It might not seem like it, but the way we pronounce, shape, and build our sentences says a lot about us. After all, consider the difference between Huckleberry Finn’s way of speaking (“I climb up the shed and crept up to my window just before day was breaking”) and Yoda’s (“Do, or do not. There is no try”). But this thing we call diction isn’t limited to how people talk. It says a lot about how we sound in general—whether that refers to the disembodied voice you hear when you read a piece of writing or the shape of our vowels when we sing.
Done right, your diction can be the most essential distinction that makes your voice uniquely yours. That’s true whether you’re singing, speaking, or writing. But what is it, and how can you turn the rules of pronunciation and grammar into a unique flavor of expression?
What Is Diction?
Diction refers to the distinctiveness with which you express yourself. In the dictionary (and yes, the word is the foundation for dictionary), you’ll get a definition like this: The choice and use of words and phrases in speech or writing.
But you can expand that to just about any verbal artform, including singing, and the definition remains the same. Your diction is also the flavor of your communication.
In some cases, people refer to the definition as relating solely to your clarity. This is especially true in music. When Luciano Pavarotti sang his famous high Cs (skip to about 5 minutes and 42 seconds in), it wasn’t the fact that he could reach these notes that impressed audiences. It was the integrity of his clarity. He could sing the high Cs without losing the expressiveness of his voice.
Yet if you or I tried that, our voices might crack. That’s a clear difference in diction.
What Is Good Diction?
“Good” diction is that expressiveness that makes your meaning clear. For Pavarotti, that meant maintaining his voice even when going to higher octaves. For a writer, it means choosing your words and phrases in such a way that no one has to wonder what you mean.
Consider one of the classic diction examples from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:
“At last, after walking two hours, we had attained a depth of about 300 yards, that is to say, the extreme limit on which coral begins to form.”
Clear? Certainly. The narrator gives us specific details in space and time—hours, yards, depths. However, notice how Verne also attaches the phrase “the extreme limit on which coral begins to form.” This additional detail is a choice of pedantic or technical diction, which helps establish the authority of the speaker. Because of the unique diction of the narrator, we understand that this character must be an underwater expert.
What Is Poor Diction?
Poor diction, on the other hand, can obscure your meaning. If you’re difficult to understand, there’s not much room for creative expression.
Even so, it’s possible to be strategic with your use of “poor” diction. Mark Twain famously employed poor diction in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to establish the voice of a poorly educated young boy. Marlon Brando, famous for revolutionizing the movie industry with a more natural style of acting, was famous for mumbling and trailing off, the way many people do in real life.
Types of Diction
Think of “slang diction” as similar to jargon—it makes perfect sense within a specific context. But if you’re not “hip” to the slang in the first place, it can sound like gibberish.
One example: In today’s social media environment, it makes perfect sense to say that one celebrity “threw shade” at another. But if you don’t know that throwing shade means sideswipes and insults, you might wonder what these insults have to do with poor lighting.
Diction in poetry can be one of the most recognizable forms. We tend to associate “poetic” diction with flowery language, especially in older poetic periods when there was a stricter emphasis on form. Consider this opening line from a stanza of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven:
“Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December…”
The shifting of words (distinctly I remember), the expressive language (Ah), the internal rhyming (remember / December) are all dead giveaways that what you’re reading is poetry, even if you don’t have the rest of the context.
Read just about any nonfiction book and you’ll probably see an example of formal diction. The emphasis here is on proper grammar and linguistic clarity.
Formal diction might also lean toward complexity and sophistication—expect higher reading levels in academic and business settings where there’s no emphasis on simplifying language for a wider audience.
Informal diction is best for dialogue and prose, where the author can use a character’s unique way of speaking to add flavor and interest to the text.
Consider the movie and TV series Fargo, which used its unique North Dakota setting and informal diction to add some midwestern levity and contrast to the grisly situations the characters had to deal with.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
-Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
The work of Ernest Hemingway included plenty of informal diction, but his prose often focuses on specific, concrete details. Hemingway used concrete diction to hide deeper meanings going on in the lives of the characters.
This was characteristic of his “Iceberg” style of writing in which the prose delivers almost journalistic precision of the literal setting, while he leaves it to the reader’s interpretation to decipher the hidden meanings underneath each interaction.
Colloquial diction overlaps heavily with informal. It’s the diction you get from phrases and words that can only come from specific places and times.
In the American South, for example, it’s common to say “y’all” whenever referring to a group of people. In the Midwest, words like “Ope” or “Welp” not only make perfect sense, they may get your meaning across more accurately than words with literal definitions.
While abstract diction might sound like it obscures your meaning, you can use it to great effect to help develop your ideas. A strong metaphor, for example, might be abstract, but it will help the reader understand what you’re getting at.
