What Is Diction?
(View all literary devices)
Diction can best be described as the writer and speaker’s own personal style, as evidenced by the words they choose. Along with literary devices like tone, diction helps to establish a writer’s voice.
Different levels of diction are appropriate not just to their context but also to different audiences. Just as you would not address the president of a company with, “Yo, dawg!” you would not greet a classmate by shaking their hand and saying,”I can’t tell you how pleased I am at this chance for us to get further acquainted.”
In writing, the goal is to maintain a level of diction that is both appropriate and consistent. “High diction” is a formal writing style best suited for essays and university entrance letters. “Low diction,” which might contain slang, is appropriate in emails and texts. While you can mix levels of diction on purpose for effect, uneven diction is generally a characteristic of bad writing.
How Do You Identify Diction in Writing?
All writing contains diction. What you want to pay attention to is the level of diction an author uses, the intent of that diction — sometimes, for instance, diction helps establish a first person narrator’s persona — and its appropriateness to the work.
Note that, in industries, like medicine, law, and academia, diction is filled with “jargon,” words that are particular to that field and rarely used outside of it. This diction can be hard for a layperson to understand.
Examples of Diction
1. “I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off.”
Poe’s narrator, the sadistic Montresor, is walling his enemy up alive. The high diction reflects the character’s sense of superiority and emotional detachment from his victim.
2. “Soon it would be berry-time, and Sylvia was a great help at picking. The cow was a good milker, though a plaguy thing to keep track of. . . ”
Sarah Orne Jewett uses a lower diction in her story “A White Heron,” including colloquial words like “plaguy” to suit the rural characters she writes about.
3. Give him 5 ccs of potassium chloride, stat.
4. Boo, you must be 5 ccs of potassium chloride, because you just made my heart stop.
5. “I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat; for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and ring like unto bullion.”
Herman Melville chooses diction that is roundabout and pompous to help characterize the lawyer who narrates his story, “Bartelby, the Scrivener.”