At its most basic, diction (pronounced dic-shun) is the way in which people express themselves while speaking and writing. A person’s diction will be a combination of the words they choose to use; the style or tone in which they use them; and, in speech, the intonation, accent, and pronunciation of those words.
How we speak – and the word choices we make – go a long way towards defining us in the eyes of others, and leaves an impression on the person or people to whom we are speaking about who we are. A person who uses large, overly complicated words that many people won’t understand will leave one sort of impression while someone who uses everyday language that is frequently punctuated with profanity will leave a quite different impression.
Most people will use a number of different types of diction in their speech throughout the course of a conversation or address, and sometimes even in the same sentence. For example, a business executive might say to his team: “We fully expect to see our current levels of production remain steady during the third quarter, but that don’t feed the bulldog – we want to see some growth!” In this case formal, informal, and colloquial diction (all discussed below) are used in the same sentence.
It should also be mentioned that many of the types of diction discussed below will oftentimes overlap; for example, formal diction might also be pedantic and literal, while informal diction will sometimes be abstract or profane. It is pretty much safe to say that outside of machines that utilize Artificial Intelligence (AI), no one uses only one type of diction all the time – and even the machines are catching up.
Diction can be affected by a number of things including an individual’s level of education; where they live; what type of diction they were most frequently exposed to while growing up; their general personality, and many other factors. It is important to understand that diction is rarely, if ever, reflective of overall intelligence. In the words of an old adage, “Just because somebody talks smart don’t mean they is.”
Keeping the above in mind, let’s take a look at the different types of diction, and when they are most frequently used.
Diction normally falls into two very broad categories: Formal and Informal. Ancillary forms of diction (discussed in the ‘Components’ section below) will usually be used in conjunction with – or as a part of – one of these two broad categories.
Formal (sometimes called elevated) diction is often used in business, educational, religious, and public address (presentation, speeches, etc.) communication. It will usually be quite precise, literal, and (sometimes painfully) grammatically correct. Formal diction will often use complicated, sophisticated, subject-specific words and will normally not use contractions (it’s, we’re, etc.), profanity, or slang.
Examples of places where formal diction might be used include a university professor giving a lecture; a business executive giving an address at a conference; or a student giving a verbal (or written) report.
Formal diction is not usually used outside of formal (hence its name) applications. It will rarely be used in one-on-one conversations, or when speaking with a group of friends or peers. It is very widely used in writing of all types.
Informal (sometimes called standard) diction is what most of us use most of the time when addressing friends and family, colleagues and strangers, the person at the hardware store or the checker at the supermarket – essentially anyone we are not addressing formally, which is usually just about everybody.
The most commonly used type of diction, informal diction is generally conversational (part of a give and take with others) and will often utilize contractions, slang, colloquialisms, grammatically incorrect sentences – and most of the components of diction listed below.
Informal diction, by its nature, is meant to be understood by most people and will usually be comprised of commonly used words and phrases. It will sometimes be tuned (often unconsciously) to the education level of the person being spoken to; this is particularly true in the case of adults speaking to smaller children.
Common Components of General Diction
Both formal and informal diction are made up of other, more specific types of diction which we are choosing to call ‘components’ for this article. Many, but not all, components of diction can be shared by both formal and informal diction.
For our purposes here, dialect refers to differences in the way words are pronounced, spelled and sometimes used in a common language based on the region from which the user comes and, on occasion, their ethnicity; these differences are sometimes referred to as an accent. In general, different dialects of a language can be understood by most speakers of that language.
A good example of this is the different dialects used by British and American English speakers (which caused Victorian-era writer Oscar Wilde to wryly observe: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”). The differences in diction between an American and a British English speaker are easily identifiable and consist of intonation, pronunciation (often which syllable of a word is given emphasis), regional accent, and word usage (and sometimes spelling).
Regardless of the language being spoken, most countries have regional dialects – many of which are readily identifiable. In the United States, for example, a person from the Deep South will usually sound significantly different from someone born and raised in New York City, even when speaking the same sentence.
