What Is Diction?

Diction means "word choice" or "clarity of speech." Here is an example of each meaning:

Choice of words

Choosing to say "acquire" instead of "get" is an example of tuning your diction. In this meaning, diction has a similar meaning to phraseology.

Clarity of speech

Saying all the letters clearly in "potato" would be an example of good diction. In this meaning, diction is refers to how clearly words are said.

Table of Contents

  • Diction Meaning "Choice of Words" (Phraseology)
  • Diction Meaning "Clarity of Speech"
  • How to Tune Your Word Choice
  • Why Diction Is Important
  • Test Time!
definition of diction

Formal Definition

Diction is:
  • a style of speaking or writing as dependent upon choice of words.
  • the accent, inflection, intonation, and speech-sound quality manifested by an individual speaker, usually judged in terms of prevailing standards of acceptability; enunciation. (

Diction Meaning "Choice of Words" (Phraseology)

Our choice of words is influenced by the situation. This choice of words is known as diction. For example:
  • To get it sorted (to mates)
  • To solve the problem (to colleagues)
  • To overcome the challenge (to bosses)
  • It was a mistake (to a close friend)
  • It was an accident (to a work colleague)
  • It was an oversight (to a senior at work)

Diction Meaning "Clarity of Speech"

Diction refers to how clearly words are pronounced. (Pronunciation refers to how they are said.) Here are some example sentences to show the difference between diction and pronunciation:
  • Read can be pronounced reed or red.
  • Did he just say wed or wet? His diction is poor.

How to Tune Your Word Choice

Believe it or not, the invasions of the Saxons and the Normans on the ancient Britons, which happened well over 1,000 years ago, still influence your word choice.

The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the fifth century caused a flood of Germanic words into Britain. These words were quickly adopted by the locals, and, as a result, they still sound natural to the ears of those with British heritage. However, the vocabulary of the Britons was also affected by another invasion, which started in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings. It was a war between Duke William I (Norman-French) and King Harold II (English). As we know, William was victorious, and it wasn't long before the land was governed by a new French-speaking aristocracy. Consequently, French-derived words (which often derive from Latin) became the words of the upper classes.

Why does this history matter? Well, even today, Germanic words sound natural, and French words sound elegant.

Generally, the Germanic words are short and easily understood. For example, verbs deriving from the Anglo-Saxons (i.e., the "Germanic" verbs) tend to consist of two short words (e.g., look after, put off, give up). The "French" ones, on the other hand, tend to be longer, single words that sound a bit highbrow (e.g., congregate, nurture, postpone). Sometimes, their meaning is clear (e.g., acquire, obtain), but sometimes they push the bounds of most people's understanding (e.g., militate, mitigate).

As a rule, people like to read "Germanic" words because that's how they speak. However, writers often find themselves drawn to the "French" words, believing the "French" ones to be classier or more professional.
  • "Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all." (Prime Minister Winston Churchill)
  • (Winston Churchill was effectively advising people to use "German" words, which, given he was Britain's war-time Prime Minister, is an example of situational irony.)
So, "German" words or "French" ones? Well, there's a balance to be struck. The first rule is easy: don't use words nobody understands, like "concatenate" or "militate." After that, it's for you to decide what proportion of Germanic and Latinate words you go for. It all depends on your "writing voice" or the "writing voice" of the company you're writing for. For example, Red Bull might write a section entitled "Stuff You Need to Know" and fill it with Germanic words, while KPMG might write one called "Terms and Conditions" and fill it with Latinate words. If you're representing yourself, here's a good rule of thumb: write how you speak.

Why Diction Is Important

Here are two good reasons to care about diction.

(Reason 1) Your audience determines whether your diction is good, not you.

The quality of your diction (meaning clarity of speech) is determined by your audience, not you. Your job, therefore, is to keep below the levels of accent strength, poor enunciation, and talking speed that will render your speech incomprehensible. This is an easy task when your audience is full of people like you. It's far more difficult when it's full of non-native English speakers or people whose ears are tuned to different accents.

