Diction is determined by vocabulary and syntax, and it refers to the writer's choice and ordering of words, phrases, sentence structures and figurative language, like similes and metaphors. Unlike informal diction, which contains contractions and other less-than-formal language, formal diction consists of impersonal, dignified and elevated uses of language.
Purpose of Diction
Writers make specific choices in the type of words, sentence structures, phrases and figurative language that they use in their poetry. These decisions combine to create particular meaning. Different levels of diction convey different types of meaning. The chosen words convey the writer's attitude, or tone, and evoke certain feelings in the reader. The kinds of feelings that poem evokes in the reader establish the poem's mood. For instance, a poem that uses colloquial diction may have a comfortable and casual tone, which might in turn establish a close and familiar atmosphere or mood.
Formal Diction in Poetry
Formal diction, also known as high diction, has impersonal, dignified and elevated language. Formal diction does not reflect the way that people speak, and instead follows the rules of grammar precisely. It does not use any idiomatic expressions, contractions or slang, and it uses few common and simple words. Instead, formal diction has extravagant, elegant and sophisticated vocabulary, and many of the words are polysyllabic, meaning that they have many syllables.
John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
One example of formal diction in poetry is John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The language that Keats uses is grand, elevated, sophisticated and lofty. For example, he writes, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” Here, Keats uses antiquated and formal words like “ye” instead of “you” to create a sense of distance and formality. Another example is the line “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu.” The phrase "bid ... adieu" is more sophisticated and elevated than, for example, "say goodbye," illustrating Keats’ use of formal diction.
Formal diction in poetry was very popular in the past, especially prior to the 20th century, and it was used by a variety of poets. For example, in “To my dear and loving husband,” Anne Bradstreet writes, “I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold / Or all the riches that the East doth hold.” Another example of formal diction is John Dryden’s poem "Song For Saint Cecilia's Day, 1687." Dryden writes, “This universal frame began: / From harmony to harmony / Through all the compass of the notes it ran, / The diapason closing full in Man.” These poems’ dignified, sophisticated and elevated vocabulary indicate formal diction.
- Bedford St. Martin's Virtual Lit: Interaction Poetry Tutorial: Definition of Diction
- Bedford St. Martin's Virtual Lit: Interaction Poetry Tutorial: Lit Gloss
- Vanier College: Poetry's Language
- Carson-Newman College: Literary Terms and Definitions; K. Wheeler
- Minnesota State Community and Technical College: College Writing II Online: Tone of "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
- Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images