Dialect is a component of both formal and informal diction, and will almost always be based on the region from which the speaker or writer comes.
Concrete diction refers to word and phrase choices that are readily identifiable in the real world, and which the listener can relate to and understand based on the experience of their physical senses or common knowledge. A good example of this might be “solid as a brick wall” or “a black automobile”. The listener will be able to visualize what is being described (brick wall, automobile) and the words used to describe it (solid, black) easily.
Concrete diction is most often used, formally and informally, to identify things or events using very specific words (usually nouns or adjectives) in cases where the speaker or writer wants no ambiguity in their meaning. It is usually not open to interpretation, and will rarely be a matter of debate.
The opposite of concrete, abstract diction is the use of words and phrases to convey or describe ideas, feelings and emotions, thoughts and concepts – in essence, things that do not have a physical, tangible presence in the world. Although the words and phrases may be quite familiar, they cannot be defined specifically through the use of our senses.
A good example of abstract diction would be sentences that use the word love. We will often say that we love our children, parents, or spouses, but we might also say that we love our dog, job, car or new skillet. As the vast majority of us will not assign the same level of emotion or devotion to our parents or kids as we do to a car or skillet, the word is ambiguous and open to interpretation, and will mean different things in different situations – and to different people.
Abstract diction is commonly used in all types of writing, and in both formal and informal speech.
Literal (also sometimes referred to as precise) diction can perhaps be best summed up with the old adage: “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” Sharing some aspects with concrete diction, literal diction is used to communicate in a way that most people will easily understand and leaves no doubt about what you a saying.
An example of literal diction would be the sentence: “It took Mary ten days to put up the fence.” The listener or reader knows exactly what ‘Mary’ was doing, and how long it took her to do it. There is no ambiguity, and virtually no way to interpret it incorrectly.
Literal diction is widely used in formal business and education applications to convey specific concepts and results exactly. It is also used informally as a part of general descriptive conversation.
Unlike the literal type, figurative diction is far less specific and will usually allow the reader or listener to draw their own conclusions based on their own experience and interpretation of what is being said. It is often used to convey broader, more general concepts and ideas and will usually not have the level of specificity found with literal diction.
Returning to our fence example, a person using figurative diction might say: “It took Mary forever to put up the fence.” While that is certainly not the case, using the word ‘forever’ instead of ’10 days’ allows the listener to interpret how long it took Mary to put the fence up, based on their own concept of how long ‘forever’ would be in relation to that job.
Less frequently used with formal diction than its literal cousin, figurative diction is commonly used in informal conversation and writing, particularly when relating the concept or general idea is more important than the specifics.
Closely tied to dialect, colloquial diction (more often referred to as colloquialisms) can refer to either words or short phrases that are commonly used (and mostly understood) by people of a particular region. Over time, some colloquial words will become widely used in informal diction across the entire language and even find their way into the dictionary.
A good example of a commonly used and understood colloquialism is the word ‘ain’t’. Often misidentified as slang, ain’t is a contraction (used in place of am not, is not, has not, etc.) that is very widely used in informal (and is rarely found in formal) diction. Commonly used since the early 18th century, ain’t was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a ‘real’ word in 1993. ‘Gonna’ (going to), ‘pop’ (a carbonated drink), and ‘gotcha’ (got you) are other examples of colloquial words.
Colloquial phases – such as ‘that don’t feed the bulldog’ used at the start of this article and which means ‘not getting the job done’ or ‘unsuccessful’ – are, in most cases, colorful ways of expressing common ideas which originate in a specific region (in the above example, the Southern United States). While many colloquial phrases are understood by the majority of a language’s native speakers, they can be particularly challenging for non-native speakers who will know only the actual words and not the implied meaning.
For the most part, slang is an informal, ever-changing and evolving part of diction used by specific social, economic, and sometimes ethnic groups to describe things and ideas in a way not common to people outside of those groups.
