Definition of Diction
As a literary device, diction refers to the choice of words and style of expression that an author makes and uses in a work of literature. Diction can have a great effect on the tone of a piece of literature, and how readers perceive the characters.
One of the primary things that diction does is establish whether a work is formal or informal. Choosing more elevated words will establish a formality to the piece of literature, while choosing slang will make it informal. For example, consider the difference between “I am much obliged to you, sir” and “Thanks a bunch, buddy!” The former expression of gratitude sounds much more formal than the latter, and both would sound out of place if used in the wrong situation.
Common Examples of Diction
We alter our diction all the time depending on the situation we are in. Different communication styles are necessary at different times. We would not address a stranger in the same way as a good friend, and we would not address a boss in that same way as a child. These different choices are all examples of diction. Some languages have codified diction to a greater extent. For example, Spanish is one of many languages that has a different form of address and verb conjugation if you are speaking to a stranger or superior than if you are speaking to a friend or younger person. Here are more examples of different diction choices based on formality:
- “Could you be so kind as to pass me the milk?” Vs. “Give me that!”
- “I regret to inform you that that is not the case.” Vs. “You’re wrong!”
- “It is a pleasure to see you again! How are you today?” Vs. “Hey, what’s up?”
- “I’m a bit upset,” Vs. “I’m so pissed off.”
- “I would be delighted!” Vs. “Sure, why not?”
- “I’ll do it right away, sir,” Vs. “Yeah, just a sec.”
Significance of Diction in Literature
Authors make conscious and unconscious word choices all the time when writing literature, just as we do when speaking to one another. The diction in a piece establishes many different aspects of how we read the work of literature, from its formality to its tone even to the type of story we are reading. For example, there could be two practically identical spy novels, but in one we are privileged to the main character’s innermost thoughts about the situation while in the other we only see what the main character does. The author has chosen verbs either of introspection or action, and this type of diction thus determines what kind of story the book presents. This is the difference between spy novels by, for example, John le Carré (Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy; A Most Wanted Man) and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code; Inferno).
Examples of Diction in Literature
MACBETH: Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?
MACBETH: I have done the deed. – Didst thou not hear a noise?
LADY MACBETH: I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.
Did not you speak?
LADY MACBETH: Now.
MACBETH: As I descended?
LADY MACBETH: Ay.
(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)
This is an interesting example of diction from Shakespeare’s famous tragedyMacbeth. As modern readers, we often consider Shakespeare’s language to be quite formal, as it is filled with words like “thou” and “thy” as well as archaic syntax such as in Macbeth’s questions “Didst thou not hear a noise?” However, there is striking difference in the diction between these two passages. In the first, Macbeth is contemplating a murder in long, expressive sentences. In the second excerpt, Macbeth has just committed a murder and has a rapid-fire exchange with his wife, Lady Macbeth. The different word choices that Shakespeare makes shows the different mental states that Macbeth is in in these two nearby scenes.
It seemed to me that a careful examination of the room and the lawn might possibly reveal some traces of this mysterious individual. You know my methods, Watson. There was not one of them which I did not apply to the inquiry. And it ended by my discovering traces, but very different ones from those which I had expected.
(The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
This diction example is quite formal, even though Sherlock Holmes is speaking to his close friend Dr. Watson. He speaks in very full sentences and with elevated language (“might possibly reveal some traces” and “not one of them which I did not apply to the inquiry”). When speaking to such a close acquaintance, most people would choose other constructions and less formal language. However, this diction employed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shows that Sherlock Holmes is always a very formal character, no matter the situation.
You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.
(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
This is a quote from Atticus Finch, the father of To Kill a Mockingbird’s narrator, Scout. Atticus uses very formal language in his profession, as he is a celebrated lawyer. When speaking to his daughter, though, he changes his diction and uses short, simple phrases and words. He also uses the clichés “hold your head high” and “don’t you let ‘em get your goat.” This informal diction shows his close relationship to his daughter and makes him seem more approachable than if we only saw him in his lawyerly role.
His adolescent nerdliness vaporizing any iota of a chance he had for young love. Everybody else going through the terror and joy of their first crushes, their first dates, their first kisses while Oscar sat in the back of the class, behind his DM’s screen, and watched his adolescence stream by. Sucks to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.
(The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz)
Contemporary writer Junot Díaz is noted for using a very distinct diction in his books. He often sprinkles in Spanish words and phrases in his works to make his characters—many of whom are from the Dominican Republic—seem more authentic. In this excerpt from his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz uses very informal language, even creating the word “nerdliness.” He uses the slang term “sucks” to reinforce the sense of his character Oscar’s youth.
Test Your Knowledge of Diction
1. What is the correct diction definition as a literary device?
A. The choice of words an author makes in writing a piece of literature.
B. The enunciation that a speaker uses.
C. The way the reader feels when reading a work of literature.
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2. Which of the following famous lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet employs informal diction?
A. POLONIUS: Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
B. HAMLET: Get thee to a nunnery, go.
C. QUEEN GERTRUDE: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
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Consider the following excerpt from Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
He told them that it was only because of her love that he’d been able to do the thing that he had done, the thing they could no longer stop, told them if they killed him they would probably feel nothing and their children would probably feel nothing either, not until they were old and weak or about to be struck by a car and then they would sense him waiting for them on the other side and over there he wouldn’t be no fatboy or dork or kid no girl had ever loved; over there he’d be a hero, an avenger.
Which of the following phrases show that this is an example of informal diction?
A. He told them that it was only because of her love…
B. …if they killed him they would probably feel nothing…
C. He wouldn’t be no fatboy or dork…
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Answer: C is correct.
Diction, choice of words, especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness. Any of the four generally accepted levels of diction—formal, informal, colloquial, or slang—may be correct in a particular context but incorrect in another or when mixed unintentionally. Most ideas have a number of alternate words that the writer can select to suit his purposes. “Children,” “kids,” “youngsters,” “youths,” and “brats,” for example, all have different evocative values.
The widest scope for literary style is offered at the level of word choice. Phrases such as “the little house,” “the diminutive house,” and “the petite house” have overlapping or synonymous meanings; but “little” may suggest endearment as well as size; “diminutive,” good construction; and “petite,” prettiness. Samuel Johnson, who believed that great thoughts were always general and that it was not the business of poets to “number the streaks of the tulips,” habitually used general, abstract, non-emotive words: “This quality of looking forward into futurity seems the unavoidable condition of a being whose motions are gradual, and whose life is progressive” (The Rambler, 1750). Most modern writers, however, prefer particular, concrete, and emotive words and take advantage of the evocative values of technical, dialect, colloquial, or archaic terms when it suits their purpose. George Meredith used the archaic “damsel” to suggest the immaturity of a heroine; Ronald Firbank, in “Mrs. Henedge lived in a small house with killing stairs just off Chesham Place” (Vainglory, 1915), uses “killing” colloquially, in contrast to the standard words around it.