Diction refers to word choice. Word choice problems may confuse your reader or make your reader lose trust in your ability to write knowledgeably about your subject.
As discussed at Rhetoric @ Writing Commons, a writer’s rhetorical situation—the audience, purpose, context, genre, and media–for a piece of writing shapes (and limits) content. The writer’s rhetorical situation defines
- the genre that is most appropriate to employ
- the research methods used to generate and test knowledge claims.
Additionally, at a more granular level, the rhetorical situation for a communicative situation defines word choice. For example, if you deduce your rhetorical situation is formal (as opposed to informal), you would want to avoid colloquialisms, slang, and contractions. In formal situations, you might want to delete personal words–take all of the emotion and personal references out of the text–and emphasize objective words. Or, maybe your audience is artistic, someone who prefers creative metaphors and surprises.
The words writers choose (AKA the writer’s diction) reflect the formality or informality of the rhetorical situation. Academic writing often calls for the use of formal diction, in contrast to the less formal language of everyday conversation. The use of conversational language and informal tone—writing as we speak—in academic papers or business documents is often too casual and may weaken the credibility of the writer. On the other hand, the use of language that is pompous or stuffy can make the writing sound overly complex. Utilizing language appropriate to the academic or workplace context can help to create balanced communication between writer and reader. When you sense your tone is too informal or stuffy, you can
- Replace slang or colloquial (conversational) terms with precise, conventional language.
- Replace informal conversational language with academically-focused language; the use of third-person point of view and appropriate terminology can often help with this process.
- Simplify language that may come across as pompous or stuffy.
While the appropriateness of diction is chiefly measured in relation to your rhetorical situation for a text, you can become a wordsmith by also giving attention to the accuracy and specificity of your vocabulary.
To identify the most appropriate words for a rhetorical situation, consider
- Replace abstract terms with concrete, sensory terms;
- Employ figurative language (anecdote, narrative, simile, metaphor, dialogue, and personification);
- Avoid archaisms, jargon, and cliches;
- Evaluate whether your language is sensitive to gender, ethnicity, or disability.
Vocabulary & Academic and Professional Success
By the way, it may interest you to know that ETS (Educational Testing Service) and Pearson Education have developed tools to machine grade student essays. One consistent finding from research on machine scoring is that vocabulary is highly correlated with high scores/grades. Enhancing your vocabulary is a powerful tool for advancing your academic and professional success.
What reference works can make word choice easier?
- Dictionary (electronic or paper): Each entry provides the word’s definition(s) and an explanation of the word’s usage. Careful consideration of a word’s meaning (its semantic connotation) and its context should guide decisions about the word’s appropriateness.
- Thesaurus (electronic or paper): Each entry provides a list of synonyms—words that have similar meanings. When a word does not fit the context as well as it should, but the general meaning should be preserved, a thesaurus can provide a synonym with a shade of meaning that is more suitable.
Why should abstract terms be replaced with concrete, sensory terms?
The goal of a writer is to communicate ideas clearly. Since language that refers to intangible or immeasurable qualities can obscure meaning, abstract terms should be replaced with concrete terms. Language that connects with tangible and sensory (taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound) is easier for readers to understand and relate to.
How can a sentence be revised to include more concrete language?
- Replace abstract terms with words that have clear, direct, and precise meaning.
- Abstract: The case sought to establish equality for people of all sexual orientations.
- Equality can mean a variety of things to different people: What does equality mean in this instance?
- Concrete: The case sought to legalize gay marriage.
- Abstract: The case sought to establish equality for people of all sexual orientations.
- Use language that appeals to the senses.
- Abstract: The waiting room was unpleasant.
- What makes this setting unpleasant? Replace this term with specific descriptive language.
- Concrete: The waiting room was cold, antiseptic-smelling, and crowded with sick people who were coughing, groaning, or crying.
- Abstract: The waiting room was unpleasant.
