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Diction

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Diction

When writing, you will need to think about how you want to convey information to an audience. Writers think about the structure of their arguments, the evidence they will use, and the stories they want to tell. They also consider the style of their writing. Do you want to sound inspirational? Angry? Concerned? Joyful? Word choice, or diction, is one strategy writers employ to convey information to an audience. Do you want to know more about the types of diction? Then keep on reading.

Diction Definition

Diction is the writer's word choice to convey a message or establish a particular writing style. Writers carefully select words or phrases in essays or literature. These words support the writer's tone.

Tone: Writer's attitude toward the topic

Writers convey a specific tone in their writing by thinking about the meaning of their words. There are two ways to think about a word’s meanings: its denotation and connotation. Denotation is the dictionary definition of the word. Connotation is the feeling a word evokes.

Writers check dictionaries to find the accurate definition of a word. They want to make sure that they are using words correctly in their writing. More importantly, they think about how words will make a reader feel. Compare the words “joyful” and “exuberant.” Both share a similar meaning about being happy, but “exuberant” makes the reader feel more excited than “joyful.” If you were writing and wanted to make the reader feel more excited about the topic, you would choose “exuberant” as the word you wanted to use.

Diction, Synonym Collage of the Word Happy, StudySmarterThese synonyms of the word "happy" each have similar dictionary definitions but different emotional meanings, Pixabay.

Diction examples

Authors primarily think about the connotations behind words to craft appealing sentences. Let's transform the simple sentence "Michael read the book" using different words to see how words with different connotations can affect a sentence's meaning. The meaning of the words are similar, but their emotional impact is different.

  • "Michael perused the classic novel."
  • "Michael studied the textbook."
  • "Michael raced through the bestselling novel."
  • "Michael devoured the latest installment of his favorite series."

While the words in these sentences have similar dictionary definitions, the sentences' meaning changes depending on the words in these sentences. The first and second sentences imply Michael is studying a difficult book due to the use of words like "peruse," "study," and "textbook." The third and fourth sentences show Michael enjoys the book he is reading with the use of words like "race," "devour," and "favorite." While the words have a similar meaning, thinking about diction can alter the meaning of sentences to convey more emotion in your writing.

Transform the following sentence by altering the word choice like the example sentence above: "Kevin cooked dinner."

Types of Diction

Thinking about a word’s dictionary and emotional meaning is one-way writers use diction within their writing. There are multiple types of diction that writers incorporate into their writing, including formal, informal, concrete, abstract, and poetic diction.

Formal diction

Formal diction is word choice used within academic, business, or legal writing. This form of writing does not contain informal word choices, such as contractions, slang, or words from local dialects. Using formal diction gives your writing a scholarly and informed tone. One way to include more formal diction in your writing is to use words with less emotional connotations. This type of writing often focuses on making persuasive or logical arguments. By using more measured words, your writing centers more on your ideas. Formal diction will also contain jargon or technical words specific to a discipline. For example, on your English exams, you will see and use jargon related to literary analysis in rhetorical analysis by using terms like "logos," "polysyndeton," or "anaphora."

Informal diction

Informal diction is word choice often found in less formal contexts, such as speech. Writers include informal diction, especially in fiction or in dialogue, to capture the personality and traits of a character. There are several ways to incorporate less formal diction. You can include contractions such as "won’t" or "didn’t" in your writing. We often use contractions in speech and less formal writing, like text messages.

In your writing, you can also include slang or informal words or phrases found in everyday conversation. Slang is often used by a particular group, and writers incorporate slang to more authentically capture how a character or population speaks or spoke during a specific time. If you wanted to include examples of modern slang teenagers use, you could include words like “sus,” “drip,” and “stan.” However, if you were writing about the 1960s, you could include slang words such as "groovy" or "far out."

You can also include colloquialisms within your writing if you are using informal diction. Colloquialisms are words unique to a location. Word choice varies based on a person's location, and writers incorporate colloquialisms to reveal a character's geography and personality. Examples of colloquialisms include the Southern term “y’all” or the Northeastern term “schlep."

Think about various slang or colloquialisms found in your community. What are the connotations of these words? If you incorporated them in a piece of writing, what would this diction reveal about you or the character?

