Diction

Diction refers to a writer or speaker's word choice. Learn 3 methods to evaluate the appropriateness of your diction or the diction of others: Level of Formality, Level of Abstraction, and Connotation and Denotation.  

A man with a shocked look on his face while reading a page - diction

What is Diction?

Diction is

  • a writer or speaker’s choice of words
  • a scale, a measure, of the formality of the occasion:
    • It’s commonplace to categorize discourse into three measures of formality: formal, standard, informal
  • the accent, pronunciation, or speech-sound quality of a speaker.

Traditionally diction solely concerns word choice; yet many people mix discussions of diction with discussions of writing style, mechanics, citation style, syntax,  voicetone, or persona

Diction may be referenced as Standard English or British English

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


Why Does Diction Matter?

Your diction has a profound influence on whether your readers will read, understand and value your message.

Diction plays a substantive role in the clarity and persuasiveness of communications. In fact, ETS (Educational Testing Services), Pearson Education, and other assessment companies use diction and sentence length as the chief linguistic markers to determine scoring.

Texts that have a varied and sophisticated vocabulary score higher than texts that repeat dull words endlessly.

It also plays a major role in establishing a voicetone, and persona. The character’s word choice in fiction defines the character, showing readers who is the character is rather than telling.

Types of Diction

There are multiple ways to define diction, depending on perspective and point of view. Below are three commonplace perspectives:

  1. Level of Formality
  2. Level of Abstraction
  3. Connotation and Denotation.

1. Level of Formality

Traditionally, diction is defined as formal, standard, or informal.

Formal Diction

Standard Diction

  • college-level discourse
    • texts produced at college level, from the chemistry lab to the humanities paper on cultural change
  • vocabulary suitable for well-educated audiences and mass media publications yet not pitched at level of expert to expert

Informal Diction

2. Levels of Abstraction

Diction may be defined by the level of abstraction of the words used in a text:

Denotation & Connotation

Analyzing the denotation and connotation of a word is a third way to conceptualize diction.

Words convey meaning at two levels:

  1. the denotative level (aka the literal meaning)
    1. This is the meaning of the word that you’ll find in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or reference source.
  2. the connotative level (aka Implied meaning)
    1. Words convey emotional and cultural resonance. 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, as suggested by the table below.

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

Thus, when you have a range of words available to you, you need to consider both the denotation and connotation of those words.

Remember, as well, that emotion can filter interpretation. There’s a lot of spin on the ball when audiences are reading from an emotional as opposed to a critical perspective.

How Should I Revise and Edit My Work for Diction?

Key Concepts: Register; Rhetorical Reasoning

A diction problem happens when you use a word in the wrong context or use a word that does not mean what you intended it to mean in that situation.

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . are wise to engage in self critique of their writing. It’s particularly important for writers to consider the appropriateness of their diction.

Texts, at least alphabetical texts, are a flow of words, a waterfall. During the early stages of the composing process, you cannot stop and critique each word you say or write it without being reduced to silence. When drafting you need to think about the big picture and not fret every word or comma.

Yet at some point. you’ve got to check your diction. Not checking diction is the equivalent of going into a gun fight without bullets. You’re going to get slaughtered.

Your first step toward eliminating diction problems is to engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning. More specifically, you want to assess the language register appropriate for your rhetorical situation. Ultimately, register is your North Star when it comes to establishing an appropriate diction.

A key aspect of understanding register is audience awareness:

  • How will my audience respond to my diction?
    • Have I carefully considered the denotation and connotation of all of the words I’ve used?
    • Have I ensured my language is inclusive and bias free?
  • Does my diction invoke the voicetone, and persona that is appropriate for the rhetorical situation being addressed?

Once you know the register, you’ll have a sense of how formal you need to be. Subsequently, you can read through your text word-by-word and question if the word is sufficiently formal or informal. When you’ve used a word that you’ve heard rather than read, you should take a moment to look it up in a dictionary. To get a sense of the connotations associated with the word–or even just for fun–you might ask someone to peer review your text as well.

If you are going to use a thesaurus on a regular basis, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the way the thesaurus works. Some online programs will show closely related words in a specific color, with words shifting colors as they move away from the original meaning. Others use different systems–learn how your chosen thesaurus works before you rely on it too heavily.

Strategies for Revising Diction

  • Look for missing words or phrases: Words that are missing, misplaced, or out of order reduce readability.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)
  • Look for words that can be deleted

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