How might you engage your reader by incorporating more figurative language (anecdote, narrative, simile, metaphor, dialogue, personification and such)?
“All the world’s a stage”—have you ever wondered why people remember and quote lines from Shakespeare so much? One of the reasons is because he used figurative language very effectively in his writings. You may have heard the term “figurative language” before, and perhaps when you heard it you were in a class analyzing novels or poetry. But figurative language is not just used in literature: you can employ it in your essay writing to great effect. Figurative language adds color to your writing by taking your words and applying them to other, often unexpected, objects or concepts. By using figurative language, you can create vivid images in your reader’s mind that will not only give your writing a more distinctive style and make it more enjoyable to read but will also help make your argument more convincing. So what exactly do these terms—metaphor, simile, and personification—mean, and how can they be used?
A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies one thing with another. Metaphors do not use “like” or “as” but equate the two terms you are comparing. Effective metaphors capture your reader’s attention, and by creating strong, clear, interesting images, help the reader better understand and remember your point.
- The financial crisis in America was a tsunami whose waves of destruction battered the economies of countries all over the world.
- Racial injustice is a disease that never seems to be cured.
A simile is a particular type of metaphor that compares two objects that are essentially not like one another. A simile, unlike a metaphor, introduces this comparison with the words “like” or “as.” My essay’s introduction is like the first sip of a fine wine—that is a simile; My essay’s introduction is the first sip of a fine wine—that is a metaphor. Used sparingly, similes can help your statements stand out and evoke thought-provoking images for your reader:
- The fast food industry’s attempts to offer healthy menu options are like the 11th hour plea bargain of a death row inmate.
- “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness” (Orwell 316). 
Personification is giving animals, inanimate objects, and ideas human form, personality, or emotion. Though you would not want to employ personification too much in an essay (just as you also have to be careful about the frequency of your similes and metaphors—too many can make your writing tedious or pretentious), one or two uses of personification can make your writing more interesting and rhetorically effective.
- With funding tight in many school systems across the country, art programs are being pick-pocketed by science and math programs.
- The past will always come knocking on the politician’s door.
Here are some key things to remember when using figurative language:
- Make your images clear, precise, and understandable (you want to interest and maybe intrigue your reader, not confuse him/her).
- Stay away from clichéd comparisons (what’s the point of using figurative language if you’re just going to recycle the same tired metaphors?).
- Avoid using too much figurative language (a little goes a long way).
Figurative language can be used in any part of your paper. Because it is more dramatic and visual than a direct statement in everyday language, it enables you to better arrest your reader’s attention and perhaps cause him/her to pause and think more about your assertions. Metaphors, similes, and personification can help you better convey complex and abstract ideas because you are attaching these abstract ideas to an image and in that way making it more concrete and understandable. Figurative language can also just make your writing more pleasurable to read and consequently more likely to gain your reader’s thoughtful consideration. We all like to be entertained, even in just little ways, and are more likely to pay attention to things that seek to interest us.
Now go be the Shakespeare of essay writing.
 Orwell, George. “Why I Write.” A Collection of Essays. Orlando: Harcourt, 1981. 316.
Why is it important to use language that is sensitive to the target audience?
When writers use language that implies a biased or judgmental attitude, the audience may take offense and be less apt to listen to the writer’s argument. Language that is insensitive to gender, ethnicity, or disability should be avoided. Just as writers hope their audience will be willing to respect their point of view, they need to respect the diversity of a broad base of readers. Language that is inclusive and fair may contribute to the credibility of the writer and uphold the audience’s sense of dignity and self-worth.
What edits will help to promote sensitive, fair language?
