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What Is Diction in Writing?
Diction is the careful selection of words to communicate a message or establish a particular voice or writing style. For example, flowy, figurative language creates colorful prose, while a more formal vocabulary with concise and direct language can help drive home a point.
What Is the Purpose of Diction in Writing?
Writers choose specific words and phrases depending on the outcome they’re trying to achieve. Diction can:
- Create a certain tone that supports purpose. The purpose of a piece of writing determines its diction. In literature and fiction writing, writers often use informal diction and figures of speech—words used for non-literal meanings, like similes and metaphors. If a scientist is publishing a paper on their research, however, the language will be technical, concise, and formal, written for a specific audience.
- Support the setting. In fiction writing, the language an author uses supports the basic story elements, like setting. Diction helps establish when and where a story is set by using language native to that time and place. This is called colloquial diction. For example, a story set in New York City will have a different style of language compared to a story that takes place in London.
- Establish a narrative voice and tone. A writer’s attitude towards the subject of a story comes through in the words they use. This helps establish tone and impacts readers’ emotional response. For example, the tone of a horror novel will be very different to that of a romance novel.
- Bring characters to life. A writer can tell a reader a lot about characters through their dialogue. The way a character uses diction reflects personal details like age and gender, background, social setting, and profession. For example, a younger character might use slang when they speak.
8 Different Types of Diction in Writing
Different styles of diction impact how different ideas are expressed. There are eight common types of diction:
- Formal diction. Formal diction is the use of sophisticated language, without slang or colloquialisms. Formal diction sticks to grammatical rules and uses complicated syntax—the structure of sentences. This elevated type of language is often found in professional texts, business documents, and legal papers.
- Informal diction. Informal diction is more conversational and often used in narrative literature. This casual vernacular is representative of how people communicate in real life, which gives an author freedom to depict more realistic characters. Most short stories and novels use informal diction.
- Pedantic diction. This is when a writer is highly detailed or academic in their writing. Words are chosen specifically to convey only one meaning. It is sometimes used in literature when characters speak in a highly educated manner, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
- Colloquial diction. Colloquial words or expressions are informal in nature and generally represent a certain region or time. “Ain’t” and “y’all” are examples of colloquial expressions, born in rural areas of the United States. Colloquialisms add color and realism to writing.
- Slang diction. These are words that originated within a specific culture or subgroup but gained traction. Slang can be a new word, a shortened or modified word, or words that take on a new meaning. Examples of common contemporary slang words are “aggro” instead of “aggravated”; “hip,” which means trendy; and “throw shade,” which is to lob an insult at someone.
- Abstract diction. This is when a writer uses words to express something intangible, like an idea or an emotion. Abstract phrases often lack physical detail and specificity because they are things the reader cannot experience through their five senses.
- Concrete diction. Concrete diction is the use of words for their literal meanings and often refer to things that appeal to the senses. The meaning is not open to interpretation because the writer is specific and detailed in their phrasing. For example, the sentence: “I ate an apple.”
- Poetic diction. Poetic diction is driven by lyrical words that relate to a specific theme reflected in a poem, and create a euphonious, or harmonious, sound. Poetic diction usually involves the use of descriptive language, sometimes set to a beat or rhyme.
3 Examples of Diction in Literature
Authors use diction to effectively support their narrative and characters.
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In Mark Twain’s classic tale, Huck Finn, the narrator, is a 13-year-old boy growing up near the Mississippi River in the 1800s. Twain uses a very informal, salt-of-the-earth colloquial diction to establish Finn’s character, his youthfulness, and his background: “I climb up the shed and crept up to my window just before day was breaking. My new clothes was all greased-up and clayey, and I was dog-tired.”
- Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. As Pierre Arronax guides the reader out to sea, the marine biologist describes his watery surroundings in scientific detail: “At last, after walking two hours, we had attained a depth of about 300 yards, that is to say, the extreme limit on which coral begins to form.” Jules Verne is using pedantic diction to establish Arronax an academic who the reader can trust. His speech is literal, concrete, and full of details that help create a sensory experience.
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens opens his classic story with this line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This is an example of abstract diction—the lines reference experience and emotions rather than concrete information. These opening lines build intrigue and pique curiosity, drawing a reader in to find out more.
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