Diction is one of the building blocks of voice that pushed far enough can become a two-edged sword, making the written word dangerously inaccessible to readers. When teaching Shakespeare’s plays to students I frequently pointed out that it was not the formal speeches that were hard to comprehend. Rather it was the lines full of common slang and innuendos of Elizabethan English that the students failed to grasp. After all, the bard did write to entertain the “man on the street.”
Beginning with the Renaissance there was a movement toward more formal diction in writing, and then sometime before the twentieth century writers started backing away from that same kind of diction. You could blame or praise Mark Twain for this, but the swing in formality of diction has been continuing for ages. Today, the media has morphed into users of an informal brand of Standard English that is sprinkled with slang and the latest jargon–particularly business and technical. Erudite words are avoided. But jargon can be just as confusing. Some writers are not even aware of how difficult it is to decipher writing that is little more than a dictation of their daily work vernacular.
At the basic level diction is concerned with word choice and its most obvious characteristic is the level of formality. You can write using the cozy colloquialisms of a back country region, the gritty language of the streets, the slang and catch phrases of a generation, or move into more formal territory. The formal language of academia and research is not only aimed at being precise. Words are selected words to impress the reader with depth of knowledge. A simple concept repeated ad nauseam, yet obscured in a wealth of higher level vocabulary, can seem brilliant.
One of the lessons I have learned when corresponding with people from other countries over the internet is the need to use both a more formal grammar and a simple vocabulary to be understood. Those from other countries know English far better than I know their language, but it is a traditional style of English. Often, the first step to cultivate a distinctive diction is to write using the plain, vanilla, Standard English vocabulary and grammar so the work is comprehensible. Then, alter diction by adding colorful words and phrases, making conscious choices that don’t impede the reader’s ability to understand. Word choice requires a balance between the formal speech, dripping with overtones of privileged education, and the man on the street’s style of conversation.
Art work by S.L.Listman
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Another blog in the series on creating voice in writing.