Language and voice
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.
Diction in action looks like this:
- "The writer's use of emotional diction in line 5 illustrates..."
- "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 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.
Let’s take a look at the diction in this sentence:
“The town was an infested den of thieves and smugglers.”
What 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 disgust, and the writer probably chose this word precisely because it makes the town seem dirty 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.
High modality: “I must have an ice cream, or else!”
Low modality: “You know, I could have an ice cream, but …”
Modality is a measure of certainty, and it’s expressed through words like these.
High modality words
Low modality words
High modality creates an authoritative and certain tone, which makes the person seem superior and decisive.
Low modality creates an uncertain tone, which makes the person seem inferior.
When do we normally analyse modality?
- In relation to the narrator or speaker.
- In relation to a character.
We often analyse modality in the dialogue between characters, but also in the inner thoughts (fancy term: internal monologue) of characters. Apart from demonstrating inferiority, a low modality is also used to show internal conflict, when the character can’t decide between different choices.
For example in Act 1 Scene 7 of Macbeth, well, Macbeth--yes, the dude's name is the same as the play's title--is standing around wondering if he will kill King Duncan to snatch the crown. Lo and behold, Shakespeare uses low modality to construct his internal conflict:
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
What’s the most important thing to remember about modality?
- After explaining the modality, always mention the tone that is constructed by the high or low modality.
“Eat the ice cream now!”
“But I can’t…”
Imperative language is an authoritative command. It’s very closely related to high modality. In many cases you will see the combined use of high modality and imperative language in the same quote--especially when a character is being very bossy.
Narrative and poetic voice
The voice of story or poem can be first person, second person or third person. The voice can also shift back-and-forth between the three voices throughout a single text.
First person voice sounds like diary writing. The narrator or speaker refers to himself/herself using first person pronouns “I”, “us”, and “we”. It’s important to notice when the writer uses “us” or “we”, because they are called inclusive language. Inclusive language has two distinct effects on the reader:
- To create a closer relationship between the reader and the narrator or speaker.
- Inclusive language brings the reader into the immediate situation and emotions operating within the scene. For example, first person voice works really well with imagery to create a vivid impression of a physical scene.
Second person voice is used when the narrator or speaker directly addresses you, the reader/audience, through the second person pronoun “you.” This technique is also called “direct address”.
Almost always, second person voice creates a confronting and accusatory tone, because it singles out the reader and points a finger at them, making them feel like they did something wrong. Common effects on the reader include feelings of guilt and discomfort. We see the use of direct address as an accusatory expression in the poem Departure later in the course.
Third person voice is…
Third person voice the ‘normal’ voice that writers use for their omniscient, god-like narrator who can casually jump into any character’s mind at any time because, you know, that is realistic. However, there is an exception, and this concepts belongs to all types of voices, not just third person voice. So that calls for a new section.
When the voice changes
Voice gets really interesting when writer suddenly transitions between first and third person. It usually goes like this:
- The text starts off with one type of voice such as first person. The use of “us” and “we” includes the reader and makes them feel a sense of belonging.
- Then the writer sprinkles in “they” here and there--exclusive language. The third person pronoun “they” often refers to other characters who might be enemies or belong to different social groups. We see this in use in Obama's speech on the Oregon school shootings, which we analyse in the course (to be included).
- The ultimate result of transitioning from first to third person voice is to create an ‘us versus them’ mentality, thus building themes such as conflict and disagreement.
When a writer alludes to something, the writer makes a passing reference to a historical event, a work of literature, a religion, or a cultural tradition. Basically, an allusion is a bit of information that:
- is external to the current text, and
- contains rich meaning to those who are familiar with the reference.
Why do writers use allusion?
Writers use allusion because it adds deeper layers of meaning that otherwise couldn’t be easily achieved.
Let’s look at an example: One day, two friends named James and Sarah go ice skating. In a horrific turn of events, the friends fall on the ice--hard--and James accidentally scars Sarah’s face with his sharp, metal skates.
In order to lucidly express James’ fear and guilt as a result of his scarring Sarah, we could write:
“I was afraid to look upon her face for fear of the horrific scar coming to life and lashing out at me with its dark vengeance.”
That’s pretty good, but we can do much better. In fact, we can allude to Greek mythology to make James’ dread that much more extreme:
“I was afraid to look upon her face for fear of staring into the eyes of Medusa herself and turning into a stony slab of guilt.”
Medusa is a monster in Greek mythology. She has a hideous face and turns anyone who looks at her into stone. She is very scary. The first example uses imagery, personification and diction to convey James' fear. The second example only uses allusion to create a similar, or an even stronger, effect. Whether the allusion is more effective is a subjective position, but in my opinion, the phrase “staring into the eyes of Medusa herself” is extremely powerful. We can feel the fiery rage of Medusa--I mean Sarah--blasting into our faces like the heat of a 400-degree oven.
The allusion plants richer connotations and meaning into the story because it’s taking all the notions and associations that we have about Medusa, which has grown over thousands of years since the birth of Greek civilisation, and then we’re just injecting all of that history and all of that culture into our description of James’ fear.
Allusion is like…a Google Chrome extension that you can just download to add rich features to your internet browser. Or it’s like baking a cake with a cake mix that’s already been made. You can just drop in the pre-made meaning to add depth to your text.
The point is: Allusion takes advantage of the reader’s pre-existing knowledge about other areas of life in order to add extra meaning to the current piece of writing.
Interesting stuff: The Waste Land
The most iconic use of allusion in modern literature is T. S. Eliot’s notoriously difficult (and pretentious) poem, The Waste Land. Academics love The Waste Land. The poem is layered in so much allusion. Think about the Empire State Building. It’s a big building. Picture it in your mind. The Waste Land is the Empire State Building of Allusion. The notes explaining the allusions are longer than the poem itself.
- Allusions to the Bible, check.
- To Greek mythology, check.
- To literature and history, check.
So how do we analyse allusion?
- First, explain the meaning, connotations, ideas and feelings associated with the alluded concept, event, person or culture.
- Next, relate these meanings and associations to the current situation in the text.
In the ice skating example, we would analyse the use of allusion by saying that the allusion amplifies the fearful tone of the narrator. The allusion also highlights the apprehension and guilt of the narrator, to the point that he physically, and psychologically, becomes a stone that cannot move as a result of shock, shame and fear of his consequences.