Diction is the choice and use of words. The English language has a very large vocabulary: as many as 400,000 words are collected in the Oxford English Dictionary. Of course no one knows or need to use so many words. Only a small part of them are used by ordinary people for ordinary purposes. A student learning to write should learn to sue the words that are most useful and most often used to express himself.
I Levels of Words • The words that are often used may be divided, from a stylistic point of view , into three types: formal, common, and collopuial.
Formal words may also be called learned words, or literary words, or “big” words. They mainly appear in formal writing, such as scholarly or theoretical works, political and legal documents, and formal lectures and addresses. Many such words contain three or more than 3 syllables; most of them are of Greek or Latin origin. They are seldom used in daily conversation, except for special purposes. Here is a paragraph from a scholarly paper book page 10. Long sentences and formal words are appropriate here because the paper, which discuses a rather complex question, needs them to be theoretically clear and exact.
Most of the words in the paragraph, however, are those that people use every day, and appear in all kinds of writing. Because of this, they are called common words. In this paragraph, except one or two words that are very colloquial, like kid, and one or two that are a little formal, like formal, like transactions and dubious(可疑的), all the words are commonly used words. The sentences are much shorter and simpler than those in the preceding paragraph, as it describes the thoughts of a child.
There are words which are mainly used in informal or familiar conversation. They seldom appear in formal writing, and in literary words their main use is to record people’s thoughts and dialogues. They are usually short words of one or two syllables and most of them are of Saxon origin (i.e., not borrowed from Greek, Latin, or French). We may call them colloquial words, such as guts(meaning courage),guy(man), and hassle(bother).
These are all words of standard English and used by all educated speakers of the language. There are words which are used only by special groups of people for special effect. Among these are slang words, dialectal words and certain words that are often used by uneducated speakers.
Slang words: highly informal; vivid and interesting ,but if used inappropriately, they make the writer or speaker sound offensive or funny: • On hearing that his father hadkicked the bucket, we wrote him a letter to express our sympathies.(sound not sympathetic) • The big banquet held in honour of the distinguished guests was really neat.(tone)
Dialect: omits certain sounds and pronounces-ing like –in and care like keer. ain’t for isn’t, I’s for I’m, and nohow for anyhow.A little shaver means a little boy.
Such nonstandard words and expressions are often seen in stories describing poorly educated people. Foreign students of English need to understand them, but should not try to use them in speech or writing.
II The Meaning of Words1.Denotative and Connotative • A word’s denotation is what it literally means, as defined by the dictionary; its connotation is the feeling or idea suggested by it. Country nation state land
For instance, country, nation , state and land have more or less the same denotation and may all be translated into guojia in Chinese, but their connotations are quite different. Country refers to an area of land and its population and government, nation emphasizes the people of a country, state refers to the government or political organization of a country , and land is less precise but more literary and emotive than country.(written language)
An island country; neighbouring( countries) • In area China is the third largest (country )in the world. • Chinese people is a peace-loving (nation); the awakening (nations) of Africa • The modernization programme has won the support of the whole (nation). • (State) organs;( state)-owned enterprises • China is my native (land ).
2. Different Meanings for Synonyms • These four words may be said to be synonyms. English is particularly rich in synonyms as a result of incorporation words from other languages over the centuries. But we must remember that it is difficult to find two words that are exactly the same in meaning and use. They may be different in stylistic level, in the degree of emphasis, in emotional coloring, in tone, and in collocation. For example,
1) ask question interrogate ; time age epoch ; rise mount ascend • In each of group the first word is from Anglo-Saxon and the second and third from French or Latin. The first one is clearly more informal or colloquial than the other two.(stylistic)
2) Big & Large are both commonly used words, but large is slightly more formal and may be used to describe things that are unusually big, so it is more emphatic than big. Huge, which is more literary than these two words, means extremely large, and is more emphatic than large. • A big / large city; a big / large house • Wuhan is a very large city in Central China. • The team has got a huge man over two metres tall.
3) Small and little are often interchangeable, but there is some difference in emotional coloring between them. Small is objective, while little may imply a feeling of fondness: • They lived in a small town. • I can never forget the little town where I spent my happy childhood.
4) Modest and humble both indicate a lack of pride, but modesty is a virtue and humbleness is not. Humble often connotes undue self-depreciation. So they are different in tone: one is laudatory and the other is derogatory. • Modest and hardworking, he made very quick progress at school. • Clearly Gompers was overawed by Wilson. His face took on a servile look; his voice was humble.
