Your diction is simply your choice of words. There is no single, correct diction in the English language; instead, you choose different words or phrases for different contexts:

To a friend
"a screw-up"
To a child
"a mistake"
To the police
"an accident"
To an employer
"an oversight"

All of these expressions mean the same thing -- that is, they have the same denotation -- but you would not likely switch one for the other in any of these three situations: a police officer or employer would take "screw-up" as an insult, while your friends at the bar after a hockey game would take "oversight" as an affectation.

Written by David Megginson

Catch Phrases

Under pressure to create (usually against a deadline), a writer will naturally use familiar verbal patterns rather than thinking up new ones. Inexperienced writers, however, will sometimes go further, and string together over-used phrases or even sentences. Consider the following example:

When all is said and done, even a little aid can go a long way in a country suffering from famine.

The argument is commendable, but its written expression is poor and unoriginal. First, consider the phrase "when all is said and done." Once, this phrase was clever and original, but so many millions of writers and speakers have used it so many times over so many years that the phrase has become automatic and nearly meaningless. This type of worn-out phrase is called a catch phrase, and you should always avoid it in your writing, unless you are quoting someone else: you own, original words are always more interesting.

A particularly stale catch phrase -- especially one which was once particularly clever -- is a cliché. In the example given above, the phrase "a little aid can go a long way" fits into the formula "a little *** can go a long way," seriously lowers the quality of the writing. Essentially, a cliché is a catch phrase which can make people groan out loud, but the difference between the two is not that important -- just remember that neither usually belongs in your writing.

Here are some more sample clichés and catch phrases from students' essays:

the dictionary defines *** as ...
key to the future
facing a dim future
drive a wedge between
starving students
enough (for ***) to handle
in today's world
the *** generation
the impossible dream
enough to worry about without ...
putting the cart before the horse
a bird in the hand
glitzy, high-tech world

There is no simple formula that you can apply to decide what is a cliché or a catch phrase, but the more you read, the better your sense of judgement will become. Remember, though -- if you think that a phrase in your writing is clever, and you know that someone has used the phrase before, then you are best rewriting it into your own words.

Special Considerations for Catch Phrases

While clichés and catch phrases have no place in academic essays, there are some times of writing where you should use pre-existing formulas. Such documents include scientific papers, legal briefs, maintenance logs, and police reports (to name a few) -- these are highly repetitive and largely predictable in their language, but they are meant to convey highly technical information in a standard, well-defined format, not to persuade or entertain a reader -- creativity in an auditor's report, for example, would not be highly prized.

On the other hand, catch phrases are not appropriate in less technical areas. Journalists, especially, are under a pressure to produce a large amount of writing quickly, and those who are less talented or unable to meet the pressure will often end up writing entire articles made up of over-used catch phrases like "war-torn Bosnia," "grieving parents," or "besieged capital."


Written by David Megginson

Connotations and Denotations

The relationship between words and meanings is extremely complicated, and belongs to the field of semantics. For now, though, what you need to know is that words do not have single, simple meanings. Traditionally, grammarians have referred to the meanings of words in two parts:

a literal meaning of the word
an association (emotional or otherwise) which the word evokes

For example, both "woman" and "chick" have the denotation "adult female" in North American society, but "chick" has somewhat negative connotations, while "woman" is neutral.

For another example of connotations, consider the following:

There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city.
There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.
There are over 2,000 homeless in the city.

All three of these expressions refer to exactly the same people, but they will invoke different associations in the reader's mind: a "vagrant" is a public nuisance while a "homeless" person is a worthy object of pity and charity. Presumably, someone writing an editorial in support of a new shelter would use the positive form, while someone writing an editorial in support of anti-loitering laws would use the negative form.

In this case, the dry legal expression "with no fixed address" quite deliberately avoids most of the positive or negative associations of the other two terms -- a legal specialist will try to avoid connotative language altogether when writing legislation, often resorting to archaic Latin or French terms which are not a part of ordinary spoken English, and thus, relatively free of strong emotional associations.

Many of the most obvious changes in the English language over the past few decades have had to do with the connotations of words which refer to groups of people. Since the 1950's, words like "Negro" and "crippled" have acquired strong negative connotations, and have been replaced either by words with neutral connotations (ie "black," "handicapped") or by words with deliberately positive connotations (ie "African-Canadian," "differently-abled").


Written by David Megginson

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