Monday, November 22, 2010

Diction, Or Getting the words right...or saying them right

When I was growing up in Regina, I had to say after school to take some sessions on pronouncing words carefully (I had a lisp). At one time these would have been called "elocution" lessons but, when I took them, they were called "diction" lessons. Historically, the word has meant "choosing words" (hence, Dictionary). When I'm teaching Learning Tree's Technical Writing course, I take a poll of the audience, asking what they think the meaning of the word "diction" is. I usually (not always) get  a mixture of "pronouncing words correctly" and "choosing the right word."

As I said, the "choosing words" definition has been around longest--if you can get a dictionary printed about the start of the Twentieth century you'll find it listed as the first definition (and, often, the other definition doesn't appear at all). Over the course of the century, more dictionaries started listing "pronouncing words correctly" as the second definition. By the end of the century the "pronouncing" definition has often become the first listing and, in some English-as-a-Second-Language dictionaries, the only one.

This isn't, I think, a bad thing--the meaning of words does shift under our feet constantly ("silly" was originally a synonym for "saintly", for instance). But it does emphasize that we can't count on the dictionary to tell us what words mean. We need, after all, to know what the word means to our readers...and our readers may not have read the same dictionary that we did. Stamping our feet and holding our breath while insisting that words should retain whatever meaning they had when we were in public school is just a waste of perfectly good outrage.

So, we need to spend a lot of time listening to our readers. Either that, or avoid words, like "diction", whose meaning in the reader's mind we can't be sure of (technically, "diction" would be described as a 'wounded word'). The problem is that we won't know which words are wounded until it's too late. So listening is our best bet.

The problem there is that we don't listen very well: We tend to hear what we expect to hear. For instance, the further south in the US that I go the more likely it is that the response to "Thank you" will be "Unh-uh." It's amazing how many people don't seem to know that. In the Technical Writing class, I'll ask a class participant what, when they say "Thank you", people say to back them. Without hesitation, the participant will say "You're welcome." I'll then talk for awhile and, finally, return to the participant to say, "Thank you." A good proportion of the time the participant will respond with "No problem" or a wave of the hand or "Unh-uh."

It seems unlikely to me, if we're not even paying attention to what words we use, that we'll pay much attention to what other people mean by the words they actually do use. So, if we want to write successfully for our readers, we need to start by listening to our readers. Very, very carefully.

And, by the way, my mother thought that those lessons were the biggest waste of time in the world. I once pointed out that my lisp did, in fact, go away. She pointed out that my lisp went away the same time that my two front teeth grew back in.

Reading or read
The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel by Charles Yu 
Buffalo Woman by Dorothy M. Johnson

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