Diction is the simplest literary technique, but it doesn't mean it's easy to master.
Pay close attention!
Diction means "word choice": the specific words that a writer deliberately chooses to use in a piece of writing.
Diction in action looks like this:
- "The writer's use of emotional diction in line 5 illustrates..."
- "The religious diction such as 'communion' and 'confession' suggests..."
The problem is that every word on a page technically counts as diction. We obviously can't analyse all of them.
- Never analyse boring words.
- Always analyse interesting words.
So how can you tell if a word is interesting and therefore worthy of analysis?
Every word has a denotation (i.e., a boring, literal meaning found in the dictionary) and connotations.
A word is interesting if it has interesting connotations. In analysis, we tend to care less about the denotative meaning of word because it's not interesting.
Take the word "gold" as an example.
Denotation: "a yellow precious metal, the chemical element of atomic number 79"
Yawn. The word “gold” obviously means a lot more to us than just its boring denotation.
The word “gold” instantly makes us think of: wealth, money, luxury, prestige, royalty, quality, beauty, perfection, big fat Rolexes.
These ideas, feelings, and impressions that we naturally associate with certain words are called connotations. They are distinct from denotations: Denotation is what the thing literally means; connotation is what we think and feel about that thing. Big difference.
Since analysis is about deeper layers of meaning, we care much more about connotations when we analyse diction.
Let's take a look at the diction in this sentence:
“The town was an infested den of thieves and smugglers.”
What words have interesting connotations?
The word “infested” is interesting. When I read/hear the word “infested”, I immediately think
I think of a gross mental image of disgusting cockroaches and rats crawling around in some old basement or sewer. To me, the diction of “infested” connotes disgust, and the writer probably chose this word precisely because it makes the town seem dirty and disgusting.
“Infested” also connotes a sense of corruption; in this case, it's not so much the biological disease, which is the literal meaning, but instead the moral corruption of these thieves and smugglers who work in morally-questionable professions.
There's also another really interesting layer of meaning. We usually associate the diction of “infested” with animals and insects, as opposed to humans. So the writer uses animalistic diction to dehumanise these criminals to the level of animals, making us view them with contempt (remember this word from the tone list?).
By thinking about the connotations, we got some great analysis about amorality, disgust and dehumanisation.
Recall the 5 steps of the Diamond Analysis Formula from the Analysis Foundations section. Well, all we have to do is apply them here, and voila, we cook up some decent analysis like this:
The author characterises “the town” to be “infested” with criminals. Here, the deliberate use of animalistic diction in “infested” serves to dehumanise the “thieves and smugglers” as creatures comparable to cockroaches or rats, which evokes a sense of disgust in readers. The animalistic diction thus captures the squalid, corrupted state of this “town” and builds an unsettling atmosphere.
Great new adjectives to use in your next essay to boost your Criterion D Language mark:
- “squalid”: lacking in moral standards
- “unsettling”: disturbing, making someone feel uneasy or anxious
When you use the word “diction”, try to precede it with an adjective. For example, avoid writing
“The diction in ‘infested'…”
“The animalistic diction in ‘infested'…”
The reason is because ‘diction' itself is meaningless unless we specify a particular type of word choice. In some cases, the diction is neutral and that is when you have no choice but to just write “diction”.
The same rule applies to tone, atmosphere and mood. Add a preceding adjective. There's no meaning behind tone unless it's a specific tone. The same goes for atmosphere and mood.
If you get tired of writing "diction" all the time, you can vary your diction by replacing it with “language”. For example, you can write “emotional diction" or “emotional language”, “formal diction” or “formal language”. They mean the same thing.
Students often analyze diction too much. Ideally, we want to choose a variety of literary techniques. A broad range. To get high marks in analysis, you want to show off your skills. By ALWAYS analyzing diction, you are repeatedly showing the examiner that all you know is diction. Not a good idea!
Action: Stop analyzing diction so much! And if you do analyze it, ONLY choose the best, most interesting diction.