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Language Choice

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Language Choice

Have you ever noticed the importance of words? They're not just important; it makes a difference which words people use! It feels much better to hear, "You were a rock star, and we couldn't have won the game without you!" rather than, "You did a good job!" Whether you're an author of a novel or the author of a single-paragraph essay, the language choices you make while composing your piece will impact your audience, with or without your knowledge.

Language Choice Definition

Language choice, also known as diction, refers to the choice of words and style of expression an author uses, whether in speech or writing. Language choice varies from one situation or text to another, even coming from the same author.

Language choice is a key element of rhetorical analysis because it communicates much more than the literal meaning of words. An author can use their language choices to convey a number of messages including tone, setting, and narrative voice and character. There are even different types of language choices that convey different meanings, aside from the literal words.

Types of Language Choices

Different types of diction affect the message received by the audience. One of the most easily recognized messages an author’s language choice communicates is whether the text is formal or informal.

LanguageChoiceFormalLanguageStudySmarterFig. 1 - Formal language represents a higher level of sophistication.

Formal language

Formal diction is the use of sophisticated language that is free of slang and colloquialism. Formal language choices are typically grammatically correct and use complex sentence structures and vocabulary.

You might recognize formal language from things like textbooks, business documents, and legal papers. Formal language indicates the author’s knowledge and authority on the subject of discussion, and so can be used to position the writer as superior in some way.

Formal: I’m disinclined to inform you of the negative implications of your behavior, but you appear agitated.

A more informal way to say this is, "I hate to tell you, but you seem upset." The phrases "disinclined to inform," and "appear agitated," signal a more formal writing style and change the meaning of the sentence so that the person being addressed might feel a little chastised.

LanguageChoiceInformalLanguageStudySmarterFig. 2 - Informal language represents comfort and ease.

Informal Language

Informal language, on the other hand, is more like a conversation and is used more often in narrative literature. This casual language is more life-like and makes the reader feel as if they are experiencing a conversation in the “real world.”

Informal: I hate to tell you, but you seem cranky.

Below are six more common types of dictions and their qualities.

Language Choice: Colloquial

Colloquial phrases and expressions are informal in nature and typically represent a manner of speaking that is particular to a certain region. One of the more common colloquialisms in the US is “ya’ll” (a combination of “you” and “all”) which is most prevalent in the southern states, but they can also be an entire phrase.

“It’s hotter than a fire hydrant chasing a dog.”

Language Choice: Slang

These are informal words that originated from a particular group of people and gained popularity. Slang is often a new word, or a shortened or modified version of an existing word. Slang can also be a new meaning for a word.

Salty - angry or bitter

Tea - gossip

Cop - police officer

Language Choice: Poetic

This is the use of words that have an artistic, lyrical feel that often relate to a particular theme. Poetic language can also be highly descriptive and use a lot of imagery. While it’s hard to describe this type of language, it is easily recognizable in songs and poetry.

"When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy's been swinging them.

But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay"

The repeated use of the letter “b” was undoubtedly a conscious choice by Robert Frost in this poem called “Birches”1. To read it makes the reader feel as though they’re bouncing along with each “b," even if they're reading it silently. It lends a lightness to the poem that makes it that much more enjoyable to read.

Language Choice: Pedantic

This form of language uses formal language to such a degree that the meaning can be unclear to the “average” person. Pedantic language use often seeks to position the speaker as intelligent, or superior.

Think, for example, about this speech from Shakespeare’s pedantic character, Holofernes in "Love's Labor Lost"2:

“The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood; ripe

as the pomewater, who now hangeth like a jewel in

the ear of caelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven;

and anon falleth like a crab on the face of terra,

the soil, the land, the earth.”

Holofernes's use of technical terms displays his wide vocabulary, but there are simpler terms he could have used in place of the more technical ones (even in Shakespearian language). The use of this language can communicate a desire to be perceived as intelligent.

Language choice: Abstract

This is language an author uses when they want to describe something intangible, or abstract, like ideas or emotions. This type of language is often associated with poetry, although it is slightly different from poetic diction in that it doesn't "sound" as lyrical.

Abstract language feels lofty and dreamy to the reader because the author is speaking about something that is hard to describe with words. Consider the topics of love, good vs. bad, and tradition; these concepts will require the use of abstract language because there is no strict physical representation of them.

Language Choice: Concrete

Concrete language, on the other hand, is quite easy to describe with words. This is the use of language to communicate the literal meaning of something. For example the sentence, “I ate a banana” is not open for interpretation.

With concrete language, there is no hidden meaning because the writer uses specific and direct language.

LanguageChoiceWordChoiceStudySmarterFig. 3 - The language game Scrabble also takes word choice into account.

When writing an essay or any other type of formal composition, you should typically avoid informal language, which includes slang and colloquialisms. It is most appropriate to use formal language in these situations, but you should avoid a pedantic tone. For writing in the workplace, concrete language is best to keep your meaning clear. However, depending on the setting and assignment, abstract and poetic language is appropriate for academic writing. It is wise to be aware of the expectations of your writing, that way you know what language choices are best.

Examples of Language Choice in Use

As an example of how language choice impacts the meaning of something, read the following sentences one at a time, paying close attention to what you think about each of the “speakers”. Does your image of them change?

  • Ya’ll gonna stop pitchin’ a hissy fit and come eat some pizza? (colloquialism)

  • Stop being so emo and come grab some ‘za. (slang)

  • I must inquire as to when you will cease your untoward behavior and consume some of Italy’s finest cuisine? (pedantic)

  • Stop crying and have a taste of this delicious pizza; the cheese, melted and soft, has just a hint of broiled crisp at the edges. (poetic)

People shift from one way of speaking to another in different circumstances. Have you ever found yourself using a different type of language when you talk to your grandparents as opposed to when you talk to your friends? Almost definitely, you do!