When Charles Dickens opens a novel with “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” there’s not a lot of concrete detail to go off of. But we still find ourselves getting his meaning as he lays the groundwork for the story to come.
Pedantic diction emphasizes specific, unique details to communicate something very clear, meaning there should only be one interpretation.
This is common in academic settings, but writers may use it to communicate the academic backgrounds of their characters, as Jules Verne did in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Develop Your Distinctive Diction
Descriptive Writing: Crafting Vivid, Immersive Scenes
Diction in Literature and Writing
It’s one thing to choose a style of diction to get your point across. But the best writers will choose a specific diction style that’s unique to their voice or their characters.
When done right, fitting your diction to a unique character can have magical effects. In Elmore Leonard’s novel Get Shorty, he introduces us to the slang/colloquial diction of Hollywood movie executives. From the phrases they use, we instantly know who these people are. Yet the dialogue is so distinctive that we can’t help but feel we’re transported to another world.
It’s this simultaneous mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar that makes fiction so enthralling in the first place. On one hand, we believe the characters because their diction is so distinctive. On the other, we like being exposed to a different world we know nothing about.
Authors can also use the diction of their own prose voice to introduce distinctive styles to the audience. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway spends a significant portion of the book using diction inspired by the use of the Spanish language. There are hints of these throughout the novel, even with the primary text taking place in English. Considering that Hemingway partially based the book on his experience in the Spanish Civil War, this unique diction has the effect of lending credibility to the story.
What Is Effective Diction in Singing?
Diction in writing is simple enough to understand. But in singing, diction can be another thing entirely. Diction for singers is all about clarity. When you sing, your diction has to render the lyrics accurately. Without that, it’s almost impossible for the audience to have any sort of resonance with what you’re trying to get across.
Consider a singer like Adele. In conversation, Adele’s voice has strong influences from a cockney accent, reflecting her Tottenham, London background. But when she sings? The accent seems to drop away. We get what she’s trying to say, crystal clear, because her enunciation is so spot-on.
It was the same with the Beatles. Their Liverpudlian accents were so distinctive that in conversation, they were often incomprehensible to American audiences. The recent documentary Get Back, which provides behind-the-scenes footage of the Beatles as they record one of their last albums, is a testament to this fact. The filmmakers constantly give the Beatles subtitles so American audiences know what they’re saying.
Yet if you listen to one Beatles song, you probably don’t have to wonder what they’re saying. Their diction was more universal than their Liverpool upbringing.
What makes for good diction in singing? Here are some principles you should know:
- Know where to form your sounds properly: For example, the eee vowel sound comes at the front of the mouth. Giving too much bass to the eee sound can make it sound heavier. This has the unintended consequence of making the vowel sound different when it comes out, even if it “sounds right” in your head.
- Ditch the accent: Of course, every accent might sound strange to someone else. But if you have a strong colloquial diction—New England, the Midwest, or the South in the United States, for example—then you may have to record yourself and see if any of your habits are spilling over into the way you sing.
- Learn proper tongue placement: Here’s a rule of thumb you might have learned: yawn. Your tongue will likely come to rest at the best place for a “default” placement before singing: against the upper roof of the mouth and against your top front teeth. Practicing this placement will keep you primed for maximum sound generation and will also help you avoid your tongue getting in the way of the sounds you want to create.
What is diction in singing? Ultimately, the test of your singing diction will come when you try to maintain the integrity of your voice under extreme challenges. Musical diction is also precise diction—even when it’s challenging. Perhaps especially so.
Pavarotti’s famous high Cs, for example, are an effective demonstration of lyric diction under stress. It’s not impressive to reach the high Cs—what was impressive was how little of his vocal integrity he lost even when venturing that high.
Diction presents similar challenges. You may have to pronounce complicated words in sixteenth note accents. You may have to squeeze out a word that has its accents on the up-beats—and still leave the audience understanding what word you were trying to say.
But diction is ultimately about how you choose to express yourself. In writing or in singing, your ability to rely on a distinctive diction style will determine your voice as an artist.
Using Diction in New and Exciting Ways
One of the most recognizable characters of all time didn’t become recognizable because he spoke clearly. It’s because he spoke strangely that we remember Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back.
Quotes like “Decide, you must” rather than “You must decide” helped communicate the fact that Yoda was alien to Luke. Yet somehow, even with this strange diction, Yoda’s meaning always came across crystal-clear.
Whether you’re singing, writing, or creating a character’s unique dialogue, you can do the same. You can use diction to create a distinctive style—but should never let it get in the way of communicating your ideas.
Learn Singing Diction From a Pro
Diction and Dynamics