What is Diction? What is Denotation and Connotation? How should I consider diction when composing or interpreting the works of others?

What is Diction?

Diction is the choice and use of words in writing and speech.

  • the vocabulary, the words, used in a text
  • the accent, pronunciation, or speech-sound quality of a speaker

Diction may also be referred to as Word Choice.

Key Concepts: Edit for Diction; Register; Rhetorical Situation; Rhetorical Reasoning;Tone; Voice; Persona

Diction is the choice and use of words in writing to capture an audience.

Why Does Diction Matter So Much?

Words matter.

Diction (aka Word Choice) plays a King-Kong role in determining whether or not an audience will read a message or understand your texts. The audience for a text may disregard your message if they believe you didn’t establish the appropriate Voice; Tone; Persona for the rhetorical situation.

Diction plays a substantive role in the clarity of your communications. In fact, ETS (Educational Testing Services), Pearson Education, and other assessment companies use wordiness and sentence length as the chief linguistic markers to determine scoring. Texts that have a robust and complex vocabulary score higher than texts that repeat dull words endlessly.

So . . . if you’re writing in a school context and you want a good grade or if you’re in a work context and want your readers to take your critiques and proposals seriously, you need to pay attention to your diction.

And in all contexts you want your language to be respectful and inclusive.

What is Denotation and Connotation?

Words are symbols. Words are composed of the signifier (i.e., the symbol) and the signified. The signified constitutes the symbol that represents the word. The signifier is the underlying meaning.

Words have meaning at two levels:

  1. the literal level, which is also called the denotative level. This is the meaning of the word that you’ll find in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or reference source.
  2. the connotative level, which concerns the emotional and cultural resonance of a word. Over time, as we learn new words, we associate those words with emotions and the context in which we learned them. Words, at the connotative level, can imply values, judgments, and feelings.

Words can have similar denotations and yet remarkably different connotations.

Positive ConnotationNeutral ConnotationNegative Connotation
ThriftyFiscally ConservativeCheap
Strong WilledDeterminedPushy, bossy, stubbborn

Diction & Subjectivity

People may very well form different associations with a word. And, people may be unaware of how people in other discourse communities use a word. People have histories and those histories are narrated by a never ending stream of words that have gone underground, become embodied, and abbreviated. Thus, it is not surprising that communication is sometimes difficult to achieve. Words may not express your intentions. Words may undermine your ethos and cause your readers to respond emotionally or negatively to your texts.

“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

Diction & the Writing Process

In order to ascertain the appropriate diction for a text you’re writing, you want to engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning to evaluate the register. Once you know the register for a rhetorical situation, you can identify how formal your language needs to be. Remember, diction is the choice and use of words in writing and speech.

[ Edit for Diction ]