Diction, one of the building blocks of voice, deals with how writer’s choose words. The most obvious characteristics of diction is the level of formality. An author can write using the cozy colloquialisms of a remote region, the gritty language of the streets, the slang and catch phrases of their generation, or move into more formal territory.
Journalist at the turn of the century (twentieth century or 1900 – not twenty-first) wrote with a more formal diction than today. However, the media has morphed into users of informal standard English – erudite words are avoided as well as slang. Word choice is balanced between obviously educated and the man on the street’s style of conversation. Then, there is the language of academia and research, which has words selected to impress the reader with the author’s depth of knowledge. Increasingly, words with specialized meanings in a field or “jargon” are used not only in technical writing, but most published research papers.
Some often stumble over meanings of words just out of their reach trying to write in a formal diction to impress their teachers. While others are not even aware of how difficult it is to read papers that are little more than a dictation of their daily vernacular. When teaching students how to understand Shakespeare’s plays, I frequently point out that it is not the formal speeches that are hard to comprehend. Rather it is when Shakespeare wrote lines full of common slang and innuendos of Elizabethan English that students fail to grasp the meanings. After all, the bard did write to entertain the ‘man on the street.’
One of the lessons many high school students learned when corresponding with students from other countries, was they needed to use more formal diction to be understood. The other students could write English, far better than most Americans could write in another language, but it was a traditional style of English with grammar and diction concerns that many American students had never been taught.
The first step to teaching students to use diction creatively, to show a distinctive voice in their writing, is ironically to teach them how to write using the plain, vanilla, standard English vocabulary and grammar. Then, altering diction to add color to their compositions becomes a conscious choice that doesn’t impede the reader’s ability to understand.
Art work by S.L.Listman