Posted by: suekenney | August 28, 2013

Susan’s Editorial Dictionary: D is for Diction

No, I didn’t forget a few letters there – I really do mean diction, not dictionary.  My faithful Funk & Wagnalls defines it as “the use, choice, and arrangement of words in writing and speaking.”  There’s a second definition: “the manner of uttering speech sounds; enunciation.”  Most sources that I looked at were of the opinion that the second definition does not properly define diction, and should be reserved defining enunciation or articulation.  I don’t want to start any arguments here (well, not too many, anyway), so I’ll just stick with Definition #1 and let the extremists argue over #2.

what are word for?

what are word for? (Photo credit: Darwin Bell)

Diction is closely related to syntax.  Funk & Wagnalls defines that as “the arrangement and interrelationship of words in phrases and sentences.”  Another source quoted David Smith as saying it is “the orderly arrangement of words into sentences to express ideas.”  Diction, then, refers to the words you choose; syntax refers to how you arrange them in the sentence:  “the standard word order and sentence structure.”

So what’s the big deal here?  What does word choice matter?  Hey, it matters a LOT.  Or to put it a bit differently, “It is of tremendous import.”  See, that’s diction in action right there.  “It matters a lot” and “it is of tremendous import” are saying the same thing, but using different words.  These differences will evoke different moods, appeal to different audiences, convey varying nuances of meaning.  “It matters a lot” is understandable to just about everyone and is what I would call casual language.  “It is of tremendous import” is still understandable, but the formality level just went up a notch or two.  I would use the first one in a letter to a friend, but probably not in a college thesis.  The second one would be more likely to show up in a college thesis or some other equally formal presentation.

Advertisers are very much aware of their diction, although they might not use that exact word.  Different words will appeal more to different demographics.  For instance, to draw in most 20-somethings, you wouldn’t use highly formal language (unless these 20-somethings are all working on their doctorates), nor would you make copious references to enjoying retirement or grandchildren.  Physicists and chemists will not necessarily be drawn in by dreamy, esoteric language or philosophical discussions.  (And yes, I am well aware that there are plenty of exceptions to these very general assumptions.  One of my favorite biochemists is also fond of lyrical prose as in, say, Tolkien.)  Nor would you win over any 5-year-olds by speaking of quarks or geopolitics or the latest addition to the OED.

So be aware of your audience.  Fit your diction, your choice of words, to whomever is listening or reading.  Hey, and don’t be afraid to expand your vocabulary – you never know when words like serendipitous or submaxillary or picaresque might be just the right words for the moment.


  1. Excellent post! It explains why diction matters in a manner I readily understood. Stated differently, your explanation is both erudite and accessible.

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