Diction is a writer or speaker’s word choice that helps define the written or spoken word and express your style. In English, there are many synonyms to choose from, but each word has a slightly different meaning and evokes different senses and emotions. Choosing the right words for your purposes is an important part of becoming a strong writer.
Though diction is highly personal, it’s also important to remember your audience when choosing an appropriate style. Consider the examples below to help you understand the way diction changes the writer’s message.
In writing, the rules of grammar ensure that what you say will be understood by your audience. However, within the general framework of the English language, you can also choose to write formally or informally.
Formal diction involves choosing words that are polite and proper. Formal language is often filled with descriptive words that are quite precise, and sentences may be longer. Informal diction, on the other hand, often assumes that the audience already knows what you’re talking about and generally uses shorter words. Sentences may be incomplete or ignore some finer points of grammar and usage.
To get a sense of how formal and informal diction affects the message, consider these greetings:
Formal: Hello, young man. It is a true pleasure to make your acquaintance. How are you feeling today?
Informal: Hey, kid. Nice to meet ya. What’s up?
In the first example, the speaker uses longer words such as “pleasure” and “acquaintance” as well as longer sentences. By contrast, the informal speaker uses monosyllabic words like “kid”, slang like “ya” and very short sentences. Though both examples convey the same information, they do so with different levels of formality.
Formal: The man spoke to his father in a low voice so others could not hear.
Informal: That guy told his dad secrets on the down-low.
Formal: Would you care to explain the reasoning behind your decision to leave the gathering early?
Informal: Why’d you leave the party so soon?
Formal: Her terrible temper won’t endear her to many if she refuses to control her outbursts.
Informal: If she doesn’t stop biting people’s heads off, she’ll lose all her pals.
There are different degrees of formality in writing, and these range from highly formal research papers to quick texts you might send to a friend. Formal writing can go to extremes when writers use jargon. Jargon is highly technical language or specialized terms that only people in a certain group or industry understand. For example, consider this job description:
The candidate must be adept at both the latest communications technology and heritage voice systems to keep all stakeholders informed of developing trends in the workspace.
Could you tell that the paragraph above is looking for a secretary? The overly complex terms like “communications technology” and “heritage voice systems” are jargon, and these words often obscure meaning instead of making things clear. A rewrite to remove formal jargon could look like this:
The new secretary should be able to use both email and phone systems and share useful information with coworkers.
On the opposite end of the formality spectrum are colloquialisms. Colloquial language is highly informal and may include regional expressions and spellings that reflect dialect and non-standard pronunciations. For example:
She was hotter than a hen on a July Sunday.
This sentence is highly informal, and it assumes that the reader understands that the hen is hot not just because it’s summer, but because she’s likely to end up in the soup pot for Sunday dinner as part of rural tradition. In some ways, colloquialisms such as this one can be just as exclusive as jargon, appealing only to groups who are in the know about local traditions and expressions.
Diction sets the tone so if the diction used is formal the whole tone of the writing is formal. This can give a sense of seriousness, power or even artistic effect, as in these examples.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare
“The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and 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.” – Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Using informal diction, including slang and colloquialisms, gives writing a lighter tone, making the piece more down to earth and less lofty.
“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 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.” – The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
“Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was ‘bout y’all truning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ‘bout us as you think you do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens.” – Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
Because both jargon and colloquial writing can exclude some readers from understanding your point, it’s important to consider your audience before you begin to write. If you are writing for a small group of people at work who all know your terminology, jargon may be appropriate. Likewise, colloquialisms can help fiction writers develop characters that talk like real people.
In most cases, though, it’s best to write in a more formal style than you would use to speak to a friend. Academic writing requires careful attention to grammar and use of precise vocabulary so that your meaning is clear. Save slang terms and other informal expressions for emails and texts to friends or telling a story face to face. When you let your audience guide your diction, you’re more likely to communicate your ideas effectively.