Are you tough, sweet, or stuffy?
Updated: Feb 17
Can we just take a moment to appreciate Walker Gibson?
Tough, Sweet, & Stuffy: An Essay on Modern American Prose Styles by Walker Gibson, Professor of English at New York University, was published in 1966, but even today, it seems so relevant. I still use the concepts covered in the book in my own writing classrooms, especially advanced writing courses that focus on style. I first discovered Walker Gibson’s work in my own advanced writing class in college.
Here’s how the man himself described the book:
It is an essay—an attempt—to describe three extreme but familiar styles in modern American prose. I call these three styles Tough Talk, Sweet Talk, and Stuffy Talk.
Basically, Gibson describes these three prose styles in the book, identifying key characteristics of each. What are the characteristics of each, you may be asking? Let’s take a look.
Tough language is the language of fiction and journalism. Think Ernest Hemingway or the hard-boiled detective novel.
Tough is straight-forward and concise. It’s never pretentious.
Tough relies on simple words. You won’t see many polysyllabic words here.
Tough has a tendency to employ active voice.
Tough uses adjectives and adverbs rarely.
Tough employs first person more often than the others.
In tough writing, sentences tend to be short and simple. If any conjunctions are used, they tend to be coordinating (remember the FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) Subordinating conjunctions are rarely used (after, although, unless, whereas, because, etc.).
Sweet is the language of advertising.
Sweet is informal and friendly. It wants you to like it, and it appeals to you with contractions, slang, and lots of happy adjectives. Yay!
Sweet will use hyperbole and humor to engage the reader.
Sweet uses second-person more than tough or stuffy. It’s all about YOU, baby.
Sweet features innovative spellings (think “lite”), creative grammar, wild punctuation. You will see more question marks and exclamation marks used in a sweet style of writing. Sweet is cute. It’s the middle school girl who dots its I’s with little hearts.
Stuffy is the language of academia and government. Officialese. Walker Gibson referred to it as “the rhetoric of hollow men.”
Stuffy creates a highly impersonal style, avoiding first person, even to the point of bogging down the writing with passive voice and flabby sentence constructions.
Stuffy relies primarily on third person. It’s the language of...well, it.
Stuffy is highly formal and grammatical with long, complex sentences, frequent use of subordination, and an abundance of prepositional phrases. You have to link that word salad together somehow, right?
Why does this matter to you?
Just knowing some characteristics of each can help you think about style and the effect you want to achieve. Do you want to sound firm, clear, and concise? Draw from the tough elements. Do you want to be friendly, cuddly, and engaging? Go sweet. Do you want to distance yourself from your message? Add some stuffy.
On the flip side, go too tough, and your writing can start to sound choppy and devoid of style. Go too sweet, and you risk giving the reader the mental equivalent of a toothache. And we all know that going too stuffy can raise suspicions in the reader. Don’t we always suspect that officialese is trying to hide how someone is going to screw us over?
Let’s look at some examples. Can you tell which is which below?
Listen up, young peeps. The status quo just ain’t working for us. There are enough LEGOs on your bedroom FLOOR, we could build ourselves a whole new (albeit multicolored) house with those things. We’ve GOT to clean this mess up before the health department shuts us down! Here are the new rules:
If it came with a meal from a fast food joint, we’re throwing it away.
If it’s broken, we’re throwing it away.
If you can’t identify it immediately, we’re throwing it away. (And no, “That‘s my…thing!” doesn’t count as identification).
If I step on it in the dark in the middle of the night, we’re throwing it away.
If the cat coughs it up on the rug, we’re throwing it away. (And you can clean up what’s left.)
If you have ever used it as a weapon against your brother, we’re throwing it away.
If it looks like it could be used as a weapon against your brother, we’re throwing it away.
If it’s under your bed, we’re throwing it away.
If it suddenly talks in the middle of the night and scares the HOLY CRAP out of me, we’re exorcising it, and THEN we’re throwing it away. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Sing and Snore Ernie!).
If you identified this as a mixture of tough and a heapin’ helpin’ of sweet, go to the head of the class!
What about the following?
It has become increasingly apparent that the enclosure designated primarily for sleeping and occupied by the prepubescent offspring residing in this domicile has been transformed into a literal repository of objects of diversion. While some of these objects continue to offer legitimate recreational opportunities, such as those referred to as Legos, others no longer serve any justifiable purpose, and instead have become impediments, often hazardous by nature, to unobstructed bipedal locomotion through said chamber. Henceforth, all objects of diversion that continue to offer amusement for the above-mentioned progeny, that are found to be in satisfactory condition and are determined not to be in a state of malfunction, must be relocated to the appropriate designated storage area. Objects which have been acquired through patronage of certain inexpensive restaurants, notably those proffering questionable nutrition, shall be subject to permanent disposal. The objects under review shall no longer be allowed to accumulate under any furniture appointed for the specific purpose of rest and/or sleep. These updated regulations shall be rendered effective immediately.
It’s essentially the same message but presented in a haughty, stuffy, pretentious tone.
Most of the time, we’re not going to be writing in these extreme styles. But paying attention to the characteristics of tough, sweet, and stuffy language can help us create the tone we want in the appropriate situations. Give it a try and share your results!