5) Some synonyms have different collocations: they are habitually used with certain words. Large, not big, for instance, is used to modify nouns like amount, number and quantity(a large amount of money, a large number of people, a large quantity of beer, etc.) Similarly, with nouns denoting personal qualities, such as courage, confidence, ability, and wisdom, not big or large, but great, is commonly used. Another example, insist and persist have the same denotation, but each of them has their own collocation: insist on ; persist in • All this shows that to discriminate between synonyms is important to a student learning to write. When in difficulty, he should use a good dictionary with notes on usage or synonyms.
3. Chinese Equivalent of English Words • There’s one thing about the meaning of words that Chinese students should be on guard against: taking the Chinese equivalent of an English word as its exact meaning, or understanding the meaning of an English word from its Chinese equivalent. It is true that the Chinese equivalents of many English words express their true meanings, but very often an English word has no exact Chinese equivalent and it has to be translated in different ways in different contexts.
1) For example, some students think send means song in Chinese may make sentences like:“He came to send me the letter”( He brought me the letter); or “ I sent my friend to the station yesterday”(I went to the station with my friend to see him off). In fact, to send means to cause to go or be taken to a place without going oneself. If you sent something to a place, you asked someone else to take it there; you did not go there yourself. To understand the meaning of an English word one had better find out how it is defined in English in a dictionary with English explanations. Chinese translations are not always reliable, and sometimes they are misleading.
2) English words that may be translated into the same Chinese expression are not necessarily synonymous. Family and home, for instance, may both be translated as jia, but they are not synonyms. Family refers to the people related to one, while home to the place where one lives.
3) Except and besides are sometimes translated in the same way (chule), but they are opposite in meaning: except means leaving out or not including, and besides means in addition to or as well as. • Apart from the cost, it will take a lot of time.(=besides)The orphan had no one to take care of him apart from his uncle.(=except)He has done good work, apart from a few slight faults.(=except for)There can be no knowledge apart from practice.实践出真知．（＝without）
III General and Specific Words • Whereas general words name classes and groups of things (tree, music, toy), specific words point to a member of a class or group (birch tree, sonata, marionette). Both types of words are appropriate in their respective contexts, but on the whole rely upon specific words, since they express meaning more vividly and more precisely than general ones. Nouns, such as "thing," "area," "aspect," "factor," and "individual" are especially imprecise.
General: Working at the grocery store offers an employee many things. Specific: Working at the grocery store offers an employee many benefits. General: The family ate some good food last night. Specific: The Smith clan devoured a five-course meal, consisting of a shrimp appetizer in a wine sauce, marinated rolled rib roast, honey glazed carrots and fried eggplant, a Waldorf salad, and peaches flambé.
"The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." —Mark Twain • Writing teachers often tell their students to "show--don't tell." To make your writing effective, "show" something to readers that they can imaginatively experience; don't just "tell" readers an abstract idea. Notice, for example, the two sentences below, both conveying the same basic idea. (The second sentence is from Craig B. Stanford's "Gorilla Warfare," published in the July/August 1999 issue of The Sciences.)
Abstract "Telling"Even a large male gorilla, unaccustomed to tourists, is frightened by people. • Concrete "Showing""A four-hundred-pound male [gorilla], unaccustomed to tourists, will bolt into the forest, trailing a stream of diarrhea, at the mere sight of a person."
The second sentence is memorable and brings the experience to life, whereas the first sentence is rather dull, telling readers that a large gorilla is frightened but not showing readers a frightened gorilla. The second sentence gives readers a vivid and specific "picture" of a frightened gorilla. Notice that the writer of the first sentence cannot be sure of what readers will imaginatively "see," but the writer of the second sentence can be assured that all readers will "see" the same frightened gorilla. Notice as well that the writer of the second sentence does not even need to tell readers that the gorilla is frightened; the specific and concrete description of the gorilla's behavior "shows" readers how frightened the gorilla is.
This web page offers suggestions to help you use concrete and specific diction in your writing, the kind of diction that can make your writing vivid and engaging. • 1) Abstract and Concrete Diction • Abstract DictionAbstract diction refers to words that do not appeal imaginatively to the reader's senses. Abstract words create no "mental picture" or any other imagined sensations for readers.
Abstract words include . . . • Love, Hate, Feelings, Emotions, Temptation, Peace, Seclusion, Alienation, Politics, Rights, Freedom, Intelligence, Attitudes, Progress, Guilt, etc.
Try to create a mental picture of "love." Do you picture a couple holding hands, a child hugging a mother, roses and valentines? These are not "love." Instead, they are concrete objects you associate with love. Because it is an abstraction, the word "love" itself does not imaginatively appeal to the reader's senses.
Some abstract diction will probably be inevitable in your papers, but you need to give readers something that they can imaginatively see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. If you remain on an abstract level, your readers will most likely lose interest in what you are saying, if your readers can even figure out what exactly you are talking about.
