The Basics of Diction
Just don’t say “the author uses diction…”
Did you know? English, as mix of Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words,
has more than twice as many words as a typical Romance Language.
Form grows out of function.
Meaning (or message) determines form
and style.
“Remember that all writing emerges from
a situation—a convergence of a need to
write, a writer, an audience, a subject
matter, a purpose, a genre, and a time
and place” (Roskelly and Jolliffe 57).
Choice of diction depends upon the
author’s message—keep the author’s
claims in mind, and consider how the
particular choices of types of diction and
certain words help to convey those claims
to the author’s intended audience.
“People choose styles to reflect
themselves in their writing as well as in
what they wear, and the style they choose
expresses meaning. A particular clothing
style or writing style can be appropriate in
some situations and not in others. And,
for all these reasons, stylistic choice in
clothes and writing is, or can be,
conscious. Conscious choice about stylistic
decisions in writing can help writers
reflect themselves, communicate
meaning, and influence readers” (Roskelly
and Jolliffe 57).
“It depends on the concept of situational
appropriateness…The question of whether
a particular word, sentence, or figure of
speech is right is a question of whether it
is right for the particular writing situation”
(Roskelly and Jolliffe 57).
Speaker: who is the speaker or author?
What persona does the speaker intend to
convey? How does this word help to
convey that persona? Why did the
speaker choose this word over another?
 Audience: who is the audience? How is
this word intended to affect that
audience? What are we supposed to think
or do as a result of the word?
 Purpose: what is the purpose(s) of the
piece? How does the word(s) contribute to
the purpose(s)?
Diction is simply the particular words an
author uses to convey meaning in a piece
of writing.
◦ Latin; “Style of speech (or writing)”
◦ Diction is the fundamental ingredient in written
communication; without words, there is no
1. Above all is connotation.
2. Level of diction
3. Type of diction: abstract and
4. Sound quality of diction:
occasionally euphony and cacophony
(only if you are sure you can pull it
What to look for
◦ In your group, compare “patriots,” “heroes,”
“soldiers,” “war criminals,” “invaders.”
 What is the emotional value of each word?
 What does each word imply?
 What clues do we get about the author’s attitude
about this subject from each of these words?
Connotation: the implied meaning of a
word; the emotive qualities of the word.
◦ The most important aspect of diction for
 Gives clues to author’s stance, tone, and bias.
Suggests how the author wants us to view the
 Helps to establish pathos—creates certain
feelings for the reader that subtly (almost
subliminally) convince us of the author’s claim(s).
Denotation and Connotation
 “I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pigheaded.”
--Bertrand Russell
In your group, compare the following
words, then answer the questions below;
◦ Winston Churchill was a statesmen. vs.
Winston Churchill was a politician.
Winston Churchill was a smart dude.
• Who might use each word?
◦ For what audience or audiences is each word
potentially intended?
One more comparative example
Slang: language peculiar to a particular group;
an informal, nonstandard vocabulary of coinages,
arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant or
facetious figures of speech.
Jargon: technical terminology reserved for
(usually) professional groups and trades.
◦ Ex. “Legalese”; writ, plaintiff
◦ Ex. Music; clef, movement, key
◦ Ex. Computers; RAM, ROM, bytes, windows
Both of these can offer clues as to the intended
audience—ask, “who uses this slang?”
The “Level” of diction refers to the degree
of lexical complexity of the language.
Levels are used to characterize the diction
of a large section of a piece or the entire
piece. Don’t try to categorize each word.
Levels of diction relate primarily to ethos;
authors use a certain level of diction to
project a particular persona.
Levels of Diction
Formal/Elevated: complex, “big” or
unusual words, often jargon; the powercultural (“the discourse of the discipline”)
marked by specific, standardized code shared
by an exclusive group in authority. Emphasis
on the correctness of the code and the
suitability of the channel (mode of delivery).
Communication which occurs outside of this
code or proper channel is (often) not taken
seriously. Language tends to be ritualized
and formulaic.
Levels of Diction: Formal/Elevated
Effects: can cause the writer to seem
knowledgeable and thoughtful (positive ethos) or
can cause the author to seem boring, pedantic.
Frequently used to obscure meaning by making
the piece confusing and making the audience feel
dumb; puts author is superior position relative to
the audience.
Purpose and Effects of Formal
Neutral/Standard: this does not mean words
with a neutral connotation. Instead, this is the
everyday language that people use, often in
semi-formal settings; the pop-culture level
marked by a general, standardized code
(standard grammar, dictionary definitions) which
changes slowly. Communication at this level
emphasizes the context and circumstances of the
communication, and language acts primarily as a
transparent vehicle, referring denotatively to
some object.
Levels of Diction:
Can help the author to appear normal, everyday
without “talking down.” Can place author and
audience on “equal footing.” Often, this is the
language used between peers in non-academic
Purposes and Effects of
Neutral/Standard Diction
Low/Informal: usually, language used
amongst peers. Often includes dialect,
colloquialism, and slang; the sub-cultural
level marked by a specific, shared code
which is in flux (changes rapidly and
often). Communication at this level
emphasizes the sender-receiver
relationship and language functions
primarily emotively, vocatively, or
Levels of Diction:
Often used to add personality and voice,
causing “closeness” to reader (positive
ethos)—some use this to appear “folksy”
and similar to the reader; conversely, can
cause author to seem uneducated or
sloppy. Sometimes places audience in
superior position, causing them to “look
down upon” the speaker/writer
Purpose and effects of
Low/Informal/Colloquial Diction
◦ For all levels, identify the audience and
decide why the author chose this diction for
this audience.
