Definition of Diction

As a literary device, diction refers to the linguistic choices made by a writer to convey an idea or point of view, or tell a story, in an effective way. The author’s selection of words or vocabulary and the artistic arrangements of these words is what constitutes the style and establishes the voice of a literary work. Therefore, analyzing the style of a work of literature is an attempt to identify and understand diction–the type and quality of individual words that comprise the vocabulary of the work. Diction is closely connected to characterization. The words associated with a literary character represent their ideals, values, and attitudes. Diction can create a representation of a character’s outer appearance and/or inner state of mind for the reader.

For example, in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins famously teaches Eliza Doolittle to speak like an upper-class “lady” as opposed to a lower-class “flower girl,” changing who she is as a person and how she is regarded by others through changing her diction:

Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

Shaw’s play explores the connection between diction and class in society, especially how the style of language, expression, and vocabulary is related to the speaker’s perceived position of power in society. In this passage, Henry Higgins reveals his preoccupation with how a person speaks and articulates themselves as a reflection and societal measurement of who they are as a human being. This leads to Higgins taking on Eliza as a project to prove that he can transform how others perceive her in society by eliminating her use of colloquial diction and slang, and instead teaching her formal diction and articulation.

Common Types of Diction

Diction is a literary device that allows a writer to carefully choose words and vocabulary to communicate to the reader as well as establish a specific voice or writing style. Diction is used in every form of writing, from poetic and figurative language to formal and concise wording.

Here are eight common types of diction and their stylistic qualities:

  • Formal: use of elevated, sophisticated, professional language. Formal diction does not feature slang or colloquialisms, but instead adheres to proper grammar and complex sentence structure.
  • Informal: conversational, casual, realistic language. Informal diction is often used by writers to portray real-life communication or dialogue between realistic characters, and it is often utilized in narrative literary forms such as short fiction and novels.
  • Colloquial: informal words or expressions that are typically associated with a specific region or time period. Colloquialisms are useful in portraying realistic and colorful characters.
  • Slang: words or phrases originated within a particular culture or subgroup that become widespread in use.
  • Pedantic: detailed, academic writing. Pedantic diction generally reflects deliberate, educated word choices with denotative intention.
  • Abstract: expression of the intangible such as ideas or emotions.
  • Concrete: use of words for denotative meanings. Concrete diction is specific, literal, and detailed so that it’s not open to interpretation.
  • Poetic: lyrical wording related to and reflective of a poem’s theme. Poetic diction typically includes descriptive language that is potentially set to rhythm and meter.

Examples of Common Types of Diction

Different styles of diction impact how a writer expresses an idea or message. In turn, writers utilize diction as a literary device to influence the way a reader understands or interprets the idea or message that is being expressed in a particular style. Diction is often used in a way that meet’s the reader’s expectations, such as formal diction for business writing and informal diction for casual dialogue. If the type of diction presented is not aligned with a reader’s expectations, this can be an incongruent result that may lead to misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what is being expressed.

Here are some examples of statements and phrases that represent common types of diction:

  • Formal: As heretofore stated by the representative of the firm, any indication of microaggression among colleagues will not be tolerated.
  • Informal: Text me when you’re ready to head home so I can pick you up.
  • Colloquial: Have y’all heard that new Country Music song?
  • Slang: I look tired because I was binge-watching a show on Netflix last night.
  • Pedantic: It’s beneficial in an academic milieu to understand the etymology of literary terms.
  • Abstract: My head was swirling as I tried to recall my husband’s words of love.
  • Concrete: That book belongs in the empty space on the second shelf.
  • Poetic: Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky (from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot)

Difference Between Diction and Dialect

Some people can find the difference between the terms diction and dialect confusing. Diction refers to the choice of words and linguistics as well as the levels of effectiveness and clarity of those choices. In addition, diction refers to how such words are presented to readers or an audience. Dialect, as a matter of linguistics, refers to a variety of spoken language that characterizes a certain region, community, or group of people. Dialect often reflects minor differences in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, and style of speech.

Examples of Diction in Literature

In literature, writers carefully choose specific words and phrases depending on the outcome they wish to achieve for the reader. Diction is the literary device that refers to these linguistic word choices and their artistic arrangement by a writer.

Here are some examples of diction in literature:

Example 1: Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)

Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.

In Hurston’s novel, Janie’s diction helps to establish the setting of rural Florida in the early 1900s. Janie’s diction is colloquial and her word choices and expression support the way she is characterized in the novel as a strong and passionate woman. In this passage, Janie’s diction reveals much about her rural background and limited education in terms of her manner of expression. However, the poetic nature of her words also indicates to the reader that Janie is introspective and capable of deep emotions. Therefore, rather than Hurston choosing to portray Janie through simple colloquial diction, she allows the protagonist to reflect a complex female character through the artistic style of her words and vocabulary.

Example 2: The School (Donald Barthelme)

One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of –
I said, yes, maybe.
They said, we don’t like it.
I said, that’s sound.
They said, it’s a bloody shame!
I said, it is.

In Barthelme’s short story, he utilizes a combination of formal and informal diction to convey the literary theme of the randomness and universality of death. However, in this passage, the author cleverly reverses the diction expected by the reader by assigning formal diction to the elementary students and informal diction to their teacher, Edgar. This reversal of diction and reader expectation underscores the literary theme as well that death is both ever-present yet inexplicable in its pattern of occurrence. The children’s formal wording in their assessment of death as a “fundamental datum” reinforces the absurdity of anyone attempting to explain its meaning–even a figure of authority such as an elementary school teacher. In addition, the limited and informal diction used in response by the student’s teacher reinforces the absurdity that human beings can provide “answers” when it comes to such abstractions as death and life.

The word and vocabulary choices made by Barthelme in his literary short fiction establish the story’s narrative voice and tone in an effective way. The children/students in the story are genuinely interested in learning about death and “where” the dead go. However, their teacher is incapable of providing the answers to their questions because he doesn’t have the knowledge, nor the vocabulary, to express any proper responses. This results in an emotional response on the part of the reader of frustration and helplessness in understanding the full concept of death, and therefore life as well.

Example 3: This Is Just to Say (William Carlos Williams)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
Though Williams’s poem is composed in free verse, without formal rhyme or meter, the diction is poetic in that the poet’s choice of words is descriptive and lyrical. This careful and deliberate use of vocabulary allows the poet to emphasize the denotative and connotative meaning of each word in each line. For the reader, the diction used by Williams in the poem reinforces the theme of temptation and desire intertwined with feelings of resentment and coldness.