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Some of the most powerful arguments against practical criticism in the past few years have come from that branch of linguistic and literary study known as stylistics. For all its emphasis on a close reading of the text, practical criticism seemed to assume that the relationship between language and reality was essentially stable and unproblematic. Literary texts were therefore seen to ‘reflect’ the way things were, and this idea of ‘mimesis’ or imitation was taken for granted. Linguists, however, argued that such criticism encouraged students to produce an impressionistic response to the text, based on a generalised notion of the human condition and a simplistic model of how language communicates meaning. Ronald Carter was among those who voiced a concern about the shortcomings of practical criticism: ‘Meaning is measured against an ostensibly common life experience; there is only minimal appeal to the medium from which the text is constructed’ (Carter, 1982, p.3). What the study of literary texts requires, in his view, is a more principled analysis and systematic awareness of how language operates in its many different contexts. Whereas practical criticism concentrates narrowly on the text as a source of meaning, practical stylistics takes as its starting point a much broader knowledge of the rules and conventions of linguistic communication in a variety of situations, both written and spoken. One of the principal effects of stylistics is to ‘demystify’ the literary text: to see it essentially as ‘language in use’.
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