◦ Connect the level of diction to 1) the audience
and 2) purpose.
◦ A Note of caution: much of the older writing (17th-early
20th century) that we will read is written according to the
prevailing language standards of the time. These pieces
tend towards what we may perceive as more formal or
elevated—however, this may or may not have been the
case at the time. Look for jargon and complex in-group
terminology to determine if formality was the author’s
So What?
In your group, compare the two sets of
desk, blood, fly, fiery, agonizing.
love, honor, respect, patriotism,
goodness, evil.
Abstract: idea words and feeling words. Not
tangible—do not appeal to senses.
 Examples: love, honor, respect, patriotism,
goodness, evil, etc.
◦ Effects: can build background for more specific discussion
to follow for any of the appeals. Conversely, can distance
the reader through a lack of specifics, and can obscure
◦ Often used to manipulate pathos
◦ Often used to create ethos (especially through patriotic
 See the opening paragraph of McCarthy’s speech for an example
of manipulative/propagandist use of abstract diction.
Abstract and Concrete
Concrete: tangible words appealing to
the five senses.
 Examples: desk, blood, fly, fiery,
◦ Effects: often helps to establish imagery and
therefore pathos—check to see if the pathos is
◦ Specifics help form the backbone of logic
(statistics, specific examples and cases, etc.)
General, abstract words;
Transportation, justice.
Somewhat specific;
Automobile, juvenile court.
More specifically; cardioVascular health benefits.
Very specific; the benefits
to the small blood vessels
around your heart.
S.I. Hayakawa’s “Ladder of
The sound of the words is the key here.
Euphony: words that sound pleasant.
◦ Usually dominated by vowel sounds; “flowery,”
“pluvial,” “serendipitous.”
◦ Effects: contributes on a less conscious level
to the tone; can make the subject sound
Euphony and Cacophony
Cacophony: negative sound.
◦ Usually consonant-heavy and Germanic.
◦ “Grungy,” “horrendous,” “vile.”
◦ Sound often overlaps with the meaning—
negative sounding words often mean negative
things, but not always.
Shift: any placed where an author
changes the level, tone, or style of his or
her diction.
◦ Effects: can work as transitions, indicate a
change in attitude, or signal a key point in the
◦ Almost always a signal that the author wants
you to pay more attention than normal to a
certain part of the writing.
In a small group, analyze these pairs of
 What sorts of situations would call for
more Latinate diction? Which would call
for Anglo-Saxon diction?
There are two senses to “jargon”
Positive/neutral: specialized language;
sometimes necessary to communicate
specialized ideas accurately; sometimes
shorthand for members of in-group.
Negative: nonsensical, euphemistic,
incoherent talk; often used to make the
simple seem profound.
Euphamism: the use of a word with positive or
neutral connotations in place of a word with
negative connotations.
“Put to sleep,” “euthanized,” “killed”
“Doctor assisted suicide” vs. “murder”
“Operation Iraqi Freedom” vs. “Iraq War”
“Needs improvement” vs. “failure”
“Republic of Iraq” vs. “Dictatorship”
“Lite beer” vs. “watered-down”
“Downsizing,” “layoffs,” “firings”
“Remedial class” vs. “developmental class”
“Activity” vs. “classwork”
Loaded Diction/Loaded Words
The following are contemporary military terms, found on p. 147 of Logic and
Contemporary Rhetoric by Kahane and Cavendar.
First, predict what you think each of the following terms means.
List any and all possible meanings that you can think of. Then, we
will discuss how each term manipulates the associations and
emotions of the reader.
Comfort Women
Collateral Damage
Friendly Fire
Pacification Center
Selective Ordinance
Battle Fatigue
Ethnic Cleansing
Servicing a Target or Visiting a Site
The Final Solution
◦ Weasel Words
 Statements that appear to make little or no
change in the content of a statement while in
fact sucking out all or most of its content.
“May” or “may be.” “Economic success may
be the explanation of male dominance over
females.” “Arguably” also works as weasel
Other Manipulative Language
◦ Those Who Control the Definitions…
 E.g. in order to pay employees less and
escape benefit requirements, companies
categorize the employees as “subcontractors.”
 Misleading food labels; “organic” label was
used, even of food raised on inorganic feed.
 In order to declare wars, presidents
sometimes refer to wars as “military actions,”
etc. in order to circumvent need for
 Bush classified POWS as “enemy combatants”
to avoid need to release at end of war.
Other Manipulative Language
◦ Politically Correct (PC) Terminology
 See example on 164 and 165 from LA Times
for example of how PC terminology can be
 Labels are often social/political; see “AfricanAmerican” used to describe anyone that is not
Caucasian, Latino, or Asian.
 Used heavily in academia
◦ U. of Columbia declared a “Columbus-myth-free
campus”, since Native Americans were here 10,000
years prior to Columbus.
◦ Stanford punishes students for violating codes
designed to suppress racist, sexist, and homophobic
◦ Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves were protested
during the 1995 World Series for “demeaning
Other Manipulative Language
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the
defense of the indefensible…Thus political language has to consist
largely of euphemism, question begging, and sheer cloudy
vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the
inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machinegunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: This is called
The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of
Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the
outlines and covering up all details. The great enemy of clear
language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real
and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long
words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
--Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language”
Here’s What Orwell Has to Say…
The key thing to note about diction
◦ How does the diction help to imply or display
the author’s attitude and claims towards the
◦ How does the diction help to influence the
reader’s attitude towards the subject?
◦ Keep the Speaker-audience-text triangle in

Diction Analysis