You might notice right away that the word “diction” sounds a lot like the beginning of “dictionary.” That makes a lot of sense—diction has to do with your use of words.
The English word “diction” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root deik-, which means “to show” or to “pronounce solemnly.” Whether you’re speaking, writing, or singing, diction always has something to do with how you articulate meaning.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the first people to write about diction in relation to performing arts. In his day, diction described the metrical composition of spoken lines.
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In modern times, there are two main use cases for diction. Think of it this way—your English teacher and your singing instructor would use the word “diction” to mean two very different things.
When your English teacher talks about diction, she’s referring to the choice of words made by a writer or orator. Word choice functions as a rhetorical device, and you can use an author’s technique as a tool to analyze literature. Not only can diction tell you something about an author’s intent, but you can also look to diction to understand how the author communicates character, setting, and mood.
In contrast, a performance teacher would use the word to refer to pronunciation. He might give you tips to improve your diction while singing an aria from an opera. Good diction, in this case, would ensure that the audience understands the words that you sing.
Word Choice vs. Enunciation
In literature, diction has to do with word choice. In this context, a synonym for diction would be “vocabulary.” You could use the word “diction” to describe the choice of words in a speech, as well.
In the performing arts, diction means clear articulation. The word is most commonly used in vocal music, but it can refer to enunciation in a dramatic production as well. If you’re a performer, a director may give you notes to improve your vocal inflection and elocution. Usually, the goal of working on diction is to make your words easier to hear and understand during a performance.
Interestingly, in a theatrical context, you can talk with a director about both types of diction. You might discuss the diction that the playwright chooses, then work to develop better diction by practicing challenging tongue twisters.
Types of Literary Diction
As a literary device, choices about diction are universal. Every author has to make decisions about the words they use. If you want to understand more about an author’s style, you can always begin by analyzing their choice of words.
There are more types of diction than we could possibly list, but certain categories are especially common. In an English class, you’ll be well-served by learning to recognize these types of diction.
You can recognize formal diction in two ways. First, you may notice that the author relies on big words or technical language. Second, the author probably won’t violate the rules of grammar. In fact, the more conservative the grammar, the more formal the diction. If you see words like “shall,” “whom,” and “hither,” you’re probably looking at a piece of writing with formal diction.
Sometimes, authors use regional language and slang to help anchor a piece of writing within a particular setting. You can look for unique turns of phrase that only a certain kind of person would say, such as “wicked cool” or “ain’t.” Colloquial, or informal, diction often appears in dialogue to help establish an individual character’s age, regional affiliation, and temperament. In some cases, authors employ stylized language throughout a work of literature to ground the entire piece in a distinct place and time.
Poetic diction is marked by a strong sense of rhythm. A poet is more likely to use lyrical language rather than straightforward descriptions. Usually, this style of diction is marked by an internal melody—and poetic language might even sound like music when it’s read aloud. Some of the devices that a writer can use to enhance poetic diction include assonance, consonance, meter, and rhyme.
The Importance and Function of Diction
Diction serves several essential functions within a work of literature. Although the reader (or audience member) may not remember the words themselves, excellent diction serves as a building block to create a strong sense of style and point of view.
Diction can be used to create complex and realistic characters. For example, a native speaker would probably rely on different aphorisms or cliches than a non-native English speaker would. Someone trying to hide a regional accent is more likely to avoid saying certain phrases. One character may focus on proper grammar, while another proudly flaunts the rules. Especially in fiction, the use of specific words in dialogue can reveal a lot about a character’s personality.
In all forms of literature, you can learn about an author’s personal style through their choice of words. Imagine a history essay that uses long sentences with a lot of adjectives. The author may be trying to avoid imprecision. By writing thorough descriptions, he’s probably striving for accuracy. Beyond that, wordiness and sentence length may reflect the author’s attempt to establish himself as an authoritative figure. For many authors, pedantic diction reflects a desire to appear knowledgeable about the subject.
Word choice can help an author establish a mood, especially in creative writing. For example, think of the difference between concrete diction and abstract diction in a novel. On one extreme, Ernest Hemingway was famous for telling stories by using terse, pared-down language. This helped him to establish a somber and suspenseful mood. For an opposing style, we can look to a postmodern author like Thomas Pynchon. He relies on abstract diction to create the opposite effect. In his novels, a blur of confusing acronyms, sounds, and sensations create a particular style marked by chaos and unease.
Examples of Diction
To understand diction, it may help to look at some concrete examples:
“The only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” —Jack Kerouac, On the Road
In the example above, Kerouac uses easy words and informal diction. Through rhythm and repetition, he creates a pleasant sounding sense of tempo. The words seem to tumble forth, with the same speed as the tangible things he uses for metaphors—roman candles, spiders, and blue lights popping.
“’Walking for sivin days!’ said the young gentleman. ‘Oh, I see. Beak’s order, eh? But,’ he added, noticing Oliver’s look of surprise, ‘I suppose you don’t know what a beak is, my flash com-pan-i-on.'” —Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Dickens uses low diction to underscore the difference between the two characters in this scene. The dialogue is written to mimic the intonation of a strong regional accent and emphasize the speaker’s sense of playfulness. It’s clear that the characters do not share a common vocabulary or point of view. By opting for the word “beak” instead of “magistrate,” the boy underscores his lack of regard for authority figures.
“I write a few lines in haste to say that I am safe—and well advanced on my voyage. This letter will reach England by a merchantman now on its homeward voyage from Archangel; more fortunate than I, who may not see my native land, perhaps, for many years.” —Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley, Frankenstein
In this example, Shelley uses high diction and polite language in order to contextualize formal letters from an educated brother to his sister. By observing his mode of expression, the reader learns that the brother is a character who enjoys complex words and syntax, perhaps even adopting a superior tone on occasion. We can also see that he has a penchant for drama, and he manages to build tension around relatively commonplace events.
The next time you read something—whether it’s a form letter, a poem, or a newspaper article—pay attention to diction. Ask yourself why the author might have chosen those words. It’s easy to perform rhetorical analysis on almost any piece of writing, especially when you use diction as a starting point.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.