Diction is concerned with the writer’s word choices and how they use phrases in their writing.
There are several different types of diction. They all have different effects and are selected for different genres, scenarios, and for the intended audience of a particular piece of poetry. For example, a children’s poem is going to use a different type of diction from a poem meant for adult readers, a non-fiction novel, or a research paper.
The first type of diction is that which readers are likely most familiar with—colloquial. It is conversational in nature and can be seen through the use of informal words that represent a specific place or time.
A writer chooses to use colloquial diction if they are interested in making a very realistic character or setting. These words might also represent a particular culture, state of mind, or concept of how to live in the world.
Colloquial diction, especially when it comes to characters a poet has created, provides the reader with an opportunity to study the influence these decisions have on them and on other readers. For example, how does one person speaking colloquially match up against another who speaks more abstractly? This is commonly seen within Shakespeare’s plays. For example, the poet would use more complex/formal diction when writing dialogue for a member of the upper classes and more colloquial/informal diction when writing for someone of lesser means.
Sometimes colloquial diction makes itself known through phrases or aphorisms. Such as “put your money where your mouth is” or “pass the buck.” A reader might be able to tell something about the speaker because of the precise terminology they use. For example, saying “toque,” and originating from Canada, or “beanie,” and being from the United States.
Consider these lines from ‘The Class Game’ by Mary Casey as an example of colloquial diction:
How can you tell what class I’m from?
I can talk posh like some
With an ‘Olly in me mouth
Down me nose, wear an ‘at not a scarf
With me second-hand clothes.
The poet is interested in emphasizing how speech patterns and word choice can tell a reader a lot about whom a person is and where they’re from. But, it can’t tell you everything. She uses words like “’Olly” and “‘an” to emphasize her speaker’s dialect.
Formal diction is used when the setting is sophisticated. This could be anything from a speech to a paper submitted to a journal.
Often, the vocabulary used in a poem with formal diction is complicated with elevated words and phrases. The speaker may be trying to sound smart.
This form of writing, especially in poetry, was much more popular in the past than it is today. As a result, contemporary poetry is usually far more informal in nature.
Consider these lines from ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’ by Anne Bradstreet as an example of formal diction:
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.
There are many ways to express the sentiments Bradstreet shares in this poem. But, she chose to do so using what contemporary readers are certainly going to consider formal. Often, writers from centuries past use lofty, over-the-top language and that which engages with unusual words. This is one of the reasons why writers such as Keats, Donne, and Shakespeare often present problems for contemporary readers.
Abstract diction occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral or ungraspable. It is generally used to describe things that can be perceived with the senses or emotions. Abstract diction might be employed to speak on an idea, such as freedom. Or on what a memory feels like, joyous or solemn.
Often, abstract diction is the kind of language most commonly associate with poetic writing. It can sound lofty, unreachable, and sometimes hard to understand. In some cases, this is done intentionally. In others, this is simply because the poet is reaching for something that is not easily described with words.
Consider these lines from ‘The Freedom of the Moon’ by Robert Frost as an example:
put it shining anywhere I please.
By walking slowly on some evening later,
I’ve pulled it from a crate of crooked trees,
And brought it over glossy water, greater,
And dropped it in, and seen the image wallow,
The color run, all sorts of wonder follow.
In these lines, Frost writes about human freedom by describing the speaker’s ability to pick up the moon, walk with it, and place it where he likes. The poem is deeply metaphorical and hyperbolic. It is meant to evoke something of what it means to be human. Frost is interested in getting to the root of human nature, choice, and idealism. As a whole, what it means to be human and how that can be represented in poetry. Abstract diction is one of the ways someone might do this.
Slang diction contains words that are specific to a region and time and have been recently coined. These are words used today and spoken out loud by friends or close associates.
Today, these words might include “dope,” “cancel,” and “lit.” Seeing them in a poem would tell you exactly when that speaker is from. It also helps readers understand the cultural influences that the speaker may have experienced. This can be incredibly beneficial when trying to interpret what a poet is saying.
Slang in any kind of literature is a clear marker of whom the speaker is, where they’re from, more than likely their age, and the group of people they associate with. In the contemporary world, slang is so widespread and so different where it pops up that a close and careful reader can pin down exactly where someone is from if they dedicate enough time to the task.
Consider these lines from ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks:
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
In these lines, Brooks makes use of slang. It places the poem into the time period in which it was written. There are several interpretations for what these words mean but, Brooks promoted one interesting interpretation.
The month of June was, for her, a symbol for the system that players were meant to conform to. Their “jazz[ing]” of it would be their ignoring of its power. Whatever the truth, or multiple truths, behind this phrase, it is a clear use of slang diction within a poem that benefits so much from the informality of the language and syntax.