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Wisdom From the Grammar Goddess - Defining Diction

By Diane Sandford, Published on April 25, 2004
Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office
of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLPShe has many years of experience
in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

Skill in writing consists of having at command an array of synonyms, together with a sense of their fitness.

   - Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct (Harper & Row, 1975), page 39.

If you want a simple rule guaranteed to improve your writing, try this: Avoid the words very, really, truly, quite, and thing. Rarely do these words contribute to a sentence. Consider E.B. White’s comment in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (page xv):

“Omit needless words!” cries the author on page 23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul.

This is good advice, but how is it possible to one put one’s heart and soul into an imperative, but not really? Drop the word really. Professor Strunk would not have been pleased.

Every time you see the word very, re-read the sentence without the word and ask what has been lost - usually, nothing. Most people use the word very to inflate the significance of what they are saying. All of us have been guilty of this. But in careful writing, use the word very infrequently.

The common word thing can usually be replaced by a more explicit word. Even in physics, material object is preferred to thing. All of the great writers use these five words, but the novelist in particular is more interested in effect than in the accurate communication of ideas. The phrase things that go bump in the night is patently more readable in a story than collisions with material objects in darkness.

After writing a business or scholarly document, take a close look at the words you have chosen. Do they convey your ideas with precision and accuracy? This is diction, using the right word. If a man watches his money closely, does the author mean the man is frugal or miserly? Amazingly, often the author himself often doesn’t know what he originally intended. So how did he choose these words? The answer is always the same: superficial thinking and incomplete analysis. Review of diction will force you to reconsider your ideas. It is as much about word choice as it is about thinking.

Close attention to diction may also save us from pretentious writing (what Jacques Barzun tags as fancy wordings). We have all heard certain impressive phrases that probably were not pretentious in the context in which we heard them. But when we insert these phrases into our own writing, the fit is poor. They become conspicuously superfluous effects at the expense of good ideas and effective communication. There is an old rule of English composition that suggests that wherever authors find a particularly impressive phrase in their own writing, they should strike it out and rewrite it. Why? Because whenever the writing becomes more noticeable than the ideas it expresses, the writing has become distracting.

Facility and adroitness with vocabulary are vital to a good writer. One way to improve is to read books about words. When I left home to begin my college career, my father gave me a well-thumbed copy of S.I. Hayakawa’s classic Use the Right Word (Reader’s Digest, 1968). This reference remains an invaluable tool in my diction arsenal. Here Hayakawa explains the subtle differences between the words enmity, animosity, animus, and rancor:

Animosity and rancor are stronger than enmity, but often less enduring. Animus implies a feeling of ill will or antipathy so deep-rooted and intertwined with character and background that a coherent explanation of its cause is seldom possible.

I might never use the word animus, but I think I will always remember Hayakawa’s excellent description of it. This book should be sold with a yellow marker!

We end with a tiny diction quiz. If you score more than 50 percent, you must be self-taught. Or should I say autodidactic?

QUIZ

1.  The boisterous clerk aggravated/annoyed his customer.

2.  Usually the speaker implies/infers and the reader infers/implies.

3.  Hemingway may be compared to/with Steinbeck as a great writer.

4.  If I was/were cheating (I did not), then you would fail me. If he was/were cheating (he may have cheated), then you should fail him.

ANSWERS

1.  Annoyed. To aggravate is to make a situation worse. Conditions are aggravated, not people.

2.  Usually the speaker implies, and the reader infers. To imply is to hint or suggest, but not explicitly. To infer is to draw a conclusion.

3.  Compared to. Use compared to for similarities, and use compared with for differences and contrasts.

4.  Were and was. Use were after if or wish if the statement contradicts fact; use was if the statement is true.

If you are interested in further discussion of this topic, I recommend S.I. Hayakawa’s Use the Right Word, Jacques Barzun’s Simple & Direct, and Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.  Please let me know.