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BYU Writing Center

Handouts

Levels of Diction

Downloadable version (Microsoft Word document)

Traditionally, the revision process is the most appropriate time to consider your level of diction, or word choice. Depending on the audience you're addressing and the image you want to present, you can use different words to say the same thing.  This handout should help you decide what words are appropriate for your paper.

Levels of Diction

There are basically three levels of diction:
Formal—Used when addressing a highly educated audience. This includes sermons, scholarly journals, etc.
Standard—Used when addressing a well-educated audience. Commonly this is the level used for college papers, mass publications, and business communication
Informal—used when addressing a familiar or specific audience. This includes personal letters, emails, and documents with conversational or entertaining purposes. This level also includes "slang" language, which may be used to create a specific "flavor" as in sports casting or novels.

Examples of Diction

Formal
edify
optate
beguile
Standard
learn
choose
mislead
Informal
wise up
pick out
jerk your chain

Using a dictionary, thesaurus, or textbook can help you expand your vocabulary and word choice options.

Choosing a Level of Diction

Choosing the appropriate level of diction depends on two things: Audience and Purpose.

First, decide for whom you're writing. Because you are writing for a certain audience, they will have particular expectations about the level of diction you will choose. For example, you probably wouldn’t say, "I am disinclined to attend your social gathering," to a friend in an e-mail. Likewise it would be equally innappropriate to use the phrase, "This guy was like…" in a letter of application to a business. Instead, choose the level most appropriate for your audience (in collegiate writing, standard level diction is used most often).

Second, determine your purpose. Some possible purposes may be to inform, to persuade, to illustrate, to analyze, or to entertain. For each of these purposes, you may choose to use a different level of diction. For example, in a persuasive paper, you would want to use confident and non-biased word choice to strengthen your argument. If you are writing to medical scholars and presenting a new cure for some disease, it would be appropriate to use a more formal level of diction, including medical jargon that might not be understood by a general audience.

Precautions

Avoid slanted or biased language when you feel strongly about a topic (especially racist and sexist language, as well as language biased against sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity).

Example: Attending class daily will make you a better person.

Though class attendance is advisable, it is innapropriate to make a moral judgement based on this alone. It is also too vague: in what way will you become better? What is the standard used to determine what “better” is?

Example: The liberal media is always biased against religious conservatives.

Avoid generalizing the actions of people with group catagorizations, using words like always/never or everyone/no one.

Example: In this class, each student must finish his paper on time.

Avoid using sexist pronouns or assuming inappropriate generalizations.

Avoid pretentious language. Pompous language and formal language are not the same.

Pretentious: As I alighted from my vehicle, my clothing was besmirched with filth.
Unpretentious: My coat got dirty as I stepped out of my car.

Generally it is best to stay consistent with your diction. Although at times switching between levels might be necessary to communicate a certain point, it is often very noticeable if you are writing at a standard level and suddenly add some formal or informal words.

Note: For more information on proper diction, see the handout Audience.



Chris Allred, summer 2005
Based on a handout revised by K. L. Soper, Jan. 1993
Revised by Sari Carter, summer 2010