Skilled authors know this about language and so use this as a way to communicate information without actually saying it. Sometimes author’s write an entire piece with a particular diction in mind, and other times they use diction to communicate something about their characters.

Take, for example, the way Harper Lee wrote some of Atticus Finch’s lines in chapter twenty of To Kill a Mockingbird3:

But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest JP court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

Here Atticus is in his professional setting as an attorney, addressing the court. His tone is formal—as you can see by his choice of words such as “institution” and the way his sentences are formed with grammatical precision.

Compare this to his advice from chapter nine for his daughter Scout:

You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.

Notice his use of slang (‘em) and colloquial language (get your goat). His tone is more tender than when he was addressing the court. Harper Lee wisely displays this human tendency and so deserves all the acclaim she has received as an excellent writer.

How to Analyze Language Choice in Writing

When an author chooses to say “she snapped” instead of “she became angry” readers are given a slight insight into the author’s mentality (or that of the character they’re describing). Skilled authors, such as Harper Lee, know the power of language and so make these kinds of choices knowing the slight but very real shift in meaning.

Understanding and acknowledging those shifts in meaning gives the reader the power to analyze a piece of work. It’s important to look for the connotations, as well as denotations, of the author’s language choices.

Connotation

Connotation means the implied or suggested meaning that is attached to a word (also called an emotional tag). For example, calling your friend’s cat “obese” instead of “chunky” might imply that you think he is unhealthy, and it might make your friend defensive about the care of their feline friend.

Authors often use the connotations of words to their advantage for the purpose of telling a story, presenting an argument, and everything in between. Here are some questions to ask yourself when analyzing the connotations of an author’s language choice.

  1. What does this word (or phrase) imply?

  2. Is there an emotional tag attached?

  3. What is the tone of the chosen words?

Denotation

If connotation is the implied meaning of words, then denotation is the literal meaning of words. There is little to no room for interpretation with denotative language, but it can still carry meaning.

Some questions to ask of this language choice are:

  1. What does this word (or phrase) mean literally?

  2. Is there a purpose for this word choice?

  3. Does it convey a type of literature, location, or people group?

You might also think about which style of diction the author is using. Does that choice carry any connotations along with it? Does it tell you anything about either the character or the author him or herself?

Once you answer these questions, you might go back to the text and see if it has shed new light on anything. A careful analysis of language choice can bring a completely different perspective to a piece of writing.

Language Choice - Key Takeaways

  • Language choice, also known as diction, refers to the choice of words and style of expression an author uses, whether in speech or writing.
  • Language choice is a key element of rhetorical analysis because it communicates much more than the literal meaning of words.
  • There are two major types of language choice that determine the tone of a piece: informal and formal.
  • There are six additional types of language choice, which are poetic, pedantic, abstract, concrete, colloquial, and slang.
  • Connotation is the implied or suggested meaning of words, while denotation is the literal meaning. Both are important to language choice analysis.

1. Robert Frost, "Birches." Mountain Interval, 1916.

2. William Shakespeare, "Love's Labor Lost." 1595.

3. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language Choice

Language choice refers to the choice of words and style of expression an author uses, whether in speech or writing.

Some language choices include whether to use a formal or informal tone, as well as whether to include colloquialisms, slang, poetic, pedantic, abstract, or concrete language. 

Language choice is a key element of rhetorical analysis because it communicates much more than the literal meaning of words. An author can use their language choices to convey a number of messages including tone, setting, and narrative voice and character. 

Language choices in literature are ways an author uses specific words and phrases to elicit a response from the audience. 

Yes, diction is word choice which is an element of language choice.

Final Language Choice Quiz

Question

What does language choice mean?

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Answer

Language choice refers to the choice of words and style of expression an author uses, whether in speech or writing.

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Question

Language choice is also referred to as ________. 

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Answer

Diction

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Language choice is a key element of rhetorical analysis because... 

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Answer

it communicates more than just the literal meaning of words.

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Question

The following is an example of which type of language choice:


Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me?  (Amazing Grace, 1779)

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Answer

Abstract

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True or false: People never shift from one way of speaking to another

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Answer

True

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Is an author more likely to use a colloquialism in formal writing or informal writing?

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Answer

Informal

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Question

Language choice carries with it both connotations as well as __________.

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Answer

Denotations

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Connotation means...

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Answer

implied or suggested meaning that is attached to a word 

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Denotation means... 

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Answer

 the literal meaning of words.

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True or false: language choice can have connotations

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Answer

True

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Question

What is an "emotional tag" 

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Answer

An implied or suggested meaning of a word

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Question

The following is an example of what type of language choice: 

The meteorological situation is not favorable. 

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Answer

Pedantic

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Which of the following is NOT a reason why an author might shift language choice

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Answer

To confuse the reader

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One of the most easily recognized messages an author’s language choice communicates is whether the text is _______ or _______.


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formal or informal

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The following is an example of what type of language choice:

I went to the post office to get stamps.

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Answer

Concrete

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Jenny is writing a cover letter for a job application. What type of language should she use? Why?


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She should use formal language to highlight her knowledge and professionalism. 


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Should Jenny include colloquial phrases in a cover letter for a job application? Why or why not?


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No. Colloquial phrases are informal and she should use formal language in a professional context. 


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_ language often seeks to position the speaker as intelligent, or superior

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Pedantic


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Does this sentence use the denotative or connotative meaning of the word blue?

Harry felt very blue last weekend.


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Connotative 

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Does this sentence use the denotative or connotative meaning of the word loud?


The construction workers were very loud. 


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Answer

denotative


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