Concrete diction

Concrete diction is word choice that refers to real and specific objects. When writing, you should strive to use concrete diction, especially specific words over general words. Specific words refer to words that can appeal to the senses or add more detail, while general words are vague. Word choice that refers to specific ideas or detail will help your reader imagine your details and the main point of your writing.

For example, take the sentence “Jessica walked down the street.” This phrase is concrete but general. “Jessica,” “walking,” and “street” are concrete actions or objects. However, you could be more specific—what type of walking? What kind of street? You could update this sentence to be more specific by including details: “Jessica scuttled down the crowded city sidewalk to get out of the sprinkling rain.”

Abstract diction

Abstract diction refers to a word choice that relates to ideas or feelings. These words do not refer to tangible objects. For example, you cannot touch or point to “love,” “happy,” “democracy,” or “conservatism.” However, these words point out important ideas which influence us and our culture. While you want to use concrete diction, you will need to use abstract diction when writing for school. For example, in a history class, you will write about ideas like "democracy," which is an important concept to describe governments around the world. It can be challenging to write about democracy since it is an abstract concept. You will need to describe this abstract concept with concrete, specific word choices and examples. In this example essay about democracy, you would write about the details of a particular democratic system, such as the American presidential system, to define this abstract concept.

Diction, Abstract Diction Picture of US Capitol Building, StudySmarter Abstract diction like "democracy" gets represented through concrete diction or objects like the US Capitol Building, Pixabay

Poetic diction

Poetic diction is the word choice often used in literary writing. In the novels and poems you have studied for school, you have read books that incorporate poetic diction. This diction includes poetic techniques such as figurative language, rhyme schemes, and scansion. For example, let's identify poetic diction found in Langston Hughes's poem “Suicide’s Note.”1

The calm,

Cool face of the river

Asked me for a kiss.

In this short poem, Hughes’ employs poetic diction alongside poetic devices like personification. He incorporates alliteration with the use of “calm” and “cool” and assonance with the repeating “a” sound in “calm,” “face,” and “asked." These words' sounds create a soothing effect on the reader, revealing the speaker's mindset while considering suicide. This word choice and other poetic devices elevate the language to be more poetic than typical prose.

Analyzing Diction

When thinking critically about a piece of writing, part of what you will analyze will be the author's word choice. You will want to consider how a writer's words create the tone of a piece of writing. There are several questions to ask yourself to analyze diction:

  • What is the overall tone of the passage?
  • Are there any words with strong connotations? How does that affect the tone of the piece?
  • Does the author use formal or informal diction? How does this choice relate to the tone of the piece?
  • Is the diction more concrete or abstract? If the author uses concrete diction, what senses are engaged with specific word choices, and how did this choice impact the tone?
  • Does the author use poetic diction? If so, what techniques do they use? Why might the author use poetic diction?

Analyzing diction example

Let's look at two different newspaper headlines about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Each conveys a different message about the earthquake's aftermath in the city.

Take a look at the first headline from The Washington Times and use the questions above to analyze the diction within the article.2

THOUSANDS DEAD AT SAN FRANCISCO: MILLIONS GONE IN FIRES STILL RAGING

The Washington Times

April 18, 1906

City Was Tossed Like a Feather as Shock Came. Great Buildings Rose into the Air, Then Collapsed. Earth Seemed to Sink. Walls Rocked and Wobbled Like Frail Things in a Storm.

If you struggle to analyze the diction of this headline, analyze the verbs first ("tossed," "rose," "collapsed," and "wobbled"). What does this diction reveal about the earthquake? How do you feel about the earthquake after reading these words? Answer these questions to help you establish the tone of the headline.

The article's author conveys an astonished tone toward the aftermath. The diction supports this tone with words that have strong connotations and are specific. For example, the writer chose words like "tossed", "rose", "collapsed", "rocked", "wobbled", and "frail" to describe the buildings. These words show the strength of the earthquake and the extent of its destruction.

In comparison, read through this headline from The Call, written a few days after the first headline.3 What tone does the headline convey? What words convey that tone?

