Diction (DIK-shun) is word choice, or the intentional selection of vocabulary that is most effective, appropriate, or clear. Teachers and academics often use the term when examining why a writer chose a given word and how this choice affects the text’s meaning and expression. It’s for this reason that diction is often regarded as a measure of a work’s quality.
Diction, which stems from the Latin dicere, meaning “to speak,” can also refer to the enunciation and articulation of spoken words. In this sense, it’s often refers to stage actors and orators, who must speak clearly to be understood. When a teacher prompts a student mumbling through a presentation to enunciate more clearly, they’re asking the student to sharpen their diction.
Diction is often discussed in relation to syntax, or the way words are organized in a sentence.
How Diction Is Used
Diction helps writers express ideas and concepts. This expression can be formal or informal and can evoke a range of moods, such as romantic or didactic. Careful and considerate diction enhances the development of setting, imagery, and characterization, breathing more life into a story.
Consider these two sentences:
- “The cat sat by the empty food bowl and looked at her with a hard stare.”
- “The cat stalked over to the barren food bowl and leveled her with a baleful glare.”
The vocabulary of the first sentence is basic. While plain and simple can be the right choice sometimes, writers often want to spice up their writing with diction that’s more vivid. The bolder, more imaginative vocabulary in the second sentence helps establish a humorous tone and the cat’s ornery personality.
Writers also use diction to engage the reader by playing on their associations with certain words. Take this example: “The swamp stank to high heaven, but he slipped through its red clay mudbank with keen anticipation, eager to fish some crawdads out of the water.” Readers with the right context will recognize stank to high heaven, red clay, and crawdads as linguistic quirks of the American South. These words signal the setting without cumbersome exposition, develop a richer setting, and engage readers with familiar, authentic details.
Elements of Diction
No matter the effect a writer is trying to achieve with diction, there are key elements to consider.
This is essential to writing an effective sentence, and that means paying attention to a word’s literal or explicit meaning. Writers must pick the right word that matches their intent if they want to be understood. After all, writing is only effective if readers can clearly understand it.
When choosing between multiple words that mean the same thing, writers can consider the connotation—the emotions, associations, or implications—each one evokes. This relates to tone, as writers must choose a word whose emotions matches the story’s atmosphere. But simply consulting a thesaurus for synonyms can be tricky; writers must pick the word with the right connotation, not just the right definition.
For example, thrifty and stingy are synonyms, but thrifty has positive connotations of savviness and good judgement, while stingy suggests selfishness and greed. This is why Ebenezer Scrooge is described as miserly rather than simply frugal; the word miser better fits his temperament and relationship with money.
Finally, writers must also consider register, or a word’s formality and complexity. High registers are often used in business contexts, where professionalism is paramount. Informal communication like text messages and blog posts are often written in a lower register that uses everyday speech patterns and vocabulary. In literature, this can make writing seem more authentic or relatable.
Types of Diction
A writer’s linguistic choices directly affect how a reader understands and relates to the text. As writers can employ several types of diction to best express their ideas, the following are eight commonly used types.
- Formal diction: This is polished, precise, and refined language with proper grammar and syntax. Formal diction typically appears in academic articles, business communication, press conferences and releases, and other texts that require sophisticated language.
- Informal diction: More casual in nature, informal diction incorporates elements of everyday speech like colloquialisms, slang, and simplified syntax. Informal diction is often used in dialogue to make conversations seem more realistic, though it can also be used as a narration style.
- Abstract diction: This refers to the words and phrases used to describe intangible qualities, ideas, and feelings, like love, death, or beauty. Abstract language (e.g., beautiful, sad, freedom, love) is more subjective and less specific than other forms of diction.
- Concrete diction: The opposite of abstract, concrete language uses words as they’re defined and which appeal to the five senses (e.g., hot, sweet, blue, loud). Because concrete diction is specific, it leaves little room for subjective interpretation.
- Colloquial diction: This is a subcategory of informal diction. Colloquialism is the use of everyday language in writing, including idioms, profanities, regional expressions, and nonstandard grammar. This can make a story, particularly dialogue, seem truer to life.
