As an editor, one of the most common problems I see in prose is anomalous or ill-fitting diction. Before I go onto why diction is so important, particularly in the English language, it’s worth outlining what diction is, as it is often confused with grammar.
Diction has nothing to do with grammar or syntax. Grammar refers to the specific rules of language that make sentences comprehensible. Syntax refers to the organisation of those words within a sentence. There is a great article over at Let’s Get Published that tackles this subject in more depth. The subject of today’s article, however, is diction, which is about specific word choices. For example, is the word “wife” or “spouse” better to use in a given context? Technically, they mean the same thing (although one has an associated gender). Either word could “do the job” in the sentence, but which is better? That is the true question of diction, and while this may seem inconsequential, as we shall see, it is far from it. Whereas the rules of grammar are largely fixed, and syntax is flexible, there are no rules for diction other than “what is good”. This makes it both hugely problematic and hugely important to address in our fiction.
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand why the question of diction is especially important and relevant for those writing in the English language. Don’t get me wrong, diction is important for every writer, no matter what language they’re writing in. However, in English, we have to give it extra consideration and thought. This is because English has more root-languages than any other in the world. English is influenced by: Greek, Latin, Egyptian (yes! the word “hex” is of Egyptian etymology), German, Anglo Saxon (or “Old English”), French, the list goes on and on. In addition, it is the fastest growing language because it can absorb words into its pantheon easily. To illustrate what I mean by this, consider the word “tsunami”. This is a Japanese word, (formed by the hiragana つなみ) yet it has been so thoroughly integrated, few people even realise that this word has been pilfered. By contrast, it is exceptionally difficult for non-Japanese words to be integrated into Japanese. To do so, they have a secondary alphabet (katakana) which allows them to sound out foreign words. However, due to the fact that Japanese does not possess the same range of sounds we do in the Western world (they do not have “L” for example), this leads to awkward approximations. For example, the English word “coffee” is written コーヒー, which reads more like “Kohi” (they do not have the FEE sound).
I should make it clear that I am not suggesting English is superior in any way. Every language has unique properties, strengths, and weaknesses. I adore the Japanese language and find it to be achingly beautiful; what it lacks in flexibility it makes up for in specificity. In Japanese, it is far easier to distinguish between ambiguities because of how pin-point accurate their lexicon is, and I’ve often thought that this is why writers like Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, and Kobo Abe are able to create such razor-sharp, precise prose. However, the purpose of today’s article is to explore diction in English, so I won’t digress!
As a result of these two factors: the multifaceted origins of English, and its ability to adopt new words with striking ease, the English speaker is confronted with an abundance of synonyms (words with the same or similar meaning) – each one deriving from a different root. Unlike many other languages, we are constantly presented with choices as we write. The wrong choice can dampen and weaken our prose. The right one can elevate it.
But how do we know what is “right” and what is “wrong”?
The answer to this, of course, is that it depends on what we’re writing for a start. However, there are some overriding principles that I think can help.
1) Consider what’s more emotive
Most writers (and particularly horror writers) resort to Latinate words all too frequently in their prose. Words of Latin derivation tend (but not always) to have either a scientific or abstract quality about them, or else a more “formal” and rigid one. Anglo Saxon or Germanic-origin words tend to be more emotive. The earlier example of wife (from the Old English wif) versus spouse (from the Latin sponsa) is revealing. If your Romance novel character were to shout “My wife!” (or “My husband!” for that matter), that would be fairly dramatic. But “My spouse!” does not quite have the same effect. This is obvious, once we see it in such bold terms, but sometimes when one is writing it’s easy to miss these subtleties or to rationalise a “fancier” word over a plainer one.
A more subtle example can be found in the difference between an eldritch horror being “incomprehensible” versus “unknowable”.
Both words seem valid, but we shall soon see one is far superior if we’re trying to evoke fear. The word “know” derives from the Old English cnāwan, and as a result it creates a more intimate and therefore – in my mind – scarier effect upon the reader. If something is unknowable, it is mysterious, unknown, frightening; there’s a simple, almost primitive, quality to the word. Whereas the word “incomprehensible” derives from French and Latin sources (comprehender). It sounds like a diagnosis, and it’s similar to the word “illegible” which we use to describe someone with poor hand-writing. In fact, it sounds like we simply cannot understand the creature on a linguistic basis, which creates an almost comic effect of imagining someone making all the hand-signs of a lost tourist. This is opposed to something we cannot “know”. To “know” is beyond mere intellectual processing, it’s in the heart, the gut, maybe even the soul, and so to confront something unknowable is therefore a far deeper state of uncertainty. Now, I’ve taken this example to extremes, and it is not to say that the word “incomprehensible” couldn’t work, but context is all-important.
