Tuesday, June 19, 2007


My grandchildren were playing in the pool the other day when three-year-old Jake pulled off his diaper and jumped in naked.

“Eww eeee, he’s nekkid,” one shouted. “Mom, he’s naked. He’ll pee in the pool.”

Nine-year-old Preston calmly proclaimed from the rocks. “He shouldn’t be nude in the pool.”

There you have it – diction or word choice: naked, nekkid, nude. All three words mean uncovered, unclothed, or undressed, but each is loaded with emotional subtleties that slant its meaning.

The writer’s deliberate choice from among these words controls the psychological impact of the phrase or sentence she writes.

First, let’s get a couple of definitions out of the way.

Diction means word choice.

Denotation refers to the dictionary definition of a word, the word’s literal meaning.

And most important, I think, connotation involves the shades and nuances a word carries, its emotional impact. A good writer must have control of connotation.

Think of a word for "overweight": plump, fat, obese, heavy. All mean overweight, but each has a different emotional shade to it. Obese is more clinical, a term a doctor would use, while plump is more pleasing, an affectionate description; heavy conveys heft, weight, and broadness in a more mannish way, while fat has a negative, off-putting connotation.

Now think of the word “bitch.” Denotatively, a “bitch” is a female dog. But also it is a pejorative for a mean-spirited, malicious, nasty woman, one without refinement or classiness. As a verb, it means to complain or gripe.

Referring to a woman as a bitch relegates her to a lower status, refers to her lewdness, and compares her not only to a dog (bitch), but conjures the phrase “bitch in heat,” a woman whose sexual emotions cannot be controlled. Further, if a bitch “bitches,” she’s a shrew, a nag, unworthy of consideration because she complains so frequently.

One of a writer’s most powerful tools is her use of appropriate diction or word choice. Many writers control diction by instinct without analyzing their reasons for choosing one particular word over another. However, some of us labor over diction for several reasons.

First, our own vocabularies may be limited. One year the father of a brilliant student attended my parent-teacher conference. The father spoke in broken English and asked me what he could do to improve his own English language skills. You already know the answer. Read! Read anything from the newspaper to Playboy magazine. And read some more. I’m convinced that good writers are made, not from college degrees, but from incessant reading. They’ve assimilated the rhythms and diction of good writing.

Second, we have so many words to choose from, but often can’t put our fingers on the precise word for the character and situation in hand. In these cases, the Thesaurus is NOT a girl’s best friend. Unless you have an amazingly wide vocabulary range, do not rely on Mr. T.

Rather than a thesaurus, I recommend a synonym dictionary. Of course, use only the words you have a working familiarity with; otherwise, you’ll end up with a sentence that clearly shows you do not know the various nuances of the word, and you'll embarrass yourself.

Diction and tone are inextricably connected. Before a writer can choose from among the array of words at her disposal, she must be clear what tone she wishes to convey. Tone is attitude, pure and simple, just like when your mother used to say, “Don’t use that tone with me, young lady!”

The tone we wish to convey in a piece of writing is often coupled with a contrasting tone. The male protagonist may be gallant, but arrogant; chiding, but teasing; proud, but tamable.

Take a look at Laura Kinsale’s excerpt from Flowers from the Storm. Jervaulx, a decided rake, describes the features of Quaker Maddy to her blind father. Notice how the diction in this passage serves several purposes: obviously, to characterize Maddy, but also to reveal Jervaulx’s character by the words he chooses to describe Maddy. I’ve underlined the words that convey strong emotion to me. Then I analyze why.

“Shall we proceed to her nose? That, we shall call a nose of – character. I don’t think we can call it perfect; it’s a little too aquiline for that. A decided nose. A maiden lady’s nose. It goes with the tilt of the chin. But her eyes . . . I’m afraid her eyes ruin the spinster effect again, most emphatically. And her mouth. She has a pensive, a very pretty mouth, that doesn’t smile overly often.” He took a sip of wine. “But then again – let’s be fair. I’ve definitely seen her smile at you, but she hasn’t favored me at all. This serious mouth might have been insipid, but instead it goes with the wonderful long lashes that haven’t got that silly debutante curl. They’re straight, but they’re so long and angled down that they shadow her eyes and turn the hazel to gold, and she seems as if she’s looking out through them at me. No . . .” He shook his head sadly. “Miss Timms, I regret to tell you that it isn’t a spinster effect at all. I’ve never had a spinster look out beneath her lashes at me the way you do.”

Think of another word the author could’ve chosen instead of “aquiline”: perhaps, "hooked," like an eagle’s beak, which is what the word’s denotation is. But connotatively, “aquiline” conjures images of nobility, grandeur, someone above the common fray, while "hooked," . . . well, you get the idea.

Notice that Kinsale gives the reader a clear picture of Maddy, physically and emotionally. But, just as important, look at how we learn who Jervaulx is, a man who notices details about a woman that others might not. He finds “debutantes” silly; he’s aware that Maddy disapproves of him, but he sees beneath her modest disguise. Even though he’s portrayed her as a contained woman who eschews vanity, she cannot hide her appeal to him. He's a clever, insightful man who sees her for what she is.

The term we use for the study of a word’s origins is etymology. As a writer, have some intellectual curiosity about where a word comes from, how its meaning has changed over the years, and the way its emotional impact can vary. Use those emotionally-charged words for the greatest effect.

Diction is power and, carefully crafted, can imbue the writing with onion-like layers that readers will enjoy unwrapping again and again.


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