That's as much as we need to say about diction meaning clarity of speech.

(Reason 2) Diction separates good writing from bad writing.

Diction meaning word choice is important. It separates good writing from bad writing.

When choosing your words, there are four major factors. You must ensure your writing is concise, precise, appropriate, and understandable. Here is more about these factors:

(Factor 1) Concise

Writing concisely means using the fewest words possible without sacrificing meaning. This can be achieved by:

Using fewer nouns and more verbs

  • We are in agreement that he was in violation of several regulations. wrong cross
  • (This sentence is not concise. It has too many nouns (shown in bold).)
  • We agree he violated several regulations. correct tick
  • (With the nouns turned into verbs (shown in bold), this sentence is now more concise.)
Read more about using verbs to create concise writing (see "Reason 1").

Using action verbs over linking verbs

  • This rule is applicable to both teams. wrong cross
  • (This sentence contains a linking verb (is), not an action verb. It is not concise.)
  • This rule applies to both teams. correct tick
  • (With an action verb (shown in bold), the sentence is now more concise.)

Removing repeated ideas

  • armed gunman wrong cross / armed gunman correct tick
  • at 4 a.m. in the morning wrong cross / at 4 a.m. in the morning correct tick
Often, repeated ideas will be whole paragraphs not just single words. If you've said it twice, don't. Read more about unnecessary repetition (called tautology).

Choosing descriptive words

  • unruly crowd wrong cross (not concise) / mob correct tick
  • organized political dissenting group wrong cross (not concise) / faction correct tick
As well as keeping your writing concise, using more descriptive words is necessary to keep your writing precise (see Factor 2 below).

Choosing the active voice over the passive voice

  • The document was taken to the lawyers by Jason. wrong cross
  • (This is a passive sentence. It is not concise.)
  • Jason took the document to the lawyers. correct tick
  • (This active version is more concise.)
Read more about using active sentences.

(Factor 2) Precise

Writing precisely means using exactly the right words. Writing precisely ensures your readers absorb your ideas accurately. It is achieved by:

Using words that nail your idea

  • She looked angrily at her rival. wrong cross
  • (This sentence is not precise (or concise). The word looked is not descriptive. Glared would be better, but even that isn't precisely the right word. As looked is so nondescript, the writer felt the need to use the adverb angrily to help with the description. This means the sentence is now not concise either.)
  • She glared at her rival. correct tick
  • (Glared is a synonym for stared, but it's not exactly the same. It nails the idea more accurately. With a descriptive word like glared, the adverb angrily can be dropped.)
Read more about synonyms. Read more about choosing betters words and omitting adverbs (see "Issue 1").

Using words with the correct connotations

  • John is thorough.
  • (Is thorough the right word? Perhaps meticulous, which has a more positive connotation would be more accurate. What about nitpicking, which has a negative connotation?)
  • Janet is persistent.
  • (Is persistent the right word? What about tenacious (positive connotation) or stubborn (negative connotation)?)
Read more about connotation.

(Factor 3) Appropriate

Your writing voice must be appropriate for the audience. There are three types of diction:

(1) Formal Diction

Formal diction describes the word choices that are appropriate for formal settings, such as meetings, lectures, and business correspondence. For example:
  • We achieved the objective.

(2) Informal Diction

Informal diction describes the word choices that are appropriate for informal settings, such as conversations or correspondence among peers or friends. For example:
  • We did what was asked.

(3) Colloquial Diction

Colloquial diction describes the word choices that are appropriate in a localized, highly informal setting, such as a gathering of close friends or family members in a social environment. Colloquial diction will often include colloquialisms, idioms, slang terms, and neologisms (new terms). For example:
  • We smashed it.

(Factor 4) Understandable

You must use words that your readers are likely to understand. For example, if you think your audience would have to look up axiomatic, then use a word like obvious. If you think they would have to look up ameliorate, then use a word like improve. This idea is captured well in the following Stephen King quotation:
  • "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule." (Author Stephen King)

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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