- Slang: This is another subcategory of informal diction. Slang words are casual terms or phrases that develop within a group or community. Slang is most common in verbal speech, though writers do incorporate it into dialogue, and narration more rarely, to reflect a character’s cultural context and personality.
- Jargon: This is the terminology used in a specific profession or field of study. Medical dramas are famous for using jargon—like saying “myocardial infarction” when talking about a heart attack—because this supports both the setting and the character’s background as a medical professional.
- Poetic diction: This is language that distinguishes poetry from other writing, particularly the selection and arrangement of words in a poem. In other forms of literature, poetic diction can refer to vocabulary that evokes a sense of romance or heightened emotion or that gives a writing a lyrical, melodious quality.
Functions of Diction
People write because they’re trying to convey a message. Word choice is essential to effectively expressing that message in a way that makes sense and engages the reader. Diction is an incredibly powerful rhetorical device because it helps develop tone, atmosphere, and characterization and supports the narrative with vivid and authentic detail.
Diction can also serve as shorthand that signals information about a narrative without sacrificing pace for exposition, since one choice word can be enough to spark an association in the reader’s mind.
Functions of Diction in Plays and Poetry
Diction features into several poetic devices, such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and onomatopoeia. Take alliteration, or the repetition of a sound in a series of words. A common example is the phrase She sells seashells by the sea shore. Change that to The girl sells shells by the beach, and you lose the original’s rhyme and melodic whimsy. Diction is crucial to evoking a certain effect, like rhyme, rhythm, or emotion.
Diction in drama goes back to that second sense of the word, which deals with the verbal delivery of language. Pronunciation, enunciation, and articulation are essential to projecting lines so even the people at the back of a theater can understand what’s being said.
Examples of Diction in Literature
1. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
This novel follows Stephen Dedalus as he comes of age, achieving intellectual and religious maturity. The narration style uses diction that reflects Stephen’s current stage of development. Part 1 is written in a low and informal register that reflects his young age:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down long the road and his moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named back tuckoo. … His father told him that story: his father looked at him through glass: he had a hairy face.
This passage’s diction creates an innocent, childlike tone. Stephen lacks the vocabulary to properly describe glasses and a beard, so the narration uses simple words like glass and hairy face. Terms like moocow and nicens further signify that Stephen is at the very beginning of his journey toward intellectual awakening.
The narration becomes more precise and complex as Stephen ages, which is demonstrated by this passage from Part 5:
He drained his third cup of watery tea to the dregs and set to chewing the crusts of fried bread that were scattered near him, staring into the dark pool of the jar. The yellow dripping had been scooped out like a boghole and the pool under it brought back to his memory the dark turfcoloured water of the bath in Clongowes.
Stephen’s transition into young adulthood is complemented by an expanded vocabulary, complex syntax, and an increased level of specific detail.
2. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
This postapocalyptic novel follows a father and son as they traverse a devastated land after a cataclysm destroyed almost all life on Earth. The narration paints a picture of this wasteland word by careful word:
When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glasses the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land.
This passage is full of terms with dark, negative connotations, which help develop the novel’s somber tone. Though there is sunlight, words like murk and ashen reveal that the light is muted and gray. Congeal is an unusual way to describe something intangible like light, but it further emphasizes that, in this world, sunlight brings no hope or optimism; it only emphasizes the clouds of gray.
3. Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death”
In this poem, the speaker describes an encounter with Death. What follows are the first two stanzas:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
This poem mixes abstractions like death and immortality with casual language. Basic words like held and stop contribute to the informal tone while also personifying Death as someone patient and courteous. The plural pronoun we combined with kindly, no haste, and civility suggests friendly familiarity between the speaker and Death. Through these choices, the poem depicts Death as a dear friend rather than an unknowable thing to be feared.
Further Resources on Diction
Want to learn more about the diverse types of diction? Check out this article, which lists and defines 27 styles of diction.
This video provides a deeper dive into the relationship between word choice, tone, and meaning.