Have you ever noticed how different people can express the same ideas in completely different ways? Their tone of voice and the way they arrange their sentences can give a conversation an entirely different feel. This comes down to diction—the conscious or unconscious choices we all make when expressing ourselves through language.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about what diction means in writing, and how to use it effectively as a literary device in your story.

What is diction in writing?

Diction is the word choice, syntax, and sentence structure that makes up a written tone of voice. For example, formal diction uses deliberate language and proper grammar, while informal diction uses more contractions and everyday vernacular. Writers use different diction, or tones, depending on what feeling they’re trying to convey and what audience they’re trying to reach.

There are different types of diction you can use for different purposes in writing. For instance, academic writing will use different diction than a casual conversation between friends, and different characters in a story might use even more types of diction to reveal something about their personality.

Paying attention to diction can help us create realistic characters that leap off the page.

Diction is the word choice and sentence structure that makes up a distinct tone of voice.

What’s the difference between diction and dialect?

When it comes to crafting compelling character voices, dialect and diction are closely intertwined. Both reflect the unique way a character speaks.

While diction refers to the words chosen in response to a particular situation, dialect refers to the unique language and grammatical rules that characterize a certain region or socioeconomic area. For example, colloquial words and phrases unique to the American south reflect the dialect of that specific region.

Dialect is a particular facet of language that normally stays consistent throughout a character’s life, unless they move to a different area and begin absorbing a different dialect. Diction, by contrast, can change from one moment to another depending on how a person is feeling, who they’re talking to, and what they’re trying to accomplish.

Why is diction important for writers?

Diction is a great tool for communicating character without too much heavy exposition. Readers are very perceptive when it comes to picking up the way a character speaks, so adjusting the diction in your dialogue can reveal important information in a subtle, nuanced way.

For example, what happens if a loving couple starts speaking to each other in more formal diction? It probably means there’s tension in their relationship. Maybe one is hiding something from the other, or they’re trying to move past a big fight.

What if a group of people start by speaking formally, and their diction becomes more casual and colloquial over time? It probably means they’re warming up to each other and letting their boundaries down.

In general, we tend to use more formal language when we’re trying to present a collected, professional image, and informal language when we’re more relaxed. By playing with the diction of your characters, you can give the reader hints about what they’re feeling and where they are in their journey.

Types of diction in creative and academic writing

Here are the different styles of diction you’ll find in all kinds of writing.

There are 8 types of diction: [image: bullet list] formal, informal, colloquial, slang, abstract, concrete, pedantic, poetic

1. Formal diction

Formal diction takes a respectful and serious tone using precise, grammatically correct language without any slang or everyday vernacular. It’s designed to get a point across in an elevated and professional way. You’ll see this type of diction being used in workplace settings, schools, and marketing in which the speaker wants to portray an authoritative and knowledgeable image.

Formal diction can also suggest tension, or that the speaker isn’t very relaxed. “We expect heightened amounts of rainfall this evening” is an example of formal diction.

2. Informal diction

Informal diction is what we most commonly hear in our day-to-day lives, and how we tend to speak with close family and friends. Most contemporary novels and short stories are written this way, as well as a lot of free verse poetry. Sometimes, informal words will be used in marketing or professional settings when the speaker wants to appear more relatable. “I think it’s going to rain tonight” is an example of informal diction.

3. Colloquial diction

Colloquial diction is even more casual than informal diction, and generally not appropriate for most professional settings. Like dialect, it often reflects the nuances of a particular region. Certain contractions and word choices are indications of this type of writing style. “Y’all are gonna be washed out later” is an example of colloquial diction.

4. Slang diction

Slang diction is another informal speech pattern that uses idiomatic expressions and slang words to convey an idea. These are often tied to a particular time or group of people, and can be tricky to recognize by someone unfamiliar with that identity. Because slang changes all the time, it can quickly become dated, which is why it’s not an ideal choice for contemporary fiction. “It’s raining cats and dogs” is an example of slang diction.

