Diction is a literary device that refers to a specific way of speaking. Writers utilize diction through things like word choice, vernacular, turn of phrase, and style.
The diction of a piece of writing can be used to convey the upbringing, education, socioeconomic status, geographical location, and lots of other things of the narrator.
A good fiction writer takes the voice of their character and lets it influence the diction of their prose.
The largest role of diction is to indicate whether a piece of writing is formal or informal. From there, let’s discuss a few different types of diction.
Types of Diction
Here are some of the different types of diction. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you a fuller picture of what diction is and how it can be used.
#1 – Formal diction
Think of the last speech or debate you heard. The words were likely carefully chosen, enunciated, and grammatically correct. Formal diction is used in academia, reporting, and other forms of media that require direct and clear language for understanding and credibility.
Think of the famous George W. Bush quote: “Rarely is the question asked–is our children learning.”
That silly grammar error makes it harder to take him seriously, doesn’t it? That is a good example of how well-executed formal diction lends to credibility.
#2 – Informal diction
You’ll see informal diction in real-life conversations. In fiction writing, it will often appear in dialogue and in the description if we are narrating with a character’s voice.
Informal diction is more relaxed, but still considered a “standard” way of speaking.
#3 – Colloquialism
Colloquial diction is a kind of informal diction. A colloquialism is a term or phrase used in familiar conversation, and it is typically regional.
For example, you might write a conversation between two characters from Utah and two other characters from Alabama. With the exact same conversational context and content, the verbiage will differ between the two.
Each region has different patterns of phrase and different vocabulary. This distinction is a colloquial difference.
#4 – Slang
Slang is important to consider under diction because it can say a lot about the speaker, like where they’re from, their education, how much they respect the person they’re speaking to, their comfort level, their street smarts, and their life experiences in relation to the subject matter.
#5 – Concrete diction
Concrete diction is literal and direct. This type of diction leaves no room for interpretation. For example, directly stating the color, size, or shape of something without using metaphor, symbolism, or flourish.
The table is brown.
#6 – Abstract diction
Abstract diction is intangible. It doesn’t relate to any of the senses and is often an expression of an idea or emotion.
As you can see, all forms of writing are affected by diction, whether the writer realized and used it intentionally or not.
Examples of Diction
As we speak in real life, we change diction all the time. I’m writing this blog in one tab while I have a conversation with my friends in another.
Here, I’m making an effort to be grammatically correct, clear, and concise. With my friends, I’m typing fast without reading it back, using slang and inside jokes, and not worrying about how I come across.
Those are two different styles of diction.
Let’s look at examples of how we can change diction in writing.
Formal vs informal
Formal: “I’m not thrilled with the circumstances.”
Informal: “I’m pissed.”
Formal: “Can you repeat the question?”
Formal: “She’s out of office at the moment.”
Informal: “She’s not here.”
Formal: “In reference to your last email,”
Informal: “But you said,”
Formal: “Submit inquiries via the designated method.”
Informal: “Send in questions.”
Diction In literature
In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, we see Atticus Finch as a lawyer, speaking formally in court with lines like:
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by a majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
We also see interactions between he and his children, like this one:
“You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t let ‘em get your goat.”
This shows a different side to Atticus–he’s a serious lawyer, capable of holding his own and gaining respect in court, but in the first example, we also see Atticus simply being a father. The contrast in his diction fleshes him out as a character and makes him feel more real.
Jim’s diction in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn indicates his background.
“Well, he sot up a bank, en say anybody dat put in a dollar would get fo’ dollars mo’ at de en’ er de year.”
Jim’s upbringing (within the context of the story) is crystal clear in every line of dialogue. While this can get annoying to read (and is, uh, of questionable taste with a modern lens), this is a classic example of using diction to show who a character is and where they come from.
Why Use Diction
Diction is a way writers can influence the mood, interpretation, atmosphere, and tone of their story.
Diction can establish setting. The writer’s use of language supports story elements like setting. It grants realism and believability if the story’s diction matches its geography, era, and voice of the characters.
It can also lend to character realism. Using diction and dialect appropriate for your character brings them to life and makes them feel authentic.
The formality or informality of a piece’s diction influences tone, possibly more than any other literary device can. You can express the same idea or tell the same story a thousand times over using different tones, and the reader takeaway will be unique with each different version.
How to Use Diction in Writing
So now we know what diction is, what it’s good for, and have seen several examples of it in practice. How do we apply this to our own writing?
Here are a few tips for using diction:
- Pay attention to how your favorite writers use diction in their stories. How does it change the way you see the characters and setting? Does it deepen your understanding–if so, can you express why? How would changing the tonal diction change your perception of the story?
- Use it intentionally. Just like any literary device, know what you’re doing, why, and how it affects the reader experience.
- If you enlist beta readers, include a question about diction. Ask how it made them interpret the tone to see if you’ve accomplished your intent.
- Get to know your characters and consider how they’d speak to different people. Try switching their diction based on the situation for realistic dialogue.
Diction is a fundamental element of writing style. It affects the tone, realism, and believability in any genre of writing, so take care to understand it and use it well!
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