Observing the language around us can teach us more than just the rules of grammar. Putting words together inevitably involves what is called diction, the choice and arrangement of words that determines our relationship to our readers. The vocabulary and phrasing we organize can establish a pleasant geniality or a distant authority, each with its own real consequences for the way we are regarded.
A high school, for example, recently posted this sign in its cafeteria: Please put your face covering/mask back on when finished eating. What confronts us first is the slash, or virgule, a stand-in for the conjunction or, which, let’s assume, the sign maker rightly judged would have been too bookish for a school cafeteria; it is just a placard, after all, meant to announce a courteous command. That is true, but the problem lies not in the use of the slash (though we should avoid using such symbols for words in our sentences), but rather in the need that is felt to make a distinction where there is no material difference. A mask is a kind of face covering, species to its genus, and since the order that the sign is declaring pertains to face coverings of any kind, why make such a technical distinction?
That question lies at the heart of this topic of diction. In making the irrelevant distinction between face covering and mask, the writer conveys (intentionally or not) a tone of keen-eyed authority, legalistic in its fine distinction and stern in its preemption of any quibbling: Whether you are wearing a face covering, mask, or shroud, put it back on when you have finished eating. The writer wants to cover all bases, prepare for any objection from anyone that their means of protection does not fall under the rule. But to include all possible kinds of face coverings has already been stipulated by the general term face covering, so the further distinction of mask only invites other pleas of exception. What results is distance between school and student, writer and reader, a nit-picking tone that works against the cooperation rightly being enjoined.
And if we look a little further into the statement, we see the same diction at work. The tersely compressed last clause, when finished eating, means, of course, when you have finished eating. This compression, though, serves the same end of creating distance between sign and student; this is not how we speak to one another casually, but rather how we order one another about. There are times, of course, when terse orders are in order, when emergencies emerge and we must move fast to face the circumstances. But the circumstances here on an ordinary day in a school cafeteria are very different, and they present an opportunity to encourage cooperation by assuming it in a natural written voice: Please put your mask back on when you’ve finished eating. With the simple term mask, the contraction you’ve, and a complete final clause, we hear one friend speaking to another for the good of each other. That natural diction evokes familiarity, and familiarity, cooperation.
Our choice and arrangement of words—our diction—inevitably creates an atmosphere that determines how our thoughts are received. It can be, as in the illustration here, a subtle affair, but what is subtle can be all the more powerful for its hiddenness. The mood we establish in our writing is immensely consequential for the effect we ultimately have on our readers. We cannot write a word without involving ourselves in a certain kind of relationship with others, and being aware of the relationship we create will help us communicate our obvious meaning without unintended overtones.
Upcoming Seminars and a Short Course
Verbs and Adverbs
Tuesday, October 27
7:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Verbs are at the heart of our sentences, and understanding a few basic ideas about them—what is meant by the principal parts of a verb, a direct object, and tense—can go far in helping us to revise our drafts. Adverbs work with verbs, but they are often misplaced; and if we don’t know exactly where to position an adverb, we can unintentionally change the meaning of a sentence. This one-hour seminar will discuss these points, along with some basic observations about using the comma accurately. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation, including exercises and answers for private study. You may now enroll directly through this registration link. Tuition is $25.
Simple and Compound Subjects
Tuesday, November 3
7:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Every sentence we write addresses a subject we want to say something about, and it’s not uncommon for our sentences to involve two or more subjects at the same time. Simple sentences make a statement about only one thing; compound sentences say something about more than one subject, and the way we construct those more complicated statements will determine how easily our readers comprehend what we’re saying. This one-hour seminar will explain the parts of the subject phrase of a sentence, demonstrate how we can open a sentence effectively with an adverbial phrase, and illustrate how best to punctuate longer subject phrases. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation, including exercises and answers for private study. You may now enroll through this registration link. Tuition is $25.
Reading Closely to Write
Wednesdays, November 11 & 18 and December 2 & 9
7:00 to 8:00 p.m.
It’s an open secret that we learn to write by reading. On Wednesday, November 11, I will begin a course of four one-hour sessions called Reading Closely to Write, each of which will examine the sentence structure and design of a well-written story by an acclaimed writer. Discussions will focus on the language of a short work of fiction (averaging only eight pages). We will analyze the grammar and composition of certain significant sentences, and consider how other designs the author could have chosen would have produced a different effect. Our emphasis will be on the language of the reading, so that we can begin to develop an eye and ear for our own natural written voice. Selections will be from 100 Great Short Stories, edited by James Daley (Dover, 2015), readily available at Amazon and elsewhere. Please use this registration link to enroll. Tuition for this four-session online course is $100.