5 Tips for Using Diction

Diction refers to the author’s choice of words and the order of the words within a poem. Words serve multiple purposes, given their presence and arrangement. Words are a writer’s primary tool: they create the color and texture of the written work. They shape and change the reader’s perceptions. The poem as a whole can be read on many different levels. Words utilized in unexpected or unusual ways make us rethink what is known and re-examine meaning. When reading a poem, the reader should consider the different meanings that the words may have and how their arrangement in the poem contributes to or changes those meanings. When we understand diction, we learn to “hear” the words and “feel” their effects. Diction reflects the writer’s vision and steers the reader’s thought. It does not only communicate originality in writing, but it sustains the writers' purpose.

When a poet chooses a word, he or she is intuitively makes reference to the history of its contexts. To say “prohibited” is quite different from saying “frowned upon” or “against the rules”. “Pregnant” is different from “knocked up”, or a “bun in the oven”. Instead, they use words that invoke a specific effect--a coat isn’t torn; it is tattered. Precise and unique diction brings the reader into the scene, enabling full presence in the writer’s world.

  1. Choose a Topic. The topic often determines the specificity and sophistication of diction. You can make a list of words that are correlated with your topic and decide what words best help you say what you want to say.
  2. Purpose. Whether to convince, entertain, amuse, inform, or plead, remember your choice of words will reflect on your purpose. For example, if the writer’s purpose is to entertain, the reader will likely encounter words used in playful or unexpected ways.
  3. Analyze the Vocabulary. Consider whether or not the words are simple or complex. For example, a word like “love” has many definitions, and these definitions depend on how the word is used. If the word refers to a relationship between two people, its meaning might be simple. However, if the word has multiple meanings then it may be more complex. Consider different types of diction to guide your understanding:
  4. Analyze the Syntax. Syntax is the way a poet arranges the words within a poem. Is your syntax ordinary or unusual? Ordinary syntax is an arrangement of words that follows the way people usually speak or write, while unusual syntax is an arrangement of words that drifts away from the way people typically speak and write. For example-ordinary syntax: “He kissed her on the lips.” The same sentence can also be rearranged, creating unusual syntax. For example-”On the lips, he kissed her.” 

    -Formal Diction: mostly found in scholarly writing and serious prose or poetry.

    -Informal Diction: common in expository essays, newspaper, and editorials.

    -Colloquial Diction and slang: borrowed from informal speech. It is commonly used to create a mood or capture a particular historic or regional dialect- cultural, environmental, etc.  

    -Appropriateness of Diction: determined by the norms of society- political, expected etiquette, economical jargon.

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