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Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson introduces diction.

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Diction is considered the writer or author’s choice in words and word order; it is the way in which the author draws on specific sets of vocabulary to create phrases, clauses, and sentences.

What does diction include? Diction includes

  • the individual word choices used in a piece of writing (the vocabulary)
  • the order of words in phrases
  • the use of phrases and clauses to build sentences


Let’s think about the big picture for a minute… Ever notice how novels written in the 1800s sound different than those written just last year? They usually sound different because of the words they use, or the order of the words/phrases in a sentence. Words and speech patterns change and evolve over time. What was once considered new, interesting, and popular can eventually become boring, tired, and dull. We as readers notice the difference between the two periods in writing because of diction: the author’s choice in words and word order.

There are books published recently that sound like they would blend right in with novels from the 1800s, and that is something the author does on purpose!

  • Sometimes the book is set in the 1800s and the writer wants to present it in the language of the time
  • Sometimes a writer is trying to capture the style of a genre that is closely associated with that time (like the Victorian or Gothic literature of the 1800s)
    • In both instances, the author uses word choice and word order to manipulate his or her writing style.

Almost all writers rely on diction as the foundation of their style.


Let’s think about the smaller picture for a minute…

A writer can manipulate diction to change the tone of his or her writing.

Tone is most noticeable in word choice: a happy tone will use bright lights and colors, openness, etc.; a somber or sad/serious tone will use darkness, shadow, etc.

Tone is also the attitude of the speaker towards the subject, so the writer might choose words that express emotion or attitude (positivity, negativity, anger, resentment, admiration, respect, adoration).

Let's look at an example! 

In the opening paragraph of the short story “The Duchess and the Jeweler” by Virginia Woolf, the tone is proud and entitled. The words create a luxurious scene around the main character that mimics or emphasizes Oliver’s profession and social status.

Oliver lived at the top of a house overlooking the Green Park. He had a flat; chairs jutted out at right angles—chairs covered in hide. Sofas filled the bays of the windows—sofas covered in tapestry. The windows, the three long windows, had the proper allowance of discreet net and figured satin. The mahogany sideboard bulged discreetly with the right brandies, whiskeys, and liqueurs. And from the middle window he looked down upon the glossy roofs of fashionable cars packed in the narrow straits of Piccadilly. A more Central position could not be imagined.

Look at those descriptions! Everything is covered with something else (the chairs are covered in animal hide; the sofa is covered in intricate and expensive fabric; the windows have satin netting). Everything is full: the room is filled with chairs, windows, sofas; the sideboard is bulging; the street is packed. There is a tone of excess and luxury. But there is also a prideful tone: Oliver is at the top, looking down on even the fashionable people; he is at the center of it all (with a capitol “c”).  

In the very next paragraph, the writer changes tone:

“Behold Oliver,” he would say, addressing himself. “You who began life in a filthy little alley, you who…” and then he would look down at his clothes cut from the best cloth by the best scissors in Savile Row. But he dismantled himself often and became again a little boy in a dark alley. He had once thought that the height of his ambition—selling stolen dogs to fashionable women in Whitechapel…

Rather than a big room full of stuff, Oliver remembers how he spent his childhood in an alley, which he remembers as dark, little, and full of tricks and thieves. He came from the worst and now has the best of everything, but there is still a darkness that he carries inside himself. In the first paragraph he was looking down on the narrow streets. In the second paragraph, he isn’t even on the narrow street; he’s in a dark back alley. The change in tone is created through the words that Woolf chooses to use in her descriptions.


Although an author will use diction to change the tone of the text, or even the mood (the overall emotional atmosphere of a text), the author will usually maintain a consistent level of vocabulary, and word order throughout the work as a whole. The reason for this consistency is two-fold:

  • Consistency in word choice and word order creates unity in the work. It allows the reader to get used to the author’s style, so that they can eventually focus on the content, on what the writer is saying (instead of how he or she is saying it). This is the sense of “flow” that readers often notice.
  • Diction is a large part of a writer’s style. Whether it is natural or intentional, writers tend to draw on the same sets of words, types of word order, and patterns of speech.