Before you begin building a house, it’s important that you understand all the tools and how they work.
Literary techniques are the 'tools' of analysis.
What I just told you is a metaphor for literary analysis.
Before you can try to construct a beautiful paragraph of analysis, it’s absolutely essential that you understand literary & visual techniques: how they work, and how to analyse them properly.
In this lesson, we will learn the most important ‘tool’: diction.
Diction is the simplest literary technique, but it doesn't mean it's easy to master.
Pay close attention!
Diction means "word choice": the specific words that a writer deliberately chooses to use in a piece of writing.
In an analytical essay like Paper 1, we might use "diction" in a sentence like this:
- "The writer's use of emotional diction in line 5 illustrates..."; or,
- "The religious diction such as 'communion' and 'confession' suggests..."
The problem is that every word on a page technically counts as diction. We obviously can't analyse all of them.
The 2 rules of diction
- Never analyse boring words.
- Always analyse interesting words.
So how can you tell if a word is interesting and therefore worthy of analysis?
Every word has a denotation (i.e., a boring, literal meaning found in the dictionary) and connotations.
A word is interesting if it has interesting connotations. In analysis, we tend to care less about the denotative meaning of word because it's not interesting.
Take the word "gold" as an example.
Denotation: "a yellow precious metal, the chemical element of atomic number 79"
Yawn. The word “gold” obviously means a lot more to us than just its boring denotation.
The word “gold” instantly makes us think of:
- big fat Rolexes
These ideas, feelings, and impressions that we naturally associate with certain words are called connotations. They are distinct from denotations: Denotation is what the thing literally means; connotation is what we think and feel about that thing. Big difference.
Since analysis is about deeper layers of meaning, we care much more about connotations when we analyse diction.
So how do we use "connotations" in a sentence?
We often use it as a verb. "Connote" is the verb form and means something similar to "imply". Students often use "connotates" - but this is not a real word!
Here's how to properly use the words "connotation" and "connote" in a sentence:
- "The connotations of neglect portray the squalid conditions of the town"
- "'Gold' connotes luxury and wealth"
Let’s take a look at the diction in this sentence:
“The town was an infested den of thieves and smugglers.”
My question to you is: Which words have interesting connotations?
The word “infested” is interesting. When I read/hear the word “infested”, I immediately think...
I think of a gross mental image of disgusting cockroaches and rats crawling around in some old basement or sewer. To me, the diction of “infested” connotes neglect, and the writer probably chose this word precisely because it makes the town seem dirty, rundown and disgusting.
“Infested” also connotes a sense of corruption; in this case, it’s not so much the biological disease, which is the literal meaning, but instead the moral corruption of these thieves and smugglers who work in morally-questionable professions.
There’s also another really interesting layer of meaning. We usually associate the diction of “infested” with animals and insects, as opposed to humans. So the writer uses animalistic diction to dehumanise these criminals to the level of animals, making us view them with contempt (remember this word from the tone list?).
By thinking about the connotations, we got some great analysis about amorality, disgust and dehumanisation.
When you use the word “diction”, try to precede it with an adjective. For example, avoid writing
“The diction in ‘infested’…”
“The animalistic diction in ‘infested’…”
The reason is because ‘diction’ itself is meaningless unless we specify a particular type of word choice. In some cases, the diction is neutral and that is when you have no choice but to just write “diction”.
The same rule applies to tone, atmosphere and mood. Add a preceding adjective. There’s no meaning behind tone unless it’s a specific tone. The same goes for atmosphere and mood.
If you get tired of writing "diction" all the time, you can vary your diction by replacing it with “language”. For example, you can write “emotional diction" or “emotional language”, “formal diction” or “formal language”. They mean the same thing.
A Word of Warning
Students often analyze diction way too much.
Ideally, we want to choose a variety of literary techniques. A broad range.
To get high marks in analysis, you want to show off your skills.
By ALWAYS analyzing diction, you are repeatedly showing the examiner that all you know is diction. Not a good idea!
Action: Stop analyzing diction so much! And if you do analyze it, ONLY choose the best--most interesting--diction.