphor is extended even further by the term ‘sun’
  • it is the sun which appears, ‘causing’ the summer
  • but ‘sun’ is here also a pun – on the term ‘son’…
  • … which refers to the son of the King
  • ‘York’ is a metonymic reference to the Duke of York

redbtn In a complete analysis, the significance of these sylistic details would be related to the events of the play itself, and to Shakespeare’s presentation of them.

redbtn In some forms of sylistic analysis, the numerical recurrence of certain stylistic features is used to make judgements about the nature and the quality of the writing.

redbtn However, it is important to recognise that the concept of style is much broader than just the ‘good style’ of literary prose.

redbtn For instance, even casual communication such as a manner of speaking or a personal letter might have an individual style.

redbtn However, to give a detailed account of this style requires the same degree of linguistic analysis as literary texts.

redbtn Stylistic analysis of a non-literary text for instance means studying in detail the features of a passage from such genres as:

Instruction notes for programming your video-recorder
Information a history text book
Persuasion an advertisement or a holiday brochure

redbtn The method of analysis can be seen as looking at the text in great detail, observing what the parts are, and saying what function they perform in the context of the passage.

redbtn It is rather like taking a car-engine to pieces, looking at each component in detail, then observing its function as the whole engine starts working.

redbtn These are features which are likely to occur in a text whose function is to instruct:

imperative or
‘remove the outer covering’
direct address ‘check voltage system before you install the unit’
numbered points [because sequencing is important in carrying out a procedure]
technical terms
or jargon
‘piston’, ‘carburettor’, ‘spark plug’
diagram with
call-out labels
[an extra level of communication to aid understanding]

redbtn Features are dealt with in three stages, as follows:


redbtn The features chosen from any text will be those which characterise the piece as to its function. They will be used by the analyst to prove the initial statement which is made about the linguistic nature of the text as a whole.

redbtn This method puports to be fairly scientific. A hypothesis is stated and then proved. It is a useful discipline which encourages logical thought and can be transferred to many other areas of academic study.

redbtn This is one reason why the discipline of stylistic analysis is so useful: it can be applied to a variety of subjects.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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7 Responses to “Stylistic analysis – how to do it”

  1. Thank you for the review of stylistic analysis.It has confirmed my practice for years. But I have had a critical assessment of my statement in a conference presentation, which claimed that stylistic analysis is beyond credible application in the analysis of texts in different uses of English. My mere mentioning of ‘stylistic analysis’ was brushed off as an extraordinary claim, while stylistic analysis helps to set off a trivial exchange in a conversation from informative talk, introductions from the body of a text, remarks maintaining verbal contact from matter-of-fact turns in conversation, etc.

  2. Roy Johnson says:

    Thanks for your message Marija. Stylistic analysis of texts can be used in a number of different ways. At its simplest and most neutral, it can be used to comment on issues such as grammatical constructions or choice of vocabulary. At its most complex it can be used to make value judgements about the quality of imagination and creativity in the writing. And of course it can be used to support observations about the nature of different kinds of writing. I hope that confirms your own view on the subject.

  3. buttercup says:

    This was a helpfully concise account of stylistics. I wish I could find it in a book. I liked its directness.

  4. honey says:

    Could you please tell me how we do stylistic analysis of a video. please

  5. Roy Johnson says:

    This is a VERY interesting question.

    The principles would be the same – a close attention paid to all the details of the text (the video) with a view to analysing how its effects were created and its possible meanings constructed.

    But the technical details would include the means by which meanings are transmitted in a VISUAL medium.

    These would include things such as point of view, camera angles, colour, lighting, montage, editing, and mise en scene – in addition to any characterisation, speech, and narrative involved.

  6. Joy Ireden says:

    Thank you so much for this direct approach to stylistic analysis. Can you please tell me how to do a stylistic analysis of a song?

  7. Roy Johnson says:

    You would use exactly the same approach as when analysing prose. But you would probably take into account the conventions of rhyme and stress (and repetition) that occur in song lyrics.

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