When you’re reading a 70,000-word novel, you probably don’t give much attention to every single word that’s on a page. Most likely, you focus on the bigger picture, trying to absorb the plot or the overall message.
But an author’s word choice, or diction, can actually have a profound impact on the overall feel of a story or piece of nonfiction.
What is Diction?
Diction refers to a writer’s purposeful word choice. Along with syntax, diction can be used to create tone and imagery in creative writing.
Think about your writing’s purpose and the message you want to convey. Naturally, your choice of words for a persuasive piece will be quite different from a poem about heartbreak.
Do you want your readers to be moved? Convinced? Entertained? Frightened? Reminded of their childhoods?
You can elicit any of these reactions from an audience if you choose the right words.
Purpose of Diction
Your word choice can help establish the mood, tone, and atmosphere of your text, which will decide the kind of experience your readers will have.
Furthermore, each word might carry multiple meanings, especially when literary devices like metaphors or other literary devices are employed.
Choosing your words carefully isn’t the only thing you can do to artistically convey meaning.
Diction has a close relationship with syntax, or the way your chosen words are arranged. Together, they can create vivid imagery, rhythm, and tone.
The type of diction you use should depend on your audience and your objective.
Types of Diction
There are many ways to describe diction, from detached to poetic, plain to pedantic—but most types generally fall under one of the four broader categories that follow.
Formal diction should be employed when you wish to maintain a professional demeanor while keeping the situation impersonal.
When using formal diction, always remember to use proper grammar and speak in the third person whenever possible.
It is appropriate to use this kind of diction in business letters, research papers, cover letters, and other professional situations.
Your thesis statement in a research paper might read something like, “Foreign language instruction should be required in all elementary schools because learning a second language improves memory, leads to greater job opportunities, and fosters more tolerant attitudes.”
Informal or casual diction is best used in informal situations, such as letters between friends or when writing literature.
You might use this kind of diction when writing emails or letters to friends and family, sending text messages, or crafting dialogue for your novel.
In an email to a friend, you write: “Hi Kathy, just wanted to see you how you’re doing. Wanna grab dinner this Friday? Let me know!”
Colloquial diction utilizes words from everyday speech, which can vary across regions or groups of people. This type of diction is common in dialogue, since it can make a work more realistic and relatable.
Across the United States, a carbonated beverage may be referred to as “soda,” “pop,” “soft drink,” or “Coke,” depending on the region where one resides. Another example: What is known as “soccer” in the U.S. is referred to as “football” in England.
Slang words are usually used within certain social groups and tend to change with time.
“Rad,” “groovy,” “hip,” “salty,” “woke,” “YOLO”
In addition to the four most common types, there are dozens of adjectives that can describe a writer’s diction.
When describing diction, however, remember that it is not quite the same as tone (although some of the adjectives you use for one could apply to the other).
27 Words to Describe Diction
|Abstract||General, conceptual; opposite of concrete.|
|Ambiguous||Open to interpretation; lacking obvious meaning.|
|Antique||Old-fashioned, rarely used.|
|Cacophonous||Producing a harsh, unpleasant mix of sounds.|
|Concrete||Specific, clearly definable; opposite of abstract.|
|Convoluted||Complex, difficult to follow.|
|Denotative||Contains an exact meaning; not open to interpretation.|
|Didactic||Instructional; intended to teach.|
|Elevated||Complex words, creates a superior tone.|
|Euphemistic||Polite substitute for a less polite word; sometimes insincere.|
|Euphonious||Pleasant sounding; opposite of cacophonous.|
|Figurative||Words illustrate an image or another idea.|
|Idiomatic||Denotes expressions that are natural to a native speaker.|
|Jargon||Words specific to a profession.|
|Moralistic||Righteous; aims to impose morals.|
|Ordinary||Common, everyday words.|
|Passionate||Carrying strong feelings or beliefs.|
|Pedantic||Scholastic, intended to lecture.|
|Poetic||Melodious, imaginative, romantic.|
|Pretentious||Pompous, arrogant, inflated.|
|Scholarly||Words specific to a study or field.|
|Sharp||Harsh, pointed, targeted.|
|Simple||Clear, short, easy.|
|Vivid||Animated, full of life.|
|Vulgar||Tasteless, coarse, offensive.|
Evaluating word choice is a bit more objective task than evaluating tone, since tone is reflective of a speaker’s attitude or feelings toward a subject.
As a result, there are typically more options for describing tone, from appreciative to condescending, joyful to patronizing.
Examples of Diction in Literature
Although diction is also important in nonfiction, your choice of words can have a huge impact on how your story or poem is read by audiences.
The following examples illustrate the effect that carefully-employed diction can have on a text.
From Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
“The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and the lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.”
The diction in Heart of Darkness falls under the formal category, as Conrad rarely utilizes informal language, even when it comes to dialogue or interactions.
Be careful not to confuse diction with tone—the tone throughout Heart of Darkness can be described as eerie, melancholic, or dark, but these words do not describe diction. Rather, they characterize the feelings that are evoked as a result of diction and imagery.
From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
“But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
The informal, provincial diction in Huck Finn often includes regional colloquialisms to characterize Huck as a simple, uneducated character, although the underlying meaning of the story is much more advanced.
Imagine how differently this novel would read if Twain used the same formal diction as Joseph Conrad—it would be an entirely different book!
From The School by Donald Barthelme
“And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.”
The diction in this excerpt is simple and informal, but the word choice lends itself to a gloomy, melancholic tone.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Your choice between one word and another may seem like a minuscule decision in the moment, but it can actually have a pretty significant impact on how entire sentences, paragraphs, or chapters read as a whole.
Take time to carefully think about the diction you want to convey with your writing, because the result can impact the tone and overall feel of your work.
Do you have any favorite examples of diction in literature? Share them with us in the comments below!