Diction Design

By Jennifer Fletcher

Did you ever watch the television show Project Runway on Bravo? If so, do you remember the accessory wall with its array of shoes, belts, and handbags suitable for a variety of occasions? Style mentor Tim Gunn always encouraged the fashion designers competing on the show to use the range of available accessories “thoughtfully.” Writers also need to make thoughtful design choices. We can support students in making informed decisions about language by examining how different styles realize different social roles and situations.

Thinking of diction through the transferrable concept of “design” helps students to focus on effects rather than rules. There’s a difference between a base color and an accent color. What rhetorical and aesthetic effect does the writer want to create? Blending or contrasting? Knowing when and why a writer might choose to let the level of diction drop or spike is the conditional knowledge that will helps students make effective language choices.

Notice, for instance, Claudius’s strategic shift in diction in this following scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you?

You told us of some suit. What is’t, Laertes?

You cannot speak of reason to the Dane

And lose your voice. What wouldst thou beg, Laertes,

That shall not be my offer, not thy asking?

(Act I, scene ii, lines 42-46)

The shifts from “you” to “thou” and from “us” to “my” move the scene toward greater familiarity and intimacy and almost serve as stage directions to the actor playing Claudius, telling him to lower and soften his voice in the last two lines. The tone markedly changes through the shift in diction. What begins as a formal conversation between a king and his courtier ends as a confidential chat between family friends.

Valuing Vernacular Eloquence

There’s another tremendously important idea to keep in mind when talking about levels of diction. Many students hear the message that the language they bring with them is inappropriate for academic settings. Telling students that they have to “code switch” because intellectual work can only be done in formal, standardized English not only perpetuates linguistic racism and deficit views of learners, it’s also misleading. Plenty of scholars from April Baker-Bell to Django Paris to Asao Inoue to Peter Elbow use code-meshing and vernacular English to do their work.

Peter Elbow, the rhetorician famous for making freewriting a ubiquitous classroom practice, is one of many scholars who advocate for instructional strategies that promote more natural and engaging ways of communicating in diverse settings. In Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, Elbow writes, “I’ve long been angry at how our present culture of ‘proper literacy’ tells us that we are not supposed to do our serious writing in the mother tongue we know best and possess in our bones–but rather only in the prestige, correct, edited version of standardized English” (3).

My own experience as a teacher corroborates Elbow’s claim that using “whatever language comes most easily to mouth and mind” improves students’ academic or “serious” writing” (3). To be clear, Elbow doesn’t suggest that students just write without planning or care. Instead, he recommends that we “welcome unplanned speech for the rich resources it has, even for careful writing” (4).

Vernacular Eloquence shows how “serious, formal, and ‘literate’ writing can be even more careful and better…if it enlists the various resources of careless speech” (4-5). Communication scholar Vershawn Ashanti Young makes a similar point in the Introduction to Other People’s English. He notes that code-meshing (i.e., blending or remixing linguistic codes) helps “students and anyone else produce expressive, persuasive, effective prose for academic, creative, and professional purposes” (7).

Classroom Activity: Diction Design

The purpose of the following activity is thus not to privilege formal language. As Elbow points out, our writing is often at its best when it’s closest to natural speech. The purpose of this activity is to support students in making their own informed decisions about the effects and functions of their word choices—including choices that resist conventions and celebrate linguistic diversity.

Directions to Students: Each of the following sets of words has one word that is seemingly overdressed or underdressed for the occasion. Which one is more formal or casual than the rest of the words in the group? Circle the word that is a different level of diction from the others in the set.

good evening
as a result
veg out
hecka full

Making Thoughtful Use of Design Choices

“Quick-Write: Making a Fashion Statement”

Directions to Students: Respond to any of the following questions in a 5-minute quick-write. Why might it sometimes be a good idea to make “a fashion statement” by shifting to a level of diction that is different from the rest of the text? When do you want your words to stand out? How might an audience react to language that is unexpectedly casual or formal? Are there times when this kind of reaction can help a writer achieve their purpose? When can this rhetorical move be effective?

Please see the resources page for this and other activities.

The Takeaway

The effectiveness of a particular word choice is determined by the rhetorical situation. Whether a particular word is a good choice, a better choice, or the best choice depends on its function in context. Rather than forcing students to use a universally formal style and standardized English for academic writing, we can support students in mixing and matching a variety of linguistic resources to achieve exciting aesthetic and rhetorical effects. Those seemingly contradictory styles may be just the wow factor their writing needs.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Works Cited

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti, Rusty Barret, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, Kim Brian Lovejoy. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Parlor Press, 2018.

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