SWIRL OF FIRE ENDS AND HOPE RUNS HIGH

The Call

April 22, 1906

People’s Courage Grows Strong as the Flames Subside

The fire has been stopped. Relief work is progressing favorably. The financial outlook is bright. Work of clearing the city has begun. The people are courageous and cheerful. Those who have not reached homes of relatives or friends will be succored well. The situation is one of hope.

The tone of this article is more measured and hopeful. There are several differences in the diction between this article and the first to create this effect. First, the author incorporates formal words with positive connotations, such as "favorably," "bright," "courageous," "cheerful," and "hope." These words demonstrate how the situation after the earthquake is improving. Further, the word choice focuses more on abstract concepts, such as "courageous" and "bright." This lack of specifics supports the tone because it does not focus too much on the particulars of the earthquake's devastation by being more general and hopeful.

Find two articles about a similar topic and analyze their diction using the questions above. How does the use of diction impact the tone of the articles? Does diction lead one article to sound more biased than the other? How does diction create a more biased article?

Diction - Key takeaways

  • Diction is the writer's word choice to convey a message or establish a particular writing style. These words support the writer's tone or attitude toward the topic.
  • Writers think about diction based on the word's meanings, and there are two primary ways to think about these meanings. Denotation is the dictionary definition of the word. Connotation is the feeling a word evokes.
  • There are multiple types of diction, which include formal, informal, abstract, concrete, and poetic diction.
  • To analyze diction, establish the tone of the piece and examine the word choice by looking at the words' connotations and whether the author uses formal, informal, abstract, concrete, or poetic diction.

1. Langston Hughes, "Suicide's Note," 1926.

2. The Washington Times, "Thousands Dead at San Francisco: Millions Gone in Fires Still Raging," 1906.

3. The Call, "Swirl of Fire Ends and Hope Runs High," 1906.

Frequently Asked Questions about Diction

Diction is the writer's word choice to convey a message or establish a particular writing style.

In writing, diction is the writer's word choice to convey a message or establish a particular writing style. These words support the writer's tone or attitude toward the topic. 

Authors think about the connotations, or the emotional appeals, behind words to craft appealing sentences. To see how words with different connotations can affect a sentence's meaning, let's transform the simple sentence "Michael read the book" using different words: "Michael perused the classic novel" and "Michael raced through the bestselling novel." The dictionary definition of the words are similar, but their emotional impact is different because of word choice. The first implies Michael is studying a difficult novel while Michael is pleasurably reading the second book. 

The types of diction that exist include formal, informal, abstract, concrete, and poetic diction. 

There are several questions to ask yourself to find diction. 

  • What is the overall tone of the passage?
  • Are there any words with strong connotations? How does that affect the tone of the piece? 
  • Does the author use formal or informal diction? How does this choice relate to the tone of the piece?
  • Is the diction more concrete or abstract? If the author uses concrete diction, what senses are engaged with specific word choices, and how did this choice impact the tone? 
  • Does the author use poetic diction? If so, what techniques does he or she use? Why might the author use poetic diction?

Final Diction Quiz

Question

What is diction?

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Answer

Diction is the writer's word choice to convey a message or establish a particular writing style.

Show question

Question

What is tone?

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Answer

Tone is the writer's attitude toward the topic.

Show question

Question

What is denotation?


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Answer

Denotation is the dictionary definition of the word.

Show question

Question

What is connotation?

Show answer

Answer

Connotation is the feeling a word evokes

Show question

Question

What is jargon?


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Answer

Technical words specific to a discipline

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Question

What is slang?

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Answer

Informal words or phrases used by a particular group

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Question

What are colloquialisms? 


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Answer

Words or phrases unique to a location

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Question

The word "ain't" would be an example of what type of diction?

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Answer

Informal diction

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Question

The word "anger" would be an example of what type of diction?


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Answer

Abstract diction

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Question

"The old, heavy, wooden door slowly creaked open by itself."


What is the tone of this sentence?

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Answer

Unsettling 

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Question

"The old, heavy, wooden door slowly creaked open by itself."


What word does NOT contribute to the tone of the sentence?

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Answer

Wood

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Question

"The old, heavy, wooden door slowly creaked open by itself."


What type of diction contributes to the sentence's tone?

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Answer

Concrete diction

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