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Diction, Syntax, and Figurative Language

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Lilianna Meldrum

on 11 July 2018

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Transcript of Diction, Syntax, and Figurative Language

Diction, Syntax, and Figurative Language
What is diction?
Concrete vs. Abstract Diction
What are the basic categories of figurative language?
What is syntax?
Introduction to Syntax
CONCRETE language consists of words (nouns) that describe tangible (touchable) objects. These are usually objects that exist in the "real" world. Concrete language creates a distinct, often simple image in our mind. Concrete words usually evoke a sensory response from the reader.

EXAMPLES: Dog, computer, chair, baby, school.

ABSTRACT language consists of words (nouns) that appeal to our imagination. This may include ideas, values, and non tangible concepts. We can understand abstract language, but we may not have a strong sensory response to it!

EXAMPLES: Freedom, love, justice, peace, rights.

The purpose of a good essay is to discuss or explain ABSTRACT concepts by providing CONCRETE examples. This means that, while we may certainly use abstract language as necessary, we must always seek to connect ABSTRACT qualities or values to CONCRETE situations, objects, images, and people.

CONCRETE language often contributes to strong IMAGERY. Imagery includes any language that evokes one of the five senses (VISUAL, AUDITORY, OLFACTORY (smell), TACTILE (touch), GUSTATORY (taste)).
"Diction" simply refers to WORD CHOICE. Diction consists of the language that the writer chooses to express a specific message. It is a very general term; however, considering why we make certain language choices can make us better, more mature writers.

Our diction should be as precise as possible. This means that we express exactly what we mean.

The bird didn't just fly, it soared.

The man wasn't upset, he was indignant.

WARNING: Be careful using this device in a nonfiction, academic essay!
Hyperbole is simply the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device.
Example: "I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot, and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far."
(Mark Twain, "Old Times on the Mississippi")
If diction refers to word choice, syntax refers to how words are arranged in sentences. We will discuss syntax throughout this year.

In order to understand different sentence categories, let's review some BASIC vocabulary:

Clause: A group of words that contains a subject and a verb. A clause is either independent or dependent.

Independent (Main) Clause: A clause that can stand by itself as a simple sentence and expresses a complete thought.

Dependent (Subordinate) Clause: A clause that does not express a complete thought. It must be connected to an independent clause in order to express a complete thought.

Verb: Words that describe action: read, write, run, dance.

Noun: Persons, places, things, ideas, or qualities.

Pronoun: Generally, words that are used to substitute for nouns (he, she, it).

Subject: The word or group of words that tells us who or what is being "talked about" in a sentence. The subject is the thing that "is," "does" or "completes" the verb action in the sentence! Example: The sun is yellow (SUN is the subject that IS yellow).

Conjunction: A short word that connects two clauses or phrases. Examples: and, but, yet, so, or, etc.

The main elements of syntax are sentence LENGTH and sentence TYPE.

SHORT SENTENCES: Short sentences are usually simple independent clauses. They may be used for emphasis, or to express a simple, complete fact.

LONG SENTENCES: Long sentences may contain multiple clauses. They may express a complicated idea or series of events. Make sure to use commas, colons, and semi colons correctly when you write a long sentence.

Good writers use a balanced mix of short and long sentences. Using too many short sentences can make your writing seem simplistic and immature. Using too many long sentences can make your essay confusing and difficult to follow.

oSimple: subject-verb (I went to the park.)
oCompound: Two independent clauses joined by a conjunction (I went to the park, and I saw a squirrel.)
oComplex: independent clause and dependent clause (While walking to the park, I saw my friend.)
oCompound-complex: Two independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses (While traveling to the park, I saw my friend, and she lent me her kite.)

oDeclarative: statement (I went to the park.)
oExclamatory: strong feeling (What a beautiful park!)
o Interrogative: question (Is this a park?)
oImperative: command (Go to the park.)

Punctuation is also an important element of syntax. Even though punctuation marks such as commas and semicolons are not "words" in and of themselves, they help a writer to organize and arrange his or her language.
I have noticed that semi colons and commas are punctuation marks that are especially tricky. Let's review a few helpful resources.
Commas vs. Semi colons: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/04/
Commas with Nonessential Elements: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/05/
Rules for comma usage: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm
Semi colons vs. Colons: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/punct/col-semi.html
Diction and Tone
What is figurative language?
Figurative language, including metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole, makes colorful and interesting comparisons in order to help the reader understand or visualize part of an essay or story. “Figurative” is the opposite of “literal.” Literal language means words that the reader should take as “fact”; it describes literal reality. Figurative language may make a comparison that is interesting, but not “factual” reality.

Straightforward writing using literal language:
"The house was large."

Imaginative writing using figurative language:
"The house was a giant, glaring at all of the people who walked past."

This sentence may not be “literally” what is happening, but it is interesting and brings a strong image to mind. What device(s) does this sentence use?

A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. It calls attention to how two different things are similar, so people listening to you can apply the qualities of one thing to the other. Metaphors make a direct comparison: “You are my sunshine.”


"Time, you thief"
(Leigh Hunt, "Rondeau")

"Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags
and throws away food."
(Austin O'Malley)

"Life is a zoo in a jungle."
(Peter De Vries)

PERSONIFICATION is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities. Personification usually uses a direct or implied metaphor to achieve this goal.

"These are the lips of the lake, on which no beard grows. It licks its chops from time to time."
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
"It was the early afternoon of a sunshiny day with little winds playing hide-and-seek in it." (Katherine Mansfield)

A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, usually in a phrase introduced by like or as. A simile differs from a metaphor because a metaphor compares DIRECTLY (she was an angel) as opposed to INDIRECTLY (she was LIKE an angel and she was as kind AS an angel are both SIMILES).


"Human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity."
(Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 1856)

"The Duke´s moustache was rising and falling like seaweed on an ebb-tide."
(P.G. Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, 1939)

"My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain."
(W.H. Auden)

Our diction (word choice) affects our tone. The TONE of a text is the attitude the writer takes toward the subject, audience, or (in the case of fiction) the characters. Good tone descriptors include:
Formal vs. Informal Tone
Factual vs. Emotional (Angry, Happy, Sad) Tone
Positive vs. Negative Tone

The connotations or implications of our specific diction contributes to our tone.

Denotation vs. Connotation
Connotation: The nonliteral, associative meaning of a word; the implied, suggested meaning. Connotations may involve ideas, emotions, or attitudes.
Denotation: The literal, factual dictionary definition of a word.

Accurate, detailed diction (word choice) helps us to understand the author’s meaning by giving us images that we associate with certain feelings, attitudes, and thoughts – nonliteral meanings. For instance, the words “thin, slim, and skinny” all have the same literal, denotative meaning. However, they all have different connotations. A good writer is always aware of the connotations of their word choice.
Sentence Length and Type
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