For example . . . "Ralph and Jane have experienced difficulties in their lives, and both have developed bad attitudes because of these difficulties. They have now set goals to surmount these problems, although the unfortunate consequences of their experiences are still apparent in many everyday situations." • What is this writer trying to say? It's hard to tell. The diction is so abstract that it is likely to mean something different to each reader. Writing that is overly abstract and general is also not pleasant to read. I remember well, too well, a student whose writing would remain on this level from the beginning to the end of each essay. Reading her essays became quite a chore. The world of ideas and abstractions has its place, but readers need something they can hold on to in essays.
Concrete Diction • Concrete diction refers to words that stimulate some kind of sensory response in the reader: as we read the words, we can imaginatively use our senses to experience what the words represent. • Concrete words include . . .Dog, Cat, Computer, Classroom, Tree, Candy Bar, Car, Chair, Department Store, Radio, Pencil, Hat, Clock, Rain, Ice Cube, Beer, etc. • Now, try to picture a dog. Because "dog" is a concrete word, you are able to form a mental picture of it. Because concrete diction imaginatively appeals to the senses, it tends to involve readers more than abstract diction does.
2) General and Specific Diction • General DictionWhat do you imaginatively "see" when you read the following sentence: "The dog jumped on top of the car"? • The concrete diction should stimulate some "mental picture," but what exactly do you "see"? You should imagine a dog jumping on top of a car, but what kind of dog? And what kind of car do you imagine? Most likely, you see your dog jumping on top of your car, but is this what the writer intended you to "see"? Probably not. The sentence uses concrete diction, thus allowing you to create a mental picture, but that diction is general and not specific.
Specific DictionNow, what do you imaginatively "see" what you read this sentence: "The Saint Bernard jumped on top of the red corvette"? • The concrete and specific diction in this sentence ensures that you are "seeing" exactly what the writer wants you to see. In general, specific and concrete diction is a characteristic of strong writing, whereas general and abstract diction is a characteristic of weak writing.
3) Be Specific! • The diction in a paper could be more concrete and/or more specific. Specific diction will help ensure that the meaning you intend is exactly the meaning that readers receive. • Consider the following sentence: "Mary walked into the restaurant." The diction in this sentence may at first seem specific, but it is not. Aren't there different ways to "walk"? And what restaurant did Mary enter? Because the sentences below use more specific diction, they answer both of these questions.
Mary staggered into Denny's.Mary paraded into Red Lobster.Mary shuffled into McDonald's.Mary sashayed into Oogies.Mary strutted into The Red Door.Mary limped into Burger King Mary waddled into Oink's Gourmet Bar-B-Que.Mary sauntered into Subway.Mary crept into Monari's 101.Mary marched into Kentucky Fried Chicken.Mary tiptoed into Pizza Hut.Mary strolled into Hardee's.Mary slinked into Uptown Bar & Grill.Mary swaggered into Verucchi's Ristorante.Mary trudged into Wendy's.Mary pranced into Taco Bell.
Notice that the more specific diction not only makes the sentences more vivid, but the diction conveys meaning not suggested in the simple "Mary walked into the restaurant." After all, "Mary staggering into Denny's" is certainly much different than "Mary parading into Red Lobster." In the first example, Mary might have had one too many drinks, and it's probably about, what, 3:00 a.m.? In the second example, Mary obviously is feeling good about herself because she is going to be spending her money on a nice meal.
4) Use the Right Words, not the Almost-Right Words! • Some composition and writing experts argue that writers should write with verbs and nouns, avoiding the use of adverbs and adjectives (those words that "modify," or change, verbs and nouns). If you use the right verbs and nouns, there should be no need to modify them into something else.
For instance, consider the following sentence: "Mary walked proudly and confidently down the hallway." The word "walked" is not quite the right word here, so the writer is trying to make it into the right word by adding "proudly and confidently," but don't we have a word that means "to walk proudly and confidently"? How about "Mary strutted down the hallway"? When the right word is used, the adverbs become useless. Notice that none of the sentences in the list above uses adverbs or adjectives, just specific verbs and specific nouns.
Finally, "very" is a word to avoid. When you use the word "very," you are most likely doing what is described above: trying to change the wrong word into the right one. Why not get rid of "very" and use the right word instead?
For example, "I was very happy" could become "I was overjoyed," and "I was very scared" could become "I was terrified." When you choose the right word, "very" often sounds strange in front of it. For example, you probably would not say, "I was very overjoyed" or "I was very terrified," right? If you have chosen the right word, there is no need to try to turn it into something else with the word "very."