The use of current forms of slang helps to identify a person as a part of a group, and will usually not be used by those outside of that group. In some cases, slang is used to camouflage the true meaning of what is being said from those not part of the group.
Teenagers are an excellent example of a group that uses a great deal of constantly evolving slang in their writing (particularly while texting) and speech both as a way of fitting in with a group and hiding what they are actually saying from adults (most often parents). Examples of current common slang used by teenagers will include ‘lits’ (amazing), ‘rides’ (shoes), ‘smash’ (sex) and POS (parent over shoulder).
Rhyming slang (also called Cockney rhyming slang) is a particularly complex and fascinating type of slang used in England, Australia, and Ireland, usually by those in the lower socio-economic and working classes. In rhyming slang, the slang word is derived from a two (or more) word phrase; the first word in the phrase will normally become the slang term, while the last word will rhyme with the word being replaced. For example, in rhyming slang the word ‘plates’ is used in place of ‘feet’, and is derived from ‘plates of meat’. Likewise, Gregory is the rhyming slang term for neck, and comes from the name of the late popular actor Gregory Peck. If you are confused don’t feel bad – that is the purpose of this and many other types of slang.
Akin to (but not the same as) slang, jargon is used in both formal and informal diction by people who share a specific common interest or profession. It will often consist of words and / or phrases that will be easily understood by people in a particular group but not make sense to people outside of the group.
Specific jargon is usually only used by people in a single, often quite small, group. For example, in the world of poker, ‘the nuts’ is commonly used jargon for the best possible (or winning) hand in a particular game; for example, “I had the nuts that game.” Similarly, a ‘fish’ will refer to a bad, easily fooled player; a ‘calling station’ is a player who will call most bets and rarely fold; and ‘crack’ refers to when a weaker starting hand beats a stronger one. Poker jargon is rarely used outside of poker.
General jargon consists of words and terms that are broadly used across more loosely defined groups. Business (also called corporate) jargon is an example of this. Unlike our above example, business jargon will frequently be used by many different types businesses and enterprises, and will mean the same thing to all of them. Commonly used business jargon includes PnL (profit and loss), due diligence (investigation or research), and sweat equity (investment of time and effort in a business rather than cash).
In some cases what started out as jargon will find its way into more general use and become part of the common vocabulary. Examples of this include ‘bottom line’ from business, and ‘all in’ from poker.
An idiom – also called a figure of speech – is usually a phrase or short sentence used to convey an idea or thing (often, but not always, in a pithy or humorous way) using words not generally associated with what is being described. VERY closely associated with (and sometimes overlapping) colloquialisms, idioms are most often a component of figurative, informal diction, and are not usually meant to be taken literally.
Examples of idioms commonly used in the United States include ‘let the cat out of the bag’ (meaning to reveal a secret); kick the bucket (meaning to die); and ‘up the creek without a paddle (meaning to be in trouble). Idioms can be commonly shared between languages, or be unique to a specific language. For example, a common idiom in Japanese is ‘a light mouth’ which refers to someone who talks to much or reveals secrets, while in French the idiom ‘a fat morning’ means to sleep in.
In some cases, idioms will change within the same language based on the country or region. For example, the US idiom ‘kick the bucket’ will be expressed in the UK by the idiom ‘pop a clog’ – both meaning to die. In Australia the idiom ‘up the creek without a paddle’ is replaced with ‘up a gum tree’.
Popular idioms are usually commonly understood by all native speakers of a language. Virtually every language on Earth uses idioms as a component of diction, and some linguists have estimated that there are over 25,000 idioms used in the English language alone.
Pedantic diction refers to a style of writing or speaking that is very detail oriented, very precise, very grammatically correct, very wordy, and (particularly in speech) often very boring or irritating. Outside of a purely academic setting (and sometimes also in academia) a pedantic speaker will often be seen as trying to impress, or show themselves as superior, to others by using sophisticated words and sometimes excruciatingly minute detail to say something that could be said in far simpler language.
