Diction is:

  • Primarily the choice of words or vocabulary of a writer in a specific piece of writing. In this sense, diction to some extent helps construct notions of register, voice, and tone.
  • Secondarily, enunciation or clarity of pronunciation, especially when speech is uttered aloud.

From a literary point of view, only the first meaning is significant.

Approaching diction

Diction can be studied in two ways.

  • Firstly, as an indication of:
    •   genre
    •   level of education of speaker or intended audience
    •   degree of formality or informality in the reader-writer relationship
    •   characterisation (in prose fiction or drama)
    •   seriousness of intent.
  • Secondly, the patterns of diction can indicate as much as patterns of imagery the precise emotional colouring, and the figurative or symbolic meanings, of a piece of writing.

For example, studies in Shakespeare's plays reveal a wide variety of groups of words chosen in a particular play, as well as patterns of imagery. Studying these groups and patterns helps determine meaning, audience response and character.

Poetic diction

In the poetic theory of the eighteenth century, poetry was seen as an elevated form of language. Certain words were deemed unworthy of verse, and so other, more elevated-sounding words, were substituted.

For example, the word 'fish' was deemed common. So some such phrase as 'the finny tribe' was substituted. These specially 'poetic' phrases were known as ‘poetic diction'.

The Romantic poet William Wordsworth fought against this theory, trying to substitute common speech again. He was only partially successful, and it was left to twentieth century poets to fully reinstate everyday speech as worthy of poetry.

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