2) Consider your context
I always think that these complex ideas are easier to tackle with specific examples, so let’s look at the example of one of the most famous – and also problematic – writers of all time: H. P. Lovecraft. For those who don’t know, Lovecraft writes what has become known as “cosmic horror”: confrontations with eldritch beings from beyond our sphere of existence or understanding. Lovecraft uses Latinate words all the time, and he has been criticised for this. However, the brilliance of Lovecraft’s writing and why I believe it works (and the evidence that it works is in his enduring legacy) is twofold. Firstly, Lovecraft’s viewpoint protagonists are often archeologists or scientists – in other words, people more inclined to use Latinate vocabulary – so in that sense we accept their verbose word-choices as being more natural to the character. Secondly, Lovecraft uses the Latinate vocabulary to conceal the naked truth in the same way that an artful bit of filmmaking turns the camera away from the monster, or wreaths it in shadow, which makes the horror even more palpable by virtue of absence.
Latinate words, as I mentioned before, tend to be abstract. For example, “amorous”, “inexorable”, or, a Lovecraft favourite, “gibbous”. Because they are abstract, this can be used to create a kind of impressionistic effect, whereby we get some sense of what the monster is, and this impression works upon us more deeply than a specific or intimate description. Lovecraft’s abstractions and Latinate vocabulary serve him well because it creates the double-blind of his protagonists shying away from fully describing what they are seeing, which fertilises the imagination of the reader. I should make a point here that this is very different from just resorting to the odd Latinate word. This is utilising diction to its fullest to create a mimetic effect.
So, whilst I’ve advocated to avoid too many Latinate words, they can work if deployed in the correct context, and that is perhaps the most important lesson to learn about diction: consider your context.
3) Consider the associations
A really good example of this can be found in a project I’ve been working on recently with a collaborator. We were creating an ice-mage in a fantastical world. I coined the term “Gelumancer”. My collaborator said he’d prefer the term “Cryomancer”. Now, on the surface, this seems pretty arbitrary. Does it really matter? But words have associations, and when you use certain words, they carry those associations with them for better or worse. Just consider how the word “twilight” is impossible to say nowadays without thinking of sparkly vampires and muscle-bound werewolves. My gut instincts as a writer told me that Cryomancy was the wrong choice. I wasn’t sure why, at first, but then it hit me; I pointed out to my collaborator that Cryomancy is too sci-fi: cryogenic freezing, cryo-sleep, cryotherapy (an actual thing), cryo-weaponry (see Borderlands). Cryo is a scientific word. This is an epic fantasy. Gelumancy is the one we want. Incidentally, this is another one of those weird incidents where the rule-of-thumb is reversed: Gelu is the Latin word for “ice” or “frost”. Cryo is from the Greek kruos. So, as said before, sometimes the Latin works, and you have to use your instincts and the wider context to fathom it out. Unlike with grammar, there are no hard and fast rules. Every word, whatever its origin, is unique and must be deciphered in relation to its wider string of associations and meanings.
4) Consistency is key
One final point is that diction needs to be consistent. To again revert to the example of Lovecraft, his stories have a very consistent tone which is, in part, created through the use of consistent diction. If you are going for a scientific, Latinate diction because your character is an anthropologist or a bio-weapons engineer, then make sure that this is maintained throughout. If, however, your characters are down-to-earth, and one of them suddenly uses the word “incandescent” in the midst of a heated argument, it will destroy your narrative and the suspension of disbelief. One of the reasons I love the Sick trilogy by Christa Wojciechowski is that whichever character she is writing, she remains faithful to them in terms of her diction; and as we shift between different characters, we feel the shift from one vocabulary to another.
I am in danger of going on too long, but as you can see from even these few examples, diction is vitally important. Often when we read a book and feel like the prose lacks a certain punch, it is because the diction is weak or ill-considered. Inconsistent diction gives the impression the author has no narrative voice. The wrong diction – such as scientific language used unironically in an emotional scene – will jar your readers and ultimately throw them off.
By looking more closely at the etymology and associations of words, and thinking about the context of our scenes and stories, we can make better word choices and increase the power of our writing.
I should emphasise that I am not saying you need to be a linguistics expert to do this! Usually, gut instinct and tapping into your feeling state is the best way to work out what word is working, and one can only improve these instincts through practice! So, get writing my dear friends!
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