An example of pedantic diction might be a person who answers the question ‘Where is the bathroom?’ with something like: ‘Upon ascending this brightly carpeted staircase, turn yourself to the left and proceed along the hallway; when you reach the initial doorway on the right-hand side, you will find the lavatory facilities ensconced within.’ The vast majority of people would answer this question: ‘Up the steps, turn left, first door on the right.’
Pedantic diction is usually only used in formal settings (as someone who speaks this way in a conversational setting like our example is usually going to be viewed as a jerk) and normally only used sparingly there. It will rarely – if ever – use slang, idioms, profanity, jargon or colloquialisms and will tend to be concrete as opposed to abstract.
Pedestrian is the opposite of pedantic diction and is the way many public speakers will speak in informal settings, although it will sometimes be used in formal and semi-formal settings as well. It is also sometimes thought of as common diction – as it will be understood by both highly educated and ‘common’ people. In cases where it is over used, or used incorrectly, it can sometimes cause listeners to feel that they are being spoken ‘down to’.
Normally utilizing easily understood words and phrases, colloquialisms and idioms, and sometimes jargon and slang, pedestrian diction is regularly used when addressing a group of people from varying economic and educational backgrounds, to ensure that everyone in a given audience will fully understand what is being said. Politicians giving speeches will often use pedestrian diction so as to reach the broadest possible audience.
Profane diction refers to the use of words and sometimes phrases that are considered inappropriate by large segments of society (although pretty much everyone will use many of these words at one time or another). An individual who uses profanity in almost every sentence, over-uses it generally, or uses it regularly in situations where it is obviously inappropriate can be considered a profane speaker and will sometimes be referred to as a potty-mouth, sewer-mouth or gutter-mouth.
While there are some words and phrases that will be considered profane by pretty much everyone all the time (and we all know what they are, so examples are not required), the use of some profanity has become widely accepted in society due primarily to the influences of radio, movies, television and, more recently, the internet. In fact, what is and is not ‘profane’ has been a matter of on-going debate for the last half a century or so.
In many cases simple, innocuous, commonly used words can become profane when used in certain contexts, or depending on the words that directly precede or follow them. An excellent illustration of this was given by the late American stand-up comedian and social critic George Carlin when he said: “In TV today, you can say I pricked my finger, but you can’t say it the other way around.”
Profanity is widely used in all types of informal speech by all socio-economic classes of people, in all languages and dialects, and in written and spoken applications. It is rarely used in formal diction other than to shock an audience, or for comedic effect.
Neutral diction (also sometimes referred to as plain speaking) is the use of words or phrases that are easily understood by everyone, and requires no particular expertise or specific knowledge on the part of the listener.
An important component of informal diction (and sometimes used in formal settings), examples would include ‘He is a doctor’ as opposed to ‘He is a hematologist’; or ‘She raises horses’ as opposed to ‘She raises Clydesdales’. In the above examples, everyone knows what a doctor or a horse is, but not everyone will be familiar with or able to understand the words hematologist or Clydesdale.
Sharing many of the same attributes with pedestrian diction, neutral diction normally (but not always) avoid the use of idioms, colloquialisms, jargon and slang, although it will sometimes use lighter, more widely accepted, profanity. Neutral diction will usually be more concrete and literal than abstract and figurative. It will never be pedantic. Modern politicians, particularly when they are running for office, will often use neutral diction.
Archaic diction (as the name implies) refers to the use of words and phrasing that are no longer commonly used in modern writing and speech. While still sometimes used in poetry and fiction writing – often in historical, romance, and fantasy fiction dialogue – archaic diction is rarely if ever used by the general population on a regular basis, and can sometimes be quite difficult to understand today.
An easily understood example of archaic diction would be ‘Thou art beauteous to behold’ which, of course, can be roughly translated as ‘You are looking beautiful’. Pedantic diction will often incorporate (and is notorious for overusing) archaic words and phrases.
There are some smaller segments of society located in a number of different countries that will regularly use archaic diction as their common form of speech. Examples of this in the United States would include the Amish and Mennonite communities located in Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.