I. What is Diction?
Diction (pronounced DIK-shun) refers to word choice and phrasing in any written or spoken text. Many authors can be said to have their own “diction,” because they tend to use certain words more than others or phrase things in a unique way. In fact, every author (including you) has developed a unique diction!
Diction can also mean “pronunciation,” but we’ll ignore that definition for now since this article is mainly about writing, not speaking.
II. Examples and Explanation
Literally everything ever written is an example of diction! But here are a few particularly interesting examples.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” (Psalms 23:4)
The King James Bible has a very distinctive diction, using words like “yea” and “thy.” Many of these terms were fairly standard at the time the King James version was originally written, but nonetheless they are easily recognizable today as “biblical” diction.
“Is your writing as transparent as a mixture of comminuted particles of rock with water of varying consistency? Or is it as clear as mud?” (Graham Hopkins, The Write Stuff)
Graham Hopkins’ article on unclear writing opens with this wonderful example of how diction changes the way we read sentences. The two phrases mean exactly the same thing (“clear as mud”), but the first version uses all kinds of long words and overly complex phrases to express this idea. Hopkins’ point was to show how needlessly complex diction can detract from the quality of a piece of writing.
III. Types of Diction
There are as many types of diction as there are writers, and there will never be a complete list of all of them. Moreover, all these different styles vary along multiple variables, such as formal/informal, simple/complex, and modern/archaic. The most basic distinction, however, is between formal diction and informal diction.
A. Formal Diction
When you are writing an essay, dissertation, business letter, or other formal communication, it’s important to use formal diction. That is, you should avoid contractions (isn’t, don’t) and colloquialisms (slang). It’s also important to make sure that your grammar and word usage are “textbook” correct, since mistakes in this category can make your work look sloppy or careless.
B. Informal Diction
In many contexts, it’s fine to use informal diction. This includes personal emails to people you know well, and certain creative projects. (Most modern novels are written with a fairly informal diction, as opposed to older novels, which tended to be more precise and formal.) Informal diction is sometimes referred to as “vernacular,” which means “everyday speech.”
IV. The Importance of Diction
Diction is the main thing that sets the tone of a piece. If your diction is formal, then the piece as a whole will come across as formal; if it’s quirky, then your writing will seem quirky, and so on. Diction doesn’t have any specific rhetorical purpose – it just creates the overall “sense” of your work.
In novels and short stories, diction can also help you craft a portrait of your characters. The way someone talks tells us a lot about them, and good authors use this to their advantage in character-creation. For example, a highly educated character would be more likely to use arcane words and complex sentence structure, while a more down-to-earth character would avoid such diction. Similarly, a younger character would be more likely to use slang than an older one.
V. Examples of Diction in Literature
Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old-men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves. (James Joyce, Ulysses)
James Joyce was famous for using outlandish, non-standard diction in his novels. In this example, we can see nonstandard terms like “brothers-in-love” and “walking through ourselves,” giving us a clue that he’s writing in a unique style that few people other than the author can really understand.
Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)
Tolkien thought of his Lord of the Rings as a work of mythology rather than a conventional novel, and we can see this in his diction. His language is not at all vernacular – that is, no one really speaks this way in our world! But it serves to evoke a mythical past and a world of magic and monsters, just the way Tolkien intended.
Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love. (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Shakespeare had a remarkably unique diction – or at least, it sounds that way to us today. It’s actually not easy to tell how much of this is Shakespeare’s unique diction, and how much is the dialect of Elizabethan England. Either way, modern readers can easily tell that Shakespeare is writing through such features as the pronouns (thee/thou) and verb conjugations (doth instead of does).
VI. Examples of Diction in Pop Culture
Slang terms are a great example of vernacular diction. They are particularly useful because they change dramatically between subcultures and eras. The phrase “dude, that’s rad” suggests the skater culture of the 1990s, whereas the term “homeboy” suggests the hip-hop culture of the same period (many of these terms are coming back into fashion in the endless cycle of pop culture reincarnation). Obviously, it’s important to avoid such colloquialisms in formal writing, and you have to use them with caution in other forms of writing as well, particularly if you do not belong to the group with which a particular slang term is associated. In many contexts, using slang in this way could be considered offensive.
The popular science-fiction series Firefly gives a particularly distinctive diction to its characters. Since the show is a hybrid of the sci-fi and western genres, its characters tend to speak in the style made popular by westerns – they sound like cowboys despite the fact that they live on a spaceship. This helps set the tone of the series and gives fans a way of understanding the “wild west” spirit of its setting.
VII. Related Terms
Idiom has a couple of different meanings. On one definition, it’s basically a synonym for “diction” – it’s the way a particular author or group of authors choose to express themselves. On the second definition, it’s a conventional phrase or “saying.” On this definition, idioms are a big part of what defines an author’s diction. An author who uses a folksy idiom like “I ain’t no spring chicken” is using a very different diction from one who says “I hardly think that I am so naïve as to fall victim to such prevarication.” But they’re basically saying the same thing.
Each community has its own version of its language. People in Alabama have a different way of speaking English from people in Toronto, and people in Cairo have a different version of Arabic from people in Damascus. These regional sub-languages are called dialects. In addition to having a different accent, people in these different regions also have unique combinations of words and phrases that exist nowhere else – in other words, diction varies tremendously from one region to another.
Certain professions, such as the law, business, and government, also have their own sort of diction that acts like a mini-dialect. We call this jargon, but it could also be described as the unique diction of each profession.