- Use gender-inclusive language:
- he or she instead of he
- humankind instead of mankind
- garbage collector instead of garbage man
- server instead of waitress
- Use correct or accepted racial and ethnic terms:
- African American instead of colored or Negro
- Asian instead of Oriental
- American Indian or Native American instead of Indian
- Native Alaskan or Inuit instead of Eskimo
- Hispanic instead of Spanish
- Latino instead of Mexican
- Use language that respects people for who they are or recognizes a specific ailment:
- persons with disabilities instead of handicapped, challenged, disabled, or retarded
- visually impaired instead of blind
- persons with hearing loss instead of deaf individuals
- mentally ill instead of crazy, moron, or loony
- those with arthritis instead of arthritis sufferers
- people with diabetes instead of diabetes patients
How can inappropriate words be replaced with appropriate words?
- Determine which word or words are not appropriate, such as those that:
- are not in harmony with the rhetorical situation
- interfere with the meaning of the sentence
- may offend the reader
- have been chosen incorrectly following a spell check
- Evaluate the factor(s) that makes the word(s) inappropriate.
- If a slight change of meaning is needed, use a synonym that better suits the context.
- If the wrong word has been chosen, use the language, message, and tone of the surrounding sentences to guide the choice of a completely new word. • Reread the sentence or passage in which a word or words have been replaced to check for proper meaning and word flow.
- Instructors, peers, writing center consultants, or librarians may be able to provide guidance with appropriate word choice, and they can often provide assistance with the use of suitable reference works.
Why is it important to rephrase awkward word order?
Since the goal of academic writing is to communicate with clarity, writers should build sentences with words and phrases that flow smoothly. Words that are missing, misplaced, or out of order can make the writing sound disjointed or send an unintended message. Reread each sentence carefully or read the paper aloud to check for awkward wording.
When you read your own writing, make sure that you know the meaning of every word you use. Make sure that your words are all suited to your writing situation. In a formal college essay, for example, you might not use the word “ginormous,” because it is not as formal as “enormous.”
When you ask someone else to read your writing, ask someone you can trust to be honest in critiquing your work. Tell that person about the writing assignment and ask them if they think your word choice is appropriate.
- Look for missing words or phrases: A missing word or phrase can obscure meaning and cause confusion. Insert missing words or phrases to complete the intended thought.
- Look at word order after revising: Minor revision of a portion of a sentence can cause a major problem with word order. Reread each sentence after it has been revised to ensure that it still makes sense.
- Look for misplaced or dangling modifiers: If a modifier is misplaced or is modifying a subject not mentioned in the sentence, the message could be misleading or confusing to the reader. Place modifiers as close as possible to the object being modified.
- Look at subject-verb order: The English language usually follows the pattern subject-verb-object (SVO), but other languages may follow different patterns. Non-native English speakers may need to check their sentences for appropriate syntactical construction.
- Example of SVO: The scholarly article explains theories on global warming. Subject = article; Verb = explains; Object = theories
- Example of OSV: Theories on global warming the scholarly article explains. (awkward)
Diction & Subjectivity
Finally, it is worth nothing, that even after all of your hard work the words you use may evoke in your readers reactions beyond your wildest imagination. People have histories and those histories are narrated by a never ending stream of words that have gone underground, become embodied, and abbreviated.
“Words strain,T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
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.”
Try it! Which of the following sentences has a negative view of the topic?
A. Animal testing is an effective way to research new treatments.
B.Sadistic animal testing constitutes cruel and unusual punishment even if it does help develop cures.
C. Scientific tests on animals are a necessary evil in pursuit of medical progress.
D. Many life-saving scientific breakthroughs are the result of animal testing.
E. Animal testing is one way to develop much-needed cures.
When writing an original paper, you want to ensure that your voice takes center stage. The reader should hear your voice, not the voice of a distinguished professor and not the voice of your best friend. While you want to avoid being overly conversational in most academic writing, you certainly want your voice to be driving the paper. After all, the reader wants to hear you! This section addresses the common mistakes that can cause writers to lose their voice in an essay. By reading about archaisms, jargon, and cliches, you can develop a sense of the types of rhetorical choices that distance readers. The key is to determine the type of persona called for by an assignment or writing prompt, identify your audience, and then try to develop your own voice within these contexts.