5. Abstract diction

Abstract diction is used to express vague or undefinable ideas, such as emotional states. This type of language is very internal; to be effective, it relies on forging a connection with the reader who can draw on a similar feeling. “There’s something ominous about this rain” is an example of abstract diction.

6. Concrete diction

Concrete diction is the opposite of abstract diction; it expresses things exactly as they are using direct language, without an emotional lens. This type of diction is helpful when you’re explaining how to do something and want to get information across in an accessible, uncluttered way. “It will start raining tonight at 7pm” is an example of concrete diction.

7. Pedantic diction

Pedantic diction is related to the word “pedagogy,” which means “to teach.” This type of diction is used to help someone learn something new. “Did you know rain is actually highly condensed atmospheric water vapor? I bet you didn’t know you were sitting next to an environmental science major (sips craft lager). ” is an example of pedantic diction.

While the word “pedantic” tends to have a negative connotation in everyday life, it’s a useful voice to embody in convincing academic essays, as well as creating a certain type of character in fiction writing.

8. Poetic diction

Poetic diction uses sensory imagery and poetic devices like assonance, consonance, and rhythm to create a beautiful image and sound. While this is a mainstay of the poetry genre, an awareness of poetic devices and creating poetic diction can elevate writing of any kind. Marketing campaigns often use this writing style to make their pitches more memorable. “The rain fell like stars that had loosened themselves from the night sky” is an example of poetic diction.

We can choose different words or phrases depending on what image we’re trying to convey.

Examples of diction in literature

To see how these look in practice, let’s look at a few examples of different types of diction you’ll find in literary works.

Pedantic diction in “On Fairy Stories,” by J. R. R. Tolkien

The diminutive being, elf or fairy, is (I guess) in England largely a sophisticated product of literary fancy. It is perhaps not unnatural that in England, the land where the love of the delicate and fine has often reappeared in art, fancy should in this matter turn towards the dainty and diminutive, as in France it went to court and put on powder and diamonds. Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of “rationalization,” which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass.

Fairies might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of pedagogy, but Tolkien has some Opinions on the matter… or he did back in the 1930s, when he presented this essay as a lecture at St. Andrews University. By using the pedantic voice to talk about a fantastical subject, Tolkien gives an authenticity and reliability to his work.

Formal diction in “Christopher Raven,” by Theodora Goss

She looked very much like the schoolgirl she had been, with an untidy blouse and, I could see when she gave me an enthusiastic hug, an ink stain on one cheek. Only the length of her skirt and the bun of hair at the back of her head, which threatened to come down at any moment, marked her as, not a schoolgirl any longer, but one of the teachers. I had wondered how many of the girls I knew would be coming back for Old Girls’ Day, but I knew Tollie would be here. Unlike the rest of us, she had remained at Collingswood.

In this historical short story, Theodora Goss uses formal language and literary diction to imitate the voice of Victorian-era literature. The writer’s choices enhances the mood and setting, creating a sense of cultivated propriety… which makes the strange and sensual events of the story even more powerful.

Concrete diction in “Death of the Hat,” by Billy Collins

Hats were the law.
They went without saying.
ou noticed a man without a hat in a crowd.

You bought them from Adams or Dobbs
who branded your initials in gold
on the inside band.

Trolleys crisscrossed the city.
Steamships sailed in and out of the harbor.
Men with hats gathered on the docks.

One might associate the medium of poetry with sophisticated language and flowery, imaginative words. However, you can create an even bigger emotional response by using an unexpected choice of words. In this poem, Billy Collins uses concrete diction to state a series of facts in a neutral, objective voice: these are the facts, he’s saying, this is how things were. This objectivity helps give the poem’s themes (it’s secretly a eulogy to his father, as you’ll see if you read on) even more resonance.

The right diction can give your story more impact

Diction refers to the way we can carefully choose words to fit each unique situation we find ourselves communicating in—whether it’s a thrilling novel, business documents, or everyday speech. By using the right descriptive language in the right scene or situation, you can reveal new facets of your story and engage your readers on an even deeper level.