Some ways to think about word choice— and sound really smart while you're figuring it out!
Purpose: When analyzing the style of either prose or poetry, the opportunity to show off what you know about diction (an author’s word choice) frequently appears. These notes are meant to give you a framework and a vocabulary so that you can analyze and discuss matters of diction with confidence and precision.
When this matters: Whenever you need to do any of the following:
Discuss or analyze how “the language” of a passage or poem achieves some effect.
Analyze the “techniques” or “poetic devices” used to achieve some effect.
Answer a question that specifically mentions the word “diction.”
Two Axes: The term “diction” covers a lot of ground, but here is a somewhat simplified way to approach it. Consider analyzing the diction according to where it falls along the two main axes: (1) Levels of formality, and (2) Literal vs. Figurative, or Connotative vs. Denotative, content.
(1) Levels of formality
Diction can usually be described as one of three “levels” of style:
High or Formal: Dignified, elevated, and perhaps impersonal. Elaborate, or sophisticated vocabulary. In some cases, “high style” can refer to grammar, or syntax, that has been manipulated for an artistic effect—that is, the grammar calls attention to itself. Polysyllabic.
Middle or Neutral: Follows rules of grammar and uses common, unexceptional vocabulary. Think Strunk and White. Grammar and vocabulary is meant to be transparent, easily understood.
Low or Informal: Plain language of everyday use, including slang, jargon, vulgarity, and dialect. Monosyllabic.
(2) Literal vs. Figurative (Denotative vs. Connotative) content
In addition to falling somewhere on the above axis, an author’s word choice will fall somewhere on a scale between the two poles of denotation, a word’s dictionary meaning, or connotation, the more metaphorical or poetic usage of words.
The word itself may be rich with connotations (associated contexts or multiple meanings), and/or the way the word is used may invite consideration beyond the literal, as in a pun or double entendre. And sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.
How to talk about
Levels of Formality
One thing that is really impressive is having a large bank of words that you know that you can use to characterize the different kinds of diction. You can use this stuff when fashioning terribly impressive thesis statements—even from simple observations! That is what the following notes are for. Many of these descriptors can be used to describe syntax as well as diction.
High, Formal Style
Cultured Learned Pretentious Archaic Scholarly Pedantic Ornate Elegant Flowery, etc.
Middle, Neutral Style
Unadorned Plain Detached Simple, etc.
Low, Informal Style
Abrupt Terse Laconic Homespun Colloquial Vulgar Slang Jargon, etc.
How to talk about
Language can also fall somewhere on the following scale. Few word choices are purely denotative, of course, but they are connotative to varying degrees. Speak of a passage as being “highly connotative” or "largely denotative" (or figurative / literal).
Denotative or Literal Language
Exact Journalistic Straightforward
Connotative or Figurative Language
Poetic Lyrical Symbolic Metaphoric Obscure Sensuous Grotesque Picturesque
How to talk about
Abstract/Concrete and/or General/Specific
In addition, an author’s language will fall somewhere on a scale between the poles of abstract and concrete language. That is, do they write about stuff you can hold in your hands (concrete), or stuff you can only hold in your heads (abstract)?
Do the words sound nice? If so, you can talk about the euphony of the passage.. If it sounds harsh, talk about cacophony and the relationship to meaning. Here is also your opportunity to talk about rhyme, rhythm, onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, etc.
Figures of Speech
You know all these, right? Personification, Metaphor, Paradox, Alliteration, etc.
Quiz: if you notice a lot of this, is the word choice more "denotative" or "connotative"?
What else can you think of?
How do I use this great new vocabulary to craft smart topic sentences?
First: Don’t respond to a prompt by saying that the author “uses diction.” You are saying nothing if you say that. Everyone who writes or speaks uses “word choice”—your job is to characterize that word choice.
What I suggest: A convoluted, excruciating, five-step process.
Step One: Levels of Formality
“Do” a close reading on the passage, first identifying any unusual or characteristic words. If there are none, you are probably reading something with a “middle style.”
If words stand out, you should be able to decide whether the passage leans to the high or low styles. If so, pick a snazzy vocab word to describe what kind of high or low diction it is.
Step Two: Connotation
Examine how the words appear to be used—do they seem to be used like poetry, with lots of external, thematic meanings attached, or are they more literal, like a straightforward action story?
Once you decide which way it leans, connotative or denotative, pick some vocab words that characterize the diction more specifically.
Step Three: Everything else
Ask yourself about abstraction/ concreteness, what figures of speech you see, and the sounds of the language.
Step Four: Purpose
Sit back for a moment and ask yourself what purpose the word choice appears to be fulfilling.
For example, you can always say that it sets a tone—just make sure you have some words ready to describe that tone.
Also consider whether the word choice is having an effect on character, symbol/theme, setting, etc.
Step Five: The topic sentence. Let’s play Madlibs!!!
FORMULA: In [name of work], [Author] writes in a [connotation] [level of formality] style. His/her use of [connotation vocab] and [level of formality vocab] language [achieves x purpose].
EXAMPLE: In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr., writes in a relatively denotative formal style. His intellectual vocabulary contributes to a dignity of tone, while the lack of euphemism underscores the seriousness of his intention.