Glossary Home Diction

Formal Diction

Formal diction is used when the setting is sophisticated. This could be anything from a speech, to a paper submitted to a journal.

Formal diction is somewhat self-explanatory as the word “formal” is in the title. The speaker is usually striving to sound smart. Often, the vocabulary used in a poem with formal diction is complicated with elevated words and phrases.

This form of writing, especially in poetry, was much more popular in the past than it is today. The Modernist movement pushed back against the stodgy, formality of this kind of writing. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t beautiful, emotional examples to consider.

Examples of Formal Diction in Literature

Example #1: To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet

For an example of how formal diction works in poetry, we can look at ‘My Dear and Loving Husbandby Anne Bradstreet. Take a look at these lines as an example:

If ever two were one, then surely we.

ever man were loved by wife, then thee.

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

Within this piece, specifically within his excerpt, the speaker is addressing her husband and their relationship cooly and calmly. Despite the importance of what she’s discussing she appeals to his rational side. She uses words like “surely” and phrases like “If ever”. This helps her get her point across clearly and sophisticatedly. Ideally, the intended listener hears these words and is influenced in a specific way.

Example #2: Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

Another example that benefits from the use of formal diction is Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats. This is one of his best-known odes, and was written at the same time as other odes such as Ode to a Nightingale‘. Here is the first stanza from the poem for you to consider:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape

       Of deities or mortals, or of both,

               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

       What men or gods are these? maidens loth?

What mad pursuit?  struggle to escape?

               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Often, one of the most difficult aspects of poetry is language, particularly that which is lofty, over the top, and that which engages with unusual words. This is one of the reasons why writers such as Keats often present problems for contemporary readers. In this excerpt, there are contractions of words, like “leaf-fring’d” which feel intimidating, obscure references such as “dales of Arcady,” and lesser-used words like “sylvan” and “timbrels”. While there are certain differences between the ways that we speak today and the writers of the past spoke in the 18th and 19th centuries, Keats was